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.
"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.
"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.
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.