New law could make fathers' rights come smoother

Panelist Molly Olson says the study group seemed biased from the start
Nick Vlcek

Joel Lombard carries a stack of photographs, half an inch thick, in his billfold. In one, a ten-year-old boy leans over a hockey stick, grinning proudly in his bright red jersey. In another, a seven-year-old grips her soccer ball. These are Lombard's children, and over the past two years he has spent just under $30,000 in a custody battle to make sure he remained in their lives.

"I'm a great dad," Lombard says emphatically, his hazel eyes bright, as he sits in a booth at a greasy spoon in Inver Grove Heights. "I might be a bad business owner or a bad husband, but I'm a great dad."

When Lombard and the children's mother, Carol, decided to divorce two years ago, he was certain that the negotiations over the kids would go smoothly and result in a 50-50 split. He was shocked when his ex said she wanted sole custody.

Lombard's lawyer advised him not to move out of the house because that might disadvantage him in the fight. So Lombard lived in the basement for 11 months, until a judge awarded both parents equal time with the kids and ordered Lombard to move out.

But the struggle wasn't over. Lombard's ex-wife requested a custody evaluation from Washington County. The result was the same: equal time with the kids for both mom and dad. Next came a divorce trial, where the custody issue was finally settled.

Ultimately, Lombard got what he wanted. But he's not happy about how much time—and money—it cost him. "All you're doing is pissing away a college fund," Lombard says of dads who go through protracted legal fights over their children. "If he wants 50-50, he shouldn't have to fight for it. Because that's what's best for the kids."

In Minnesota family courts, judges decide what's best for the kids on a case-by-case basis. But fathers' groups are pushing to change the law so that judges must favor shared parenting time, known as joint physical custody. Minnesota would become one of two states with such a legal preference.

Historically, the state's courts have not favored this arrangement because of concerns that shuttling between parents could be disruptive for a child. Custody often went to mothers, who tended to be the primary caregivers. But now, fathers are more involved. "I think in some ways it's a matter of the judicial system catching up with changes in society," says Melissa Froehle, policy and program director at the Minnesota Fathers & Families Network in St. Paul.

Rep. Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul) has made it his mission to change the law. Divorced twice, Mahoney paid through the nose to get joint physical custody. "But I thought everybody did that," Mahoney says. "It wasn't, 'Oh, I'm a wounded divorced father and I feel slighted.'"

He says conversations with his constituents convinced him that the law should change. Dozens of men have told him they pay child support but find it difficult to visit their children because of poor relations with the mother, he says. "They don't give a damn about the money. Mostly what they want to do is see their kids."

Over the past five years, Mahoney has introduced bills to change the law. His legislation has included an exception for victims of domestic violence, but advocates for battered women remain unconvinced.

Last year, Mahoney proposed a study group to look at the effect of changing the law. Mahoney's bill passed last spring after Rep. Michael Paymar (DFL-St. Paul) tacked it onto another piece of legislation.

In August, the study group met for the first time. Members included advocates for victims of domestic violence, parents, and fathers, as well as family law attorneys, academics, and two judges.

The study group reviewed academic research on divorce and custody and heard from people on both sides of the debate. The Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, several anti-domestic violence groups, and the Minnesota State Bar Association's Family Law Section opposed changing the law, and fathers' advocacy groups favored it.

While there were more than enough people willing to give their opinions on the idea, the study group faced a paucity of information specific to Minnesota. There are no studies that document if fathers are actually being treated unfairly in court. The state's only data shows that joint physical custody decisions increased from 6 percent in 1986 to 23 percent in 1999.

After four months of meetings, the panel could only recommend to the Legislature that more Minnesota data be collected and the issue studied further. Mahoney and co-sponsor Saltzman were sorely disappointed.

"Certainly I think that the deck was set," Mahoney says. "I think there were a number of people that were very uncomfortable with the idea going in." He estimates that about 70 percent of the panel was initially against joint physical custody.

Panelist Molly Olson founded the Center for Parental Responsibility, a group that advocates for joint physical custody. She says study group membership seemed biased from the start. "People are either from organizations that have opposed this, or have opposed this individually," she says, "or they don't work with fit fathers."

But other panelists said the group was open-minded and fair. The problem was not bias, but rather a lack of information, says study group member Jeff Edleson, a professor at the University of Minnesota who researches domestic violence. "There were grievances of both moms and dads who were concerned about their cases," he says. "What I wanted to see, and I didn't see, was any data."

One of the judges on the panel, Heidi Schellhas of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, also found the lack of information frustrating. "Shouldn't we figure out whether there is a problem, and if there is a problem, what is it?"

But Mahoney says the issue needs to be addressed, and soon. "My intent this year," he says, "is to move this bill forward."  

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