Equal Shared Parenting Advocates Mislead Minnesota Legislators

On September 30, 2019, Molly K. Olson submitted an op-ed to the Pioneer Press titled, “Minnesota Legislature can and should do more to protect a child’s relationship with both parents.”   Molly Olson is an advocate for Equal Shared Parenting who continues to mislead the Minnesota Legislature and Minnesota fathers.  I want to set the record straight by responding to her op-ed. I know what happens to a family when shared parenting doesn’t work, from personal experience.  In my case, it robbed both parents and our two children of eight years of our lives. Both parents were prevented from making decisions about our children so in that regard it was equal.  However, that left both children in limbo and put my diabetic son in danger.

Molly doesn’t want the legislature to hear stories like that because they might be persuaded against her legislative efforts.  No matter how many times she successfully pushes through changes to family law, it is never good enough to satisfy her.  Nothing short of equal shared parenting will do.

First off, Molly Olson has been involved in lobbying the Minnesota legislature for father’s rights since 1999.  If she finds the laws “broad, vague and subjective”, then she probably has some explaining to do to Minnesota parents.  She’s had a seat at the table during most, if not all, of the changes made to Minnesota Family law in the last 20 years.  She actively participated in getting those laws on the books.   Her non-profit organization, the Center for Parental Responsibility, was part of the 2009 Minnesota Study Group on Joint Physical Child Custody Presumption and the 2012 Custody Dialogue Group.

Because Molly holds a very skewed view when it comes to what Minnesota law actually offers to parents, she thinks the laws are bad.  Now, she is unhappy with the new  Child Focused Parenting Time Guide that she helped draft because it doesn’t promote equal shared parenting.  The guide, published in September, is about parenting time considerations, not custody.  The purpose of the guide is to:

“Help parents and professionals understand concepts that are important for the wellbeing of children. The Guide is intended to encourage cooperation, not conflict, between parents.”

And

 “To help parents create parenting time schedules that:

  • focus on the child or children
  • support a child’s developmental needs from infancy through adolescence.
  • are consistent and predictable, yet flexible enough to accommodate the child’s changing needs.
  • support safe, stable and nurturing relationships between each child and both parents.
  • consider when special circumstances exist.”

The intention of the guide was not to change Minnesota laws, nor did it intend to address custody.  In fact, the guide specifically states the following:

“Children generally fare best when they have the emotional support and ongoing involvement of both parents.  Most parents have the capacity to develop and sustain safe, stable and nurturing relationships with their children.  Developing and maintaining such relationships requires that children spend significant time with each parent, whenever possible.”

“This guide does not:

  • Identify “required” or “best” parenting time schedules.
  • Prevent parents, judges, attorneys, evaluators, and others from creating a parenting time schedule that differs from the information provided in this Guide if they believe it is in a child’s best interests.
  • Replace or change any parenting time schedule agreed upon by the parents
  • Replace or change any parenting time schedule set forth in a court order.”
    [emphasis mine]

Minnesota parents, do you see anything in there that is not fair and equal?  Read the guide and you’ll see there is no bias toward fathers.  In fact, the group intentionally stayed away from referring to “fathers” or “mothers” in favor of referring to “parents” throughout the guide.   Molly Olson still doesn’t like it.  Why?  Because Molly is incapable of understanding all of the complexities involved with shared parenting.  She looks solely at parent’s rights, particularly that of the father, without understanding that rights go hand in hand with responsibility.   Not only that, but children have rights, too!

To Molly, equal shared parenting is only about the quantity of time a parent has possession of their child and nothing at all to do with the quality of the time the child receives.  For Molly, it doesn’t matter what else is going on that impacts the child, as long as the child’s parent has parenting equality.  However,  Minnesota judges have to look at much more than a simple splitting of time.  They have to look at things from a perspective of the best interest of the child.

I know Molly, and I have had numerous opportunities to speak with her about the issues that face Minnesota parents in family court.  When Molly complains about bias I find it difficult to sort through exactly what she means.  I always have to parse out whether Molly is talking in terms of custody or parenting time.  It was no different for the parenting time guide work group.  She uses the language “equal shared parenting time” or “parenting equality” in her lobbying efforts, but most of the time, she is really talking about joint custody.  There is a tendency for people  to confuse these issues, but parenting time and custody are completely different things.  Just because a parent doesn’t have custody, it doesn’t mean that they won’t get parenting time.  In fact, Minnesota law states:

518.175
“Subdivision 1. (g) In the absence of other evidence, there is a rebuttable presumption that a parent is entitled to receive a minimum of 25 percent of the parenting time for the child.”

