MN: Backer of Joint Custody Bill Thinks Passage May Be a ‘Slam Dunk’

This article contains some positive news even if it does overstate the matter (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 1/19/11). 

It seems an organization called the Center for Parental Responsibility (CPR) has promoted a bill that would establish in Minnesota law, a rebuttable presumption of joint parenting.  CPR’s director, Molly Olson says it’s in response to this remarkable bit of information.

In a 2009 review by CPR of divorce files in seven Minnesota counties, for example, Ramsey County awarded sole physical custody to mothers 70 percent of the time. It’s a reality Olson calls “pretty pathetic.”

A growing number of politicians, lawyers, grandparents, second spouses and even mothers agree.

If the 70% figure bears any resemblance to state-wide data, it’s beyond “pathetic.”  Seventy percent of children who are the subject of court orders stating that their fathers have no role in their lives is far worse than pathetic.  It’s a direct contradiction to the enormous amount of social science showing that children need fathers and derive a host of benefits from them.

Now, the article says frankly that the bill establishes a rebuttable presumption of equally shared parenting post-divorce.  I’ve read the bill and it does no such thing.  Indeed it states plainly that the presumption does not require equal parenting time.  So the bill, however well intended, doesn’t go nearly far enough toward securing to children contact with their dads after their parents split up.

Stated simply, there’s nothing in the bill that would prohibit or even discourage a judge from ordering the old, discredited “visitation” every other weekend plus Wednesday nights.

Minnesota legislators and family judges should realize that the system of primary custody to the mother and visitation to the father is fatally flawed.  As considerable sociology shows, noncustodial parents in those situations tend to become what one researcher called “Disneyland Parents.”  They become place-holders, mere entertainers to their children while the primary parent makes the actual parental decisions and has the actual parent-child relationships with the kids.

Weekend parents tend to buy pizza and rent a movie on Friday nights, go to the zoo on Saturday, maybe church on Sunday and by then it’s time to go back to the real parent.  No real parental decisions get made, no real issues get discussed.  The child soon learns who the “real” parent is; so do the parents.

And that’s not to mention the many ways in which schools, doctors’ offices and countless others marginalize non-custodial parents.  I’ve written several pieces recently about school districts that refuse to communicate important information to anyone but the custodial parent, school buses that refuse to stop near a noncustodial parent’s house, etc.

All in all, the system of primary custody and visitation is the “death of a thousand cuts” to the noncustodial parent.  Little by little, the parent-child relationship dies.

Of course there are many hard-working, redoubtable parents who manage to wrest a real relationship with their children from the grip of the family court system.  And there are many, many parents who know what’s good for their children and act on that.  Those parents establish their own parenting plan, alter it when they need to and behave in positive, cooperative ways.  Good for them.

But family law, like all other law, is for the people and the situations in which cooperative behavior doesn’t work.  The law deals with those who have to be ordered to do what’s right or punished for doing what’s wrong.

The CPR bill is a small step in the right direction, but only a small one.  It won’t prevent the marginalization of dads in their children’s lives because it still allows radical differences in parenting time and responsibilities.  Equal time and responsibility for each parent (with exceptions for parents who prove themselves to be unfit) is the way to maintain real, lasting parent-child relationships.

Until we do that, we’ll continue to see children brought up without fathers.  And “he who troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.”

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