Judge creates unique problem-solving court to help unwed parents
A Minnesota judge creates unique problem-solving court to help unwed parents struggling to deal with the financial and emotional burdens of raising a child. The innovative Co-Parent Court aims to take place the focus on the well-being of the child.
Bruce Peterson noticed a problem as he sat on the bench of Hennepin County Family Court. The young men who showed up for paternity establishment and child support hearings looked to be facing shaky futures with their children.Skip to next paragraph
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"We were telling young dads, 'Congratulations, you're the father legally now, here's your child support obligation,' " Judge Peterson said.
The focus was on money, not on the role the fathers might play in their children's lives.
"It was very apparent to me there was much more work to be done to support these young parents in their parenting obligations towards their children and to each other," Peterson said.
Unlike divorce cases, where the couple may have known each other a long time and have a shared history, never-married parents who show up in Peterson's courtroom may not know each other well. And they now have an 18-year shared endeavor: raising a child. Often, they have little education or job prospects.
Most parents are together at the birth of a child, Peterson said, but the fall-off of father involvement is steep. "By age 5, over one-third of children with unmarried parents have lost track of the fathers entirely, and over half have very limited contact with their fathers," Peterson said. "That's a large group of children that just isn't getting these demonstrated benefits of positive father involvement."
In 2010, Peterson and a team of partners created the Co-Parent Court using federal, county and foundation money. Similar to drug courts and DWI courts created in the 1990s to address recurring problems in the criminal justice system, Co-Parent Court is the county's first problem-solving court in the family court arena, Minnesota Public Radio reports.
When the county summons parents to court to establish paternity or child support, 200 parents are randomly assigned to Co-Parent Court instead of regular family court. Participants are drawn from high-poverty ZIP codes on the north side. Most are on public assistance, and nearly all are racial minorities.
On a recent afternoon, 10 mothers and fathers filled the jury box in Peterson's court room. The judge explained how Co-Parent Court would work. Participants would be offered help from community agencies to find employment or deal with domestic violence, addictions or mental health problems. Parents would be required to participate in four weekly sessions on co-parenting. Mothers and fathers meet in separate groups before each pair comes back together to write a plan.
Peterson signs off on these plans. Before adjourning, he asks for the parents to approach the process with goodwill and good faith.