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After decade-long family feud, reformers unite for fraying families

By Chris Steller
Troy Bonkowske testifies before the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee Feb. 10 about concerns to a bill sponsored by Rep. Peggy Scott, right, that would modify best interests standards in custody or parenting time proceedings. Photo by Andrew VonBank

For a decade at the House, discourse on reforming state law to help fraying families in Minnesota bore a strong resemblance to a particularly ferocious family fight.

Antagonisms between some House members on either side of the issue were palpable in elevators; conflict erupted in caucus; and battles spilled onto the House Floor. Maintaining collegiality was a stretch. “People did not get along,” recalled Rep. Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul). “We typically said ‘hi’ in a high-tension voice.”

The rancor came to a head in May 2012, when Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a family law reform bill sponsored by Rep. Peggy Scott (R-Andover). In his veto letter, Dayton urged “dialogue and hopefully, collaboration among legislators of both parties and the various stakeholders.”

Rep. Tim Mahoney

“The governor said, go talk to each other. I didn’t have high hopes to talk to some people,” Mahoney told the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee last week. “For 10 years people had been at each other’s throats.”

But two years of trying produced a kind of truce and a cessation of hostilities, through the work of an ad hoc Child Custody Dialogue Group, including Scott, Mahoney, Rep. Carolyn Laine (DFL-Columbia Heights), Rep. Kim Norton (DFL-Rochester) and a long list of interested parties, from matrimonial attorneys and family court referees to advocates for domestic violence prevention and fathers’ rights.

Laine had agreed with the governor’s veto. The other three House members had not. When they stood together at a press conference last month to announce a package of reform legislation they and the Dialogue Group had agreed to, Center for Parental Responsibility Executive Director Molly Olson expressed amazement, echoing an observation by Norton that “the two sides have been polar opposites for so long. Collaboration is tremendous progress.”

Building Trust

Rep. Peggy Scott

The group gathered on about a half-dozen occasions for full, face-to-face meetings between January 2013 and December 2014. But in between came phone meetings, homework assignments, and subgroups on the family court process, child support, children’s best interest and cultural change “It was an enormously time consuming project for most of the people in the group,” Olson said.

Mahoney said most people who had been involved in family law issues at the Capitol over the last decade were represented by or associated with an organization or individual in the group. “Did that get everybody? No,” he said. “We had 90 percent of the people who were concerned at the table.”

They strove for consensus. If a group member found a particular issue “abhorrent,” Mahoney said, “we tried to figure out where we could agree. If we couldn’t agree, it was kept out.”

Clarity through wordsmithing

One aim of the group was greater clarity in existing family law. That meant “a lot of wordsmithing,” according to Scott. In some cases, the group couldn’t come to consensus on change beyond tweaking language to clarify current law. Elsewhere the group settled on making the state’s recognition-of-parentage form state clearly, in large print, that the form doesn’t establish parental rights.

Even simple clarifications are important, Olson said: The more vague the statutes are, the less consistently judges are able to apply them and the more frustrated families become with the system.

Changing the child support ‘cliff’ to a ‘slope’

Another area of focus was changing child support statutes, including a system of counting each overnight over two years when computing the amount of parental custody – a change dubbed a “slope” instead of the long-used “cliff.”

Rep. Carolyn Laine

“I think I’m the textbook example with what’s wrong with the current law,” said Jonathan Kerr, who told the civil law committee he was divorced in 2008. Kerr described the “cliff” in his payments -- a $1,000 difference in his child support amount because the percentage of time he had custody was a few percentage points under a 45 percent level dictated by statute. “We’ve been to the Court of Appeals three times over our case. It’s completely destroyed our relationship. It’s just awful.”

Kerr repeated a refrain heard from nearly everyone involved or affected: The bills aren’t everything he wanted but they are big step forward. “I’ve been asking for this for several years now and I’m very happy to finally see this,” he said.

Providing for the best interest of the children

A highlight of the reform package is an overhaul of the state’s criteria for what constitutes the best interests of a child in a divorce or separation.

Rep. Kim Norton

Sponsored by Scott, HF465 would make significant changes to the 17 criteria in the current statute. The dozen criteria she proposes instead include a recognition of “the benefit to the child in maximizing parenting time with both parents and the detriment to the child in limiting parenting time with either parent.”

But the bill would also do away with a best-interest criterion that parent advocates like Olson will miss:  “the wishes of the child’s parent or parents as to custody.” The group agreed, Olson said, that the door could remain open to returning that to state law in another statute – and in another year.

Other bills in the package include HF446 and HF464 (sponsored by Mahoney), HF451 (sponsored by Laine), HF512 (sponsored by Norton) and HF518 (sponsored by Scott). The Dialogue Group agreed that the bills’ sponsors should try to get the bills approved with at most technical amendments. More significant changes would require a return trip to the Dialogue Group.

At the heart of all the changes, Scott said, is a focus on what is best for the child, as well as the value each parent can have in the child’s life – at every turn including safeguards to ensure that domestic violence or other threats are absent.

Parents testifying before the civil law committee, which Scott chairs, said it would mean a sea change from what they’ve experienced.

Troy Bronkowske, divorced five years, testified before the committee Tuesday. “I was told I was a consideration. Not a father, a consideration. And that’s the way I’ve been treated by the courts and the statutes that exist.”

Wrapping it up into an omnibus bill

The sponsor’s plan is to wrap the separate bills into an omnibus bill, which Mahoney is confident Dayton would sign should it reach his desk.

“We met his requirement. I don’t expect him to veto,” Mahoney said.

For Mahoney himself, that would mark the end of a dozen long years of work on family law reform.

“I’m done,” he said. “It’s a very emotional issue. I’ve carried substantial legislation and never lost sleep over it. I have lost sleep over family law issues.”

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