MN Sponsor of Equal Parenting Bill: Current Family Court System a ‘Travesty’

May 7th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Minnesota’s shared parenting legislation is still balanced on a knife edge in the Senate.  It’s finally passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has been returned to the Senate Finance Committee.  The days in the legislative session are dwindling to a very few.  Proponents of HF 322 want nothing more than for the bill, that was passed by the House by a vote of 80 – 53, to get a floor vote in the Senate.  Various strategically placed opponents of the bill seem determined to prevent that.

In the meantime, there’s this article by one of the bill’s sponsors, Peggy Scott, R. – Andover (Albert Lea Tribune, 5/5/12).  In it she tells a story every opponent of shared parenting should be forced to read and respond to.  Opponents of strong relationships between fathers and children should be required to explain why the outcome of the case she tells about is preferable to equal parenting by mothers and fathers.

This father and his teenage son testified that the father had spent more than $300,000 in legal fees trying to get shared custody of his three kids, all of which wanted to have equal time with both parents. The son, then a senior in high school, testified that now there was no money left for him to attend college.

That’s it.  Someone explain to me how that story justifies family court practice as it exists throughout this country today.  There’s a father who presumably was fit to care for his sons; he wanted equal custody and, most importantly, so did they.  But somehow, lawyers representing the mother were able to draw out the proceedings to such an extent that it effectively kept the father and his sons apart despite their wishes and bankrupted him in the process.  Now he has no money with which to send them to college.  Here’s a man who saved so his sons could attend college and not have to burden our national student debt with yet more college loans.  Now that money is in the hands of divorce lawyers.  How does this make sense?  Actually, Scott’s word for the conduct of custody cases is the best – “travesty.”

Their experience is evidence of why our efforts to pass the Joint Physical Custody/Equal Shared Parenting Act are so important. This is a problem that has plagued our children, and primarily fathers, for decades in this state and across our country.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, a parent’s interest in the companionship, care, custody and management of his or her children rises to a constitutionally secured right, given the centrality of family life as the focus for personal meaning and responsibility.

How is it then that, in many cases today, it is easier to lose your child in family court than it is in CHIPS (Children in Need of Protection) court? Furthermore, how is it in the so-called “best interests of the child” to be ripped from one fit, loving parent without just cause?

I have seen scenarios of unwarranted court-forced fatherlessness and have talked with the parents and adult children who have become the victims of this travesty. Years later, they still tear up when talking about that painful time in their lives.

Keep in mind that, according to the only studies conducted of children’s preferences about custody post-divorce, equal parenting time for each parent is overwhelmingly the arrangement of choice for kids.  Over 70% of them opted for equal parenting.  Likewise, survey after survey shows that people generally favor a presumption of equal parenting.  In Canada for example, equal parenting consistently polls in a range of 68% to 75%.  So Scott is right when she calls HF 322 a “people’s bill.”

My bill, HF322, may not be the panacea to all the ills of family court, but it does tell the courts that two fit, loving parents should be treated as such and be on equal footing when it comes to parenting time.

It was developed after meetings with family law attorneys, mediators, judges, advocates, domestic violence prevention advocates, and legal aid. Each word of this bill was carefully chosen. Throughout this process, we have invited input and have changed the bill as a result of some of that input.

At the end of the day, this bill is really the people’s bill. I was elected to represent the people, not the courts. The people have come to us, their legislators, for fair treatment under the law because they are not finding it in many family courts across our state. If we do not help them, where else can they turn?

Good question, but there’s an answer for it.  The answer is that elected representatives who see themselves beholden first to divorce lawyers and courts must be made to pay the price at the ballot box.  Such anti-family/anti-child voting is unacceptable for anyone who claims to care about the well-being of children and social stability.  Pro-dad/pro-children forces must show the world that our legitimate interests must be enacted into law and judges must begin to order equal parenting time for mothers and fathers.  Anything short of that must be met with an electoral revolution.  Elected officials who spurn fathers and children must be voted out of office.

The good news is that, once one or two of those people find themselves looking for work, the others will locate their consciences very quickly and legislative outcomes for bills like HF 322 will start to look very different from what they’ve been to date.

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