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Advocates push for change in Minnesota's child custody law

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news Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

For weeks, Phyllis Stageberg and the Rev. Mary Hovland have been quietly writing letters and making phone calls. The two women hope their persistent behind-the-scenes campaigning will be among the forces that help change family law in Minnesota to give fathers equal rights in child custody.

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"This is really important," said Stageberg. "You have to do the right thing by children as they're growing up."

In an initiative watched nationally, advocates are lobbying the Minnesota Legislature to pass a bill establishing a presumption of equal child custody rights when parents go their separate ways.

The two women -- Hovland is the pastor for parish care at Vinje Lutheran Church and Stageberg is a retired teacher -- say they've seen what often happens when parents split up.

It has "been the cultural custom for a long time" to award sole custody to mothers, leaving many children without the strong presence of a father in their lives, Hovland said.

The Children's Equal and Shared Parenting Act would right this by ensuring both parents are treated equally in family court, she said. "This would be quite a change from the law that is in effect now. For so long the mother has been the primary person, and now fathers are asking that they have rights too."

Molly K. Olson hopes this will be the year for a bill to succeed. The nonpartisan measure, which came close to passing in 2011, has support on both sides of the aisle and advocates began mobilizing on its behalf weeks ahead of this year's session.

"The chances are very good," Olson said. "I'm cautiously optimistic."

It's a change that has been brewing for a long time. For Olson, the founder of the nonprofit Center for Parental Responsibility in Roseville, this marks her 13th legislative session seeking passage of a law protecting the involvement of fathers in raising their children.

Olson, who grew up in Willmar -- she's the granddaughter of Jennie-O founder Earl B. Olson -- has pursued the Children's Equal and Shared Parenting Act with particular passion.

"Just because parents are getting a divorce doesn't mean they're divorcing their kids," she said. "All we're asking for is a presumption of equality."

Most custody laws date from an era when fathers worked and mothers stayed home to raise their children, Olson said. Since then, sweeping social changes have taken place yet this outdated model persists, she said. "Stereotypes and old paradigms still reign in family court. ... This particular issue for some reason has lagged more severely than some others."

In 2009, the most recent year for which national statistics were available, just under 18 percent -- or one in six -- custodial parents were dads, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Only in the past decade or so has a solid body of research emerged on the impact of children who grow up without the strong presence of a father, Olson said.

The Center for Parental Responsibility has amassed a wide collection of statistics supporting its case. For example, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for its Survey on Child Health, children who grow up fatherless are more likely to drop out of school and are at greater risk of alcohol and drug abuse.

Court systems are designed to be adversarial, often pitting parents against each other for custody, creating winners and losers and frequently harming children, Olson said. "The model we've been using for 40 years now is not the best model for children."

Some parents "work really hard to work things out," Hovland said. "But that isn't the case for all kids."

Although children are usually assigned a guardian ad litem to represent them during the court proceedings, "it doesn't seem the courts always listen to what children want," she said.

"We have a system that just is not working," Stageberg said.

The bill has not faced an easy road. Some of the strongest opposition has come from attorneys and domestic violence advocates who believe joint physical custody and equal shared parenting will be disruptive and costly to implement and could increase the potential for family conflict.

But all the research collected by her office and by volunteers who support the Shared Parenting Act suggests it will actually help reduce conflict, Olson said. The bill was written to leave domestic violence and abuse protections intact, and it continues to allow for a judge's discretion.

Nor is it a mandate, she said. Some parents might not exercise their right to custody. Others might make different arrangements. But if the bill passes, any fit parent who is willing, able and ready to take equal responsibility in raising their children would be allowed to do so.

"It's a nonpartisan bill with bipartisan support," Olson said. "There are supporters on both sides of the fence and there are opponents on both sides of the fence."

The bill's progress during the 2012 session has been slow. A committee hearing in the Senate has yet to be scheduled. The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony last week, then put the hearing on hold until further notice.

A potential stumbling block also has emerged in the form of a fiscal note attached to the bill by the Minnesota court system, placing a $4 million estimate on what the Joint Physical Custody and Shared Parenting Act would cost the court system annually.

Supporters dispute the accuracy of this estimate. Olson said a plan is being developed to cover at least part of the cost through fees. "We do feel encouraged by that," she said.

The clock is ticking, however. The bill needs to be heard and passed in the House Judiciary Committee by March 16 and in the Senate Judiciary Committee by March 23 if it's to keep moving forward this year.

Now is the time for supporters to contact their legislators, Olson said. "Legislators listen to their constituents. They listen even more to fellow legislators. Legislators who believe in this issue and feel pressure from their constituents need to help by putting pressure on committee chairs to hear the bills in the key committees."

Stageberg and Hovland have already contacted every lawmaker on the Judiciary Committee. Stageberg said she even called Gov. Mark Dayton.

"I just don't want it to fail," she said. "There's nothing like education and bringing it to people's attention. Until people start voicing their opinions and coming forward, nothing will be done."

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Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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