I attended the civil law committee hearing on the matter and heard the debate.  Some legislators questioned why the minimum was 25 percent and not 50 percent.  That question was not really answered satisfactorily by the legal professionals who testified, but it is my understanding that it causes the least disruption to the school week.   Some children don’t do well managing school and activities when they have to do it from two different homes.  Others have parents who live far apart.  Long commutes don’t allow time for completing homework or getting to school on time.   There are many reasons that a child may need weeknight stability, but school seems to be the main factor.  If I have that incorrect, I’d welcome clarification from the legal professionals and think it would be helpful information for the legislature to have.

In addition to a rebuttable presumption of 25 percent minimum parenting time, Minnesota offers parents a rebuttable presumption of joint legal custody.  Molly is correct that Minnesota does not offer a rebuttable presumption of joint physical custody or 50-50 parenting time.  Instead, our laws offer parents the freedom to create a custody and parenting time arrangement that works for them and when the court has to decide because the parents cannot, it allows Judges to consider all options for the child:

518.17
Subdivision 1 b (7). There is no presumption for or against joint physical custody…”

In other words, if Minnesota parents want to equally share parenting, they can.  Whether they are never married parents or parents who divorce, no one is stopping them!  Parents in Minnesota have the freedom to agree to whatever custody and parenting time arrangement best fits the needs of their family.

What is great about Minnesota having NO ASSUMPTION FOR OR AGAINST joint physical custody is that the parents are free to decide the outcome for their child and not ask a judge to impose his or her preferred custody and parenting time schedule on them.  Molly doesn’t think it is equal, but I do.

Here is why I believe that Minnesota law already offers parenting equality:

  1. Parents can decide their own outcome for their family. Many parents already can, and do, create their own custody and parenting time arrangements or create a parenting plan without custody labels.  While judges do sign off on it, they rarely interfere with agreements that parents come up with on their own.  Judges sign off on parent agreements to ensure that parents are aware of the implications of what they have agreed to and have had a chance to seek legal counsel to make sure of their decision.  It’s really there as a check and balance, not to impose any particular custody arrangement or parenting time schedule on parents.
  2. If EITHER parent has a concern about the impact of a proposed custody or parenting time proposal, EITHER parent can take the issue to court and have a judge make a decision based on recommendations from professionals like custody and parenting time evaluators and guardian ad litems.

To me, that sounds like equal opportunity for both parents.  Is it a perfect system?  No.  Does it work for every family?  No.  Do evaluators sometimes get it wrong?  Unfortunately, yes.  Families are not a one size fits all proposition and parents can have significant relationship deficits that interfere with their ability to communicate, cooperate and make decisions together.  Those deficits can be on the part of one parent or the other, but also a combination of the reactions and interactions of both parents.  It isn’t always seen in the snapshot of evaluations, but often seen more clearly over time.  Professionals may believe that once custody and parenting time is decided, parents will adjust.  Sometimes they do.  Sometimes they do not.

When shared parenting works, it is an amazing thing for the well-being of children.  However, when shared parenting doesn’t work, it is extremely detrimental to children and can lead to relationship, emotional and behavioral problems that not only happen during the time their parents separate, but linger well into adulthood.  It may also mean that rather than one parent being given responsibility for decisions about the children because they cannot agree, decisions about the children end up in the hands a court appointee.  That isn’t good for children but it sometimes happens due to the nature of the conflict between parents and the harm that is being caused to the child because of it.

Unfortunately,  parents do not always see the impact that conflicted parenting has on their child, but these are the types of things that the court has to look at when making determinations about parenting time and custody.  That is why I think the new parenting time guide is helpful.  It gives parents a realistic view of what court professionals expect parents to do to support their children.

Molly says she is dissatisfied with the Minnesota Child Focused Parenting Time Guide because the group did not look at research.  However, there is a great deal of conflicting information out there, which makes it hard to select one standard to refer to,  but the group did use general child development milestones as a guide for how parents can help support their child’s healthy emotional development as they adjust to separate households.

Molly presented some research to the group very late in the development of the guide.  I cannot speak for everyone, but I did read through it and did not feel it warranted any changes to what had already been drafted.   The research in question involved overnight parenting time, but the new guide had already addressed overnights:

“Overnights with a child of any age may be included in the parenting time schedule for each parent depending on child and parent factors.”

