New Minnesota Program Tries to Lower Divorce Rate

Here’s an idea whose time has come (Washington Times, 5/25/10). Actually, it came a long time ago, but better late than never. It seems the State of Minnesota is starting a program to try to reduce the divorce rate by offering services to married couples who want to try to save their marriage rather than divorce.

It’s called Minnesota Couples on the Brink and is open to all on a voluntary basis. It seems to be free to the couples and is funded by a $5 fee on marriage licenses. The idea came from a study done at the University of Minnesota by William J. Doherty who’s a family studies professor there. Doherty got information from 2,500 couples who had attended a mandatory divorce counseling program in Hennepin County. He found that about 30% of divorcing couples had one spouse who didn’t want the divorce and another 10% were open to trying to resolve matters. That suggests that making services available could save marriages, which is important, particularly where children are concerned.

The services will consist of a “marriage coach.” Part of that job apparently will be to acquaint couples with the realities of life during and after divorce.

“The judicial system tends to increase conflict, not decrease it,” said state Sen. Steve Dille, lead sponsor of the law.

That’s one we’ve heard before, principally because it’s true. In fact, one of the main goals of the 2006 amendments to Australia’s Family Law Act was to try to short-circuit via mediation the pernicious effects of the adversary system on families. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last that jurisdictions try to take matters out of the hands of lawyers. When Australia tried recently to evaluate the amendments, it found that couples liked the mediation provisions very well, but lawyers didn’t. As Gomer Pyle would say, “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!”

So Minnesota will try to redirect “couples on the brink” away from divorce and toward reconciliation. I’ll be interested to know exactly what the program consists of, how many people avail themselves of it and how effective it is.

The built-in problem with any such effort is that it exists smack in the middle of a divorce system that is well known to most people. That system gives a clear advantage to mothers in custody matters as much data show. The simple fact is that moms get the kids on divorce and dads pay. And that stark reality is the overwhelming reason why 70% of divorce cases are filed by women. That’s the specific finding of a massive study done by Margaret Brinig and Douglas Allen of every divorce in four states.

So what Minnesota Couples on the Brink will be fighting against is the same thing that plagues mediation or any other program aimed at slowing the divorce rate – the realities of divorce and custody law. A mother who’s had it with her husband and who knows that if she divorces him, she’ll get the kids, the house and the child support, is a tough person to convince not to file. Why wouldn’t she?

If states want to reduce their divorce rates, they’ll move aggressively to equalize mothers’ and fathers’ rights in family courts. They’ll make sure that equally shared parenting is both the law and the practice of family court judges. That way, no one will perceive that she/he has an advantage in the process of divorce and custody. Do that one thing and we’ll see divorce rates drop.

Meanwhile, initiatives like Minnesota Couples on the Brink are worth watching.

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