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Rep. Torrey Westrom began Tuesday's meeting of the House Civil Law Committee with an unusual admonition. He asked audience members to refrain from booing, clapping or sighing during testimony. Westrom also noted that security officers would be stopping by to monitor the hearing room in the State Office Building.

Bills aim to reset child custody rules

"I'm a firm believer, and the studies show, that kids need the active involvement of both parents in their lives. That's not happening in the state of Minnesota." - Rep. Peggy Scott

"I'm a firm believer, and the studies show, that kids need the active involvement of both parents in their lives. That's not happening in the state of Minnesota." - Rep. Peggy Scott

Rights, responsibilities of divorcing parents are being vigorously debated by legislators this session

Rep. Torrey Westrom began Tuesday’s meeting of the House Civil Law Committee with an unusual admonition. He asked audience members to refrain from booing, clapping or sighing during testimony. Westrom also noted that security officers would be stopping by to monitor the hearing room in the State Office Building.

“We know this is a very concerning issue to many people,” said Westrom, R-Elbow Lake. “Emotions can run high … We want to keep order in this room tonight. We want everybody to be respected and to be heard.”

The topic eliciting so much emotion was a bill establishing joint physical custody as the presumptive outcome in child custody disputes. While that might sound like a legalistic discussion, battles over custody of children – whether in a courtroom or at the Legislature – are notoriously acrimonious. Advocates wearing stickers that read “JPC Now!!!” filled the hearing room. Supporters of the legislation filled their allotted 90-minute testimony period.

Kathy Kleve told legislators that her husband has been battling the family court system for more than a decade to have equal access to his twin sons from a previous marriage. Currently, she said, he has not seen his children in 16 months. “My husband has run out of options,” Kleve, a Maplewood resident, told the committee. “If the courts won’t do their job, who will? He lives with the fear every day that he will never see his boys again.”

Todd Harris, a Maple Grove resident, testified that his relationship with his 18-year-old son suffers because he has been denied equal parenting rights. “I am angry, disgusted, embarrassed, humiliated and bitter at how our court system is run,” he said. “In the courts, fathers are guilty until proven innocent.”

Debates over child custody rules are nothing new at the Legislature. Much of the discussion is rooted in a belief among some advocates that men repeatedly receive unfair treatment in custody cases. In 2006, legislation was passed changing the presumptive custody portion to a minimum of 25 percent. Last year Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, introduced legislation that would have set joint physical custody as the presumptive standard, with each parent permitted at least 40 percent guardianship. But the bill never made it out of committee.

The latest version of joint physical custody legislation, introduced by Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, would require that parents share time with their children equally, with each receiving guardianship rights at least 45 percent of the time. This presumption could only be ignored by the courts if there is “clear and convincing evidence” that a child would be in imminent harm if placed in a parent’s care.

“I’m a firm believer, and the studies show, that kids need the active involvement of both parents in their lives,” Scott said. “That’s not happening in the state of Minnesota.”

Mahoney is one of 12 co-authors on the bill. He believes that changes are needed to make custody disputes less acrimonious. The combatants in these fights “could be the nicest people in the world on a regular basis, but at the time of a divorce they get irrational,” Mahoney said. “We shouldn’t be fighting that battle with kids. Kids should have time with their father and time with their mother.”

Most observers believe that legislation to change child custody rules is likely to get a more sympathetic vetting with Republicans in control of the House and Senate. Scott’s bill is not the only proposal in this area that has been introduced. Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, has authored a similar bill that would establish joint custody as the de facto standard. It has yet to get a hearing.

In addition, Rep. Diane Anderson, R-Eagan, has introduced legislation mandating that parties in custody cases agree to a “parenting plan”laying out the terms under which each parent would have access to his or her offspring. If the parties cannot come to an agreement on a plan, then a judge would intervene and draft such a document. The bill passed out of the Civil Law Committee earlier this week.

But advocates for victims of domestic violence are strongly opposed to Scott’s proposal. “We absolutely reject the bill in its entirety,” said Liz Richards, director of programming at the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. “There’s layer upon layer of problems with the bill.”

Specifically, she believes that the legislation will endanger children by placing them in homes where parents have a history of physical violence, mental illness or substance abuse problems. Richards points to one passage of the bill as particularly troubling: “In no instance may the court limit parent and child contact absent compelling necessity to prevent substantial and imminent harm to the child,” it reads.

“That’s a pretty wild standard,” Richards said. “I’m going to have to produce evidence that right now my child is [facing] imminent harm.”

Advocates for victims of domestic violence point to the murder of Mikayla Olson in 2004 in St. Paul as evidence that the court system already lacks adequate safeguards against violent parents. Mikayla’s father, John Olson, was given joint legal custody of his daughter despite repeated threats to kill her and his wife. Two years after their divorce was finalized, he murdered Mikayla during his parenting time. Richards said: “I don’t think that we lightly sound the horn… that people may end up dead because of this, but it is a real concern.”

