Sen. Hall’s divorce parenting classes bill on hold
by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter
Legislation by Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, that would change the timing and direction of parenting classes divorcing couples are required to attend as part of the separation process was tabled Friday, Feb. 17, in a Senate committee.
“I want to make clear this is an upgrade of current law,” said William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.
Hall, Doherty, and other bill supporters propose that divorce decree paperwork not be completed by the courts unless first accompanied by documentation certifying that the serving party had completed a four-hour marriage dissolution education program.
“That’s the Holy Grail,” Doherty said of getting divorcing couples into parenting classes early.
In Hennepin County, only about a third of divorcing couples now attend separation classes, he explained.
Parental conflict often runs high during the divorce process, and this can be harmful for children, he noted. Early intervention was the intent of the current law, Doherty argued, but in practice it is not happening.
Doherty heralded the availability of online parenting classes as opening the door to the program for divorcing couples in Greater Minnesota.
It’s estimated the cost of an online course is about $35 with face-to-face course offerings costing about $60.
Hall’s legislation provides exemptions from the parenting classes for a number of reasons.
For instance, if spousal behavior toward the other spouse or the couple’s children makes it dangerous to co-parent the requirement is dropped.
The legislation has supporters on the bench.
Hennepin County District Court Judge Bruce Peterson in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed the bill.
“I strongly support this bill,” Peterson wrote. “Children can be put in hopeless loyalty binds by parents who inadvertently use them as spies (‘What is Mom’s new boyfriend like?’) or messengers (Tell Dad I must have the child support check by Friday.’)”
But Hall’s legislation drew questions.
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said the bill could help the vast majority of divorcing couples, but he was worried about a small percentage of people the legislation could harm.
“I’m not sure you’re there yet,” Marty said of advancing the bill.
Representatives from the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women testified in opposition to the bill.
K.T. Bernhagen, a divorced mother of three children, spoke of living a life of caution – mixing up her routes to work, varying the times of departures and arrivals – as precautions against a former spouse.
“Abuse is not about love,” she said.
Bernhagen spoke of being frightened about the prospects of the bill.
Her comments were echoed by a state senator, a former St. Paul police official, who said domestic violence is one of the leading causes of murder in that city.
Another critic of the bill – a mental health counselor – argued that an online course alone was not adequate to “re-hydrate” parents depleted by the divorce process.
Committee Chairman Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, suggested to Hall and bill supporters they work with the opposition and craft more of a consensus bill.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Doherty said.
T.W. Budig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.