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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.

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"We're trying to see if this approach works better for children and parents than the typical courtroom where a judge tells people what to do," Peterson said.

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Maisha Giles and John Jackson are the Co-Parent Court "navigators." Over a month, they'll spend eight hours of class time with the participants. Attendance is 80 percent, which is much better than they projected.

Ms. Giles said sometimes they need to overcome some resistance on the part of mothers.

"A lot of times the moms are offended. 'I'm a parent, I've been being a parent, so why are you asking me to go to workshops?' " Giles said.

She explains the purpose is to focus on co-parenting, not parenting.

"They've accepted this single parent mentality... but we're going to do what we can do to make sure there's two parents in the picture," he said.

In a classroom in north Minneapolis, Giles and Mr. Jackson sit down with six mothers over a lunchtime buffet. Giles goes over some of the bad habits parents can develop, such as bad-mouthing the other parent in front of the child.

"Y'all ever seen this?" Giles asks. "You know, one parent trying to be the favorite parent?"

Jackson jumps in with an example, "You put a punctuation on the end of it like, 'Bet your daddy don't do that!' Those kind of little things, that's what she was referring to."

One of the moms nods and says, "It's not a competition."

Joseph Arrondando, 28, is a dad who went through Co-Parent Court last year. Mr. Arrondando has the name of his 2-year-old son tattooed on his neck: Nasir.

Arrondando runs a small barbershop in Brooklyn Park. His 9-year-old daughter from a previous relationship lives with him. When Arrondando and Nasir's mom broke up, he said he didn't get to see his toddler son for six months.

"I couldn't let that happen, that's my son, that's my boy. It's important to me that my son has his father," Arrondando said. "I grew up in a single-parent household, so I don't understand why any mother would do that to a boy."

He and his son's mom were assigned to go through the new Co-Parent court. In the end, they agreed to share custody. Nasir now stays with his dad three days each week and Arrondando pays child support to the mother.

Arrondando says he is motivated to be involved with his kids, but he feels it's an uphill battle for many black fathers like him who are viewed by the traditional system as "deadbeat dads." He appreciates what he experienced from the Co-Parent Court in downtown Minneapolis.

"I think more men should go downtown. Don't be afraid to go downtown, regardless of if you're afraid that the relationship is going to get worse. I think you need to go downtown on the strength of just your child, and ask for time with your children," Arrondando said.

That's a message Peterson hopes will reach more people. Next year, the Co-Parent Court will wrap up its three-year demonstration and evaluators will measure if giving parents the tools to co-parent pays off for the kids.

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