Molly Olson has pushed the same gift for dads for 10 years, so it's no wonder she's miffed that she can't get the right buyers. Buyers such as judges, legislators and divorce lawyers.
A decade ago, Olson founded a nonprofit organization to accomplish a no-brainer: Get family-friendly Minnesota to pass a bill that presumes that after a marriage breaks up, mothers and fathers will continue to share equally in parenting.
The bill nodded to the essential role played by dads, too often marginalized in custody disputes.
She's still banging her head. "I can't imagine giving up," said Olson, founder of the Center for Parental Responsibility (www.cpr-mn.org). "But there are moments when I say, 'This is so hard.'"
Maybe not for long. Rob Hahn, a gubernatorial Independence Party candidate, has family-law reform in his platform. New, soon-to-be-published data give legislators proof of serious discrepancies in child-custody awards across Minnesota. Most intriguing is support for shared parenting by women like Olson, who have no dog in this fight other than a sincere desire to strengthen families.
In the 2010 legislative session, Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, took over as chief author of an unsuccessful House bill from Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, after "a group of angry dads" spoke to her at the State Fair. "I didn't appreciate their approach, but their feelings were sincere and need to be addressed," Norton said.
According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, there are about 240,000 dads in Minnesota with child-custody arrangements.
Norton plans to introduce a bill in 2011 proposing a 50-50 parenting split. "I think it's ridiculous in this era not to," she said.
Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, authored the bill in the Senate. "The time has come to find a way to reflect today's society," she said. "How can we make this a win-win?"
First, we need to tackle two huge elephants. One is domestic violence, which the bills address head-on. "Every bill makes domestic abuse an exception," Olson said. "No, you don't qualify in that case."
Then there's money. Physical custody is intricately tied to financial support in a perplexing three-part formula: 0 percent to 9.9 percent; 10 percent to 45 percent; 45.1 percent to 55 percent. The more time (mostly) dads have with their kids, the less they pay to (mostly) moms in child support, a formula that only salts open wounds.
You just want more time with the kids so you can pay me less! You are only keeping me from the kids so I have to pay you more! Our smart lawmakers can't do better than this?
It would be immoral to allow a child or mother to fall through the financial cracks after divorce. But it is insulting to assume the worst of fathers, charging that their motivation for more kid-time is monetary. Many fathers tell me they'd waive the increase in a nanosecond, or use it to set up a college fund. Even in the darkest days of my own split, I never considered anything but a 50-50 plan. It was good for our kids, but it was good for me, too, as I rebuilt my financially leaner life.
Olson is not a parent. But she adored her grandfather and both parents, and she wants everybody else's children to have equal access. For a decade, she has carted around a suitcase filled with policy papers and research on the importance of both parents. She's talked to politicians, started a cable TV show and participated in a legislative study group. After the group told her to come back with more info, she did.
In 2009, a handful of CPR volunteers culled through divorce files over an 18-month period in seven counties, including Ramsey, Olmsted and St. Louis. Accounting firm Larson Allen then pulled a sample. Initial results? Children in these situations on average get "pretty much 25 percent time with dads across the board," Olson said. "It's looking pretty pathetic." In Ramsey County, mothers get sole physical custody 70 percent of the time, she said.
Not all men support the presumption. Paul Masiarchin, director of the respected Minnesota Fathers and Families Network, struggled for a year before taking a stance against it. He points to Australia, whose family courts shifted to the 50-50 split a year ago, leading to "high conflict" among exes. But keep in mind that the first year after such a seismic shift is an emotionally taxing time for parents. It's probably not the best time to assess anything but how to get both parties to breathe.
We need to somehow de-link kid-time and money while still protecting children. We need to build on Minnesota's national reputation in collaborative law and eschew attorneys entrenched in the cynical fight-to-the-finish model. We need a family court system that expects the best in families moving forward and blankets them in services to help them get there.
Mostly, we need to give dads a chance to step up, even if they never have, because life post-divorce is a new playing field for everyone.
"It's no longer you, me and the kids, but me, myself, I and the kids," said Karen Stewart, a Canadian divorce expert tracking "hugely inconsistent" U.S. custody laws. "Dad deserves the right to give it a shot."
Olson agrees wholeheartedly. "This is a mission and a passion," she said. "The question is, 'How courageous are those legislators going to be?'"
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • firstname.lastname@example.org