When Anthony Spears walked into a Hennepin County courtroom with the mother of his infant daughter, he expected to be legally recognized as the father and to be told how much child support to pay each month.

Instead, the two were steered to co-parenting court, a three-year-old therapeutic court that aims to help unmarried parents resolve conflicts and set up a plan for raising their children. The topics include everything from what religion the child will observe to what time he or she will go to bed.

Hennepin County's co-parenting court is considered the most developed in the country, and like its drug and veterans courts, the goal is a problem-solving venue that aims to help participants, not punish them. The idea is that when parents do better, children do, too.

It was inspired by Hennepin County District Judge Bruce Peterson's years in family court, where he ran what he called an "unsatisfying" paternity calender. "We bring in all these young men and say, 'Congratulations, you're the father. Here's your child support amount. Next case,' " he said.

Peterson wanted to find a way to help unmarried parents, now the majority of those seen in family court. "We're trying to help people translate a temporary romantic relationship into a permanent parental partnership," he said.

Spears, 23, said he's learned the importance of being calm and patient while working to resolve issues with his child's mother. "I have to sit back and respect her core beliefs instead of trying to change her," he said.

Early assessments positive

A University of Minnesota report released this month suggests that the court has succeeded in helping fathers be a bigger and better part of their children's lives.

Peterson said he considers "self-respect" among fathers who participated in the program one of the study's most gratifying findings. "We're instilling in fathers that they could be important to their children," he said. "It's the antidote to being called into court and treated like a checkbook."

Couples who arrive in court on child support matters are selected for the program if they meet certain criteria: Both parents must arrive for the court date. One has to have been on or applied for public assistance. Neither can have an open domestic-violence protection order or an open child-protection case. Both must be able to speak English.

The university study looked at 709 mothers and fathers who participated in the program, 95 percent of whom do not live together. When both parents completed the program, 87 percent of child support was paid, the study said. For parents in the study's control group who didn't participate, that number was 69 percent.

Some 63 percent of mothers reported a "positive change" in their parenting bond, compared with 36 percent reporting improvement after going through traditional legal avenues.

Mothers who completed the program reported that fathers see their children more often compared with mothers not in the program.

Peterson hopes the study inspires the federal government to look at expanding the program. But he acknowledged that the final grade isn't in. An upcoming university report will provide a cost-benefit analysis of the program.

Then there's the long-term question: Will fathers continue "high-quality" involvement in their children's lives after the program ends?

"We have to do everything we can to provide safe, stable, nurturing environments for children," Peterson said.

Is it cost-effective?

Judge Kevin Burke, currently working in Family Court, is a supporter of specialty courts, having started the county's drug court. A key to the co-parenting program's survival, he said, will be expanding enrollment and finding a successor to Peterson as leader of the effort.

The court's $450,000 annual budget is covered by the University of Minnesota, and government and private grants. On Tuesday, the Hennepin County Board tentatively agreed to spend $135,000 to match state funding for the program in 2014, even though the question of its long-term sustainability is unanswered. Burke worries that, absent increased enrollment, the court could be eliminated.

Still, he praised the program as valuable in the effort to close the achievement gap between minority and white students in city schools. "We know that you need to get parents involved in their children's lives in a constructive way," he said. Just "getting dads to pay child support doesn't address broader needs."

Compromise and patience

Participating parents meet and complete a 24-page plan that includes whether both parents need to sign off on a child's sports activities, who takes the child to the doctor, whether to limit TV or computer time, and how and when parents will communicate, as well as agreeing on a time for reviewing the parenting plan. The couple then takes the document to court, where the judge makes it binding.

To John Jackson, the program provides valuable help just by outlining expectations. The class leader, who also teaches at Edison High School in Minneapolis, said, "This isn't about which one is the right way or the wrong way; this is about these two different worlds of parenting."

The three-hour sessions are held every other week for two months. The conversation topic is focused, but the exchanges also can be freewheeling and funny. Speaking about expectations and demands, Jackson quipped, "If I need to put the toilet seat down to see my child, I'm going to put the seat down. I'll even put the lid down."

Spears was at his final session Tuesday night, led by Jackson and Maisha Giles, who also works as a counselor.

Spears said the biggest thing he's learned is patience, despite cultural and communications clashes with his daughter's mother. As for their relationship, he said in a familiar parental refrain, "We're in the process of working it out."