The debate over family law reform continued in a surprising venue last week: the basement of the IDS Center in downtown Minneapolis -- home of Globe University (www.globeunivers ity.edu).
Three months ago, Globe adjunct instructor John Schaffhausen challenged his business law students to peruse a host of bills winding their way through the Legislature and pick the most intriguing. They chose House measure HF322, or Joint Physical Custody/Equally Shared Parenting (JPC).
JPC would grant each divorcing parent at least 45.1 percent parenting time, unless the parents agree otherwise. Exceptions are detailed, such as in cases of domestic abuse or child endangerment. The bill will not affect current child support guidelines. The bill (and its Senate companion SF1168/SF1402) is largely a nod to fathers, often marginalized in custody disputes, but is intended to empower mothers, too.
House champions Diane Anderson, R-Eagan, and Peggy Scott, R-Anoka, attended the June 9 debate, as did Molly Olson, founder of the Minnesota-based Center for Parental Responsibility. Olson has volunteered for a dozen years to get the bill passed, driven by a belief that children do best when both parents are actively involved in their lives.
Many family law attorneys remain deeply troubled by it, however. They say it is unnecessary and will only exacerbate problems. And Jennifer McIntosh, a psychologist from Melbourne, Australia, visited the Twin Cities last week to talk about new research from Oxford University (tiny.cc/znwcn) that finds shared parenting legislation is damaging to children.
But for nearly two hours, legislators and experts took a back seat to five bright, non-traditional students as they persuasively, and sometimes emotionally, sparred -- and reminded us why this is such a difficult issue.
"The more responsible parent, as leader of the ship, should take the reins," said Joshua Stadtherr, assigned by Schaffhausen to argue against JPC. "The child will then know who to go to."
Riham Elkaramany shot back. "Our system, by default, is making parents fight each other, pitting them against each other."
"You can't [parent] by yourself," Elkaramany's debate partner, Rich Smith, said in agreement. "It's not possible." Smith is to become a new father in December.
Then Stadtherr again: "The whole reason you're getting divorced in the first place is you can't work together in the best interest of the child." As I said, a tough one.
JPC did not pass this session, but it received strong bipartisan support, including from Reps. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, and Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester. (Mahoney sponsored the JPC bill for about 10 years.) Olson said the roadblock came when House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound, did not call for a vote. (Rep. Smith did not respond to an interview request Wednesday.).
"Minnesota is already a national model for effectively dealing with issues of children and divorce," said Brian Sobol, a member of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, who opposes the bill. "We don't need a bill forcing schedules. We do very well on our own. Most dads get very liberal time with their kids."
Sobol is particularly concerned about a presumption of shared custody for couples in "very high-conflict cases," such as those facing mental health issues, alcohol abuse or domestic abuse, as well as couples with very young children.
"Our current system works because we look at each case individually and apply some 13 factors in the statute to determine what is in the best interest of each child in each case," Sobol said.
Olson, who has written a 130-plus-page handbook for understanding the debate, countered that in "extremely destructive, high-conflict cases, no law will put an end to the conflict. We've never claimed that JPC/ESP is the silver bullet to solve all problems in family court. But equality should be a place to start, not something you have to fight for." Olson (e-mail: email@example.com) will continue her fight next fall, possibly with a new advocate on her team.
"Current laws are based more on tradition than on what needs to be done now," said Globe University business major Elkaramany, 24. She has "a lot of friends going through this," she said, including one young father whose partner moved out of state with their baby.
"We're too comfortable with the way things have been," she said, "and we shouldn't be that comfortable."
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 firstname.lastname@example.org