Richards is also opposed to the parenting plan legislation, but for a very different reason. She argues that such documents are complicated (often running 40 pages or more) and points out that roughly 70 percent of individuals going through a divorce in Hennepin County do not hire lawyers.

Richards also says the courts cannot afford it. “We’re going to be taking our limited court resources and have somebody in the court system doing these parenting plans?” she asks. “This is not a useful way to use limited court resources.”

Tuesday’s hearing on Scott’s legislation was merely informational. Westrom indicated that he expects to take a vote on the bill on Monday. (So far, there is no companion measure in the Senate.)

But Scott is optimistic that the bill will advance. She says she hears constantly about the issue from her colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

“I haven’t talked to a single one of them that hasn’t had a story from at least one constituent,” she said. “There’s much more of a climate for it now.”

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4 comments

  1. Emotions run high because Family Courts are always biased. Your heading says it all “Politics in Minnesota”. The courts have played politics and have profited very nicely. When hard no nonsense
    and unbiased rules enter the family arena for the litigants and JUDGES this will not be an emotional
    process. THE SYSTEM HAS TOO MUCH DESCRETION. THERE IS TOO MUCH UNCERTAINTY.
    There is no transparencey. No other system can operate under these conditions. Not in business,
    not in engineering, not in nature. Only in the politics of Minnesota FAMILY COURT. If both sides start from the same point you have equality not politics. Have a computer adjudicate the case with both
    litigatants starting from the same point. A computer can not see gender and applies the rules equally to both sides. The machine does not have an agenda of it’s own. No judge advocates. It can make a logical decision with reason. Measures overlapping laws and has an understandable weighted system of measure, not human perponderance that is open to interpetation.

  2. What if the mother with “sole custody” is the one with the past drug history, a police report that SHE assaulted the dad, a documented history of placing teh child in dangerous daycare, making false accusations and showing signs of a personality disorder?

    Thank you Janice for the above.

    It is absolutely neccessary that father’s have equal standing.

    Too many times “innocent, poor ‘ol mom” is hardly that.

    Let’s put some additional scrutiny on Carver County judges, (you know who you are).

    The travesties that take place there daily are not only unconstitutional, but do harm to innocent children.

    Never, EVER give up on your children.

  3. I truly believe that in many instances neither of the parents are fit to take care of the child, but we still send them to live with them because many in the land of politics still believe that ‘even if they aren’t good parents, they are still the parents…” THIS IS SOOO WRONG!!! THere are times when the mom should be chosen, there are times when the dad should be chosen, there are times when both should be chosen, and there are times where they should lock up the parents and throw away the keys. Children are precious…and it only takes ONE….ONE….. ONE bad time to tarnish a child FOREVER! Why are the courts so okay with TARNISHing children. It doesn’t matter which parent has money…it doesn’t matter which parent has the most status or the best job. It matters which parent has the best interest of their child at heart. I have watched case after case of people that call themselves parents, get custody of children…then feed them bottles of pop, smoke pot and do drugs around them, forget to feed them, leave them in dirty clothes and diapers, and they get to keep those children. what will those children grow up to be? Have you heard of the trickle effect? What we are raised around has a strong effect on what we become and what we do to others. We NEED to change the minds of the courts! If there is proof of drugs…the parent should lose custody…you are choosing drugs over your child for PETE’s sake…this is a no brainer. If you have every abused your wife or child….or if you are a wife that has abused your husband or child…you should lose custody…once an abuser you are more prone to ALWAYS be an abuser…I’ve seen it. If these people are willing to get help and prove to be DRUG free/abuse free then maybe they could have a second chance…but not to get full custody over the better parent. They should only have SUPERVISED visits..they should have to earn their right as a parent. I have always believed that just because you gave birth to child or gave sperm to create a child, does not make you a parent…..holding that child, caring for that child, loving that child, encouraging that child to be all that they can be, and putting your child first ALWAYS, is a TRUE parent. We need to change the courts!

  4. Leigh Olson-Block

    I am Mikayla Olson’s mom. I happened to run across this article and wanted to respond. I would like to make a correction regarding Mikayla’s killer. Her dad’s name, John Tester, murdered her and then took his own life on September 5, 2004. “John Olson,” is my father & Mikayla’s grandfather.
    Sarah Stokke, your post was well stated. My number one priority was always my daughter Mikayla & her well-being. Even though I had documentation & proof that John was abusive to both myself & Mikayla the courts, attorneys, custody evaluators, and her own therapist ignored my cries for help. I was threatened by John for almost six years (as long as Mikayla was alive) and my question to those involved who allowed John to get away with it is, “Do you believe me now?” I have been involved in many causes having to do with domestic violence and I am now Mikayla’s voice and try and help those who are currently in an abusive situation.

    Leigh Olson-Block
    (Mikayla’s Mom)

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