Research doesn’t have any definitive answers as to what is a perfect parenting time schedule for all children. Parents have to consider many factors when creating a parenting time schedule.  For example, the parents’ work schedules, the distance between their homes, the location where their child attends school are just some of the factors parents have to contend with.

The new guide offers parents a glimpse into the issues that they may run into so they can take these issues into account.  It was not created to promote equal shared parenting time, or promote any one particular parenting time schedule over another.   If parents want to explore all the different opinions experts hold, they can do so.  No one in Minnesota is preventing parents from considering different research opinions when they create a parenting time schedule.  As for the parenting time guide group, we all came to a consensus (Molly included) that because we were not promoting or impeding any particular parenting time schedule, it would be counter-productive to include research that did.  It also did not make sense to include research on custody when the guide did not address custody.

Research is highly subjective.  If someone is in favor if equal custody, they can find research that is also in favor of it.  For those not in favor of it, they can find research to back up that position, as well.  One thing most professionals and experts seem to agree on is that children are harmed by high levels of parent conflict.  I feel confident that the group made that point pretty clear in the guide.

The way I see it, parents are already on equal footing in Minnesota.  Parents who get along fairly well have the freedom to create whatever custody and parenting time arrangement or parenting plan they desire, but if they cannot resolve the issues, they have the option to go to court to have the issues resolved by a judge.  Moms or dads can motion the court to look at what is happening and explain why they think a certain custody or parenting time arrangement is or is not in their child’s best interest.

While going to court can be a slow and arduous process, in some cases, it is necessary and it is an option available to all parents, not just moms as Molly implies.  There are no restrictions as to which parent can file a motion for custody.  If a father feels it is in his children’s best interest that he have custody or a majority of the parenting time, he can file a motion and ask for it.  That makes it equal in Minnesota.

Court professionals are there to help families resolve conflict.  Parents who view it that way, will come out with the tools they need to make shared parenting work.  Parents who fear court professionals or fight against them sometimes create their own prison because they tend to lose sight of their child’s needs during the process.  Isn’t it better for parents to have the freedom to divorce on their own terms rather than impose something they might not want? The bigger question is, why doesn’t Molly want parents to have the freedom to decide?  What is her stake in it?  Who gave Molly the authority to tell divorced parents what to do?

The truth is that the Minnesota legislature, courts and legal professionals have faith in parents’ ability to figure things out for themselves, but they also know court has to be available for the ones who can’t.   The state of Minnesota offers many different resources to help parents create custody arrangements, parenting plans or parenting time schedules, including the new Child Focused Parenting Time Guide.

Molly Olson wants to impose her beliefs on all parents, not only in Minnesota, but across the nation.  She has no faith in Family Court professionals and doesn’t trust parents to make their own decisions about their lives or  their children.  She sees everything through a very narrow lens that sees fair and equal only as a half and half proposition when it can and should be so much more.  What if the best thing for a child would be to spend more than 50 percent time with their father?  What if the best thing for a child is to spend more than 50 percent time with their mother?  Who is Molly to limit any parent to 50 percent?  What about the best interest of the child?

On the flip side, let’s not forget about cases of domestic abuse.  Starting at 50 percent doesn’t make sense if a parent is abusive or violent.  What about cases where one of the parents has a drug addiction or is emotionally or mentally unstable?  a 50-50 staring point doesn’t make sense there either.  Parents may not be equal in their ability to parent so should they try to do equal shared parenting time if they aren’t?   What about children with special needs?

Molly refuses to see that Minnesota has come a long way in the last 20 years.  Minnesota does understand the importance of a child’s access to both parents and our laws reflect that.  She refuses to admit that because it doesn’t fit her agenda.  She will continue to push for parenting equality and no doubt it will make its way to the legislature again.  When it does, legislators should really consider the consequences of such a change.  Equal shared parenting puts children at risk and takes away the freedom parents currently have.

A 50-50 presumption would be a loss for parents.  It actually decreases parent’s rights from a shared 100 percent down to a split of 50 percent.  I hope the Minnesota Legislature protects the freedom that parents in Minnesota have. They should support the whole child, rather than splitting the baby in half as a transaction of time allotments.

A majority of Minnesota parents are able to make their own decisions about custody and parenting time.  Those that can share parenting willingly do.  Currently, the court doesn’t force it on them.  The Minnesota Legislature should keep that in mind and protect the laws we currently have.

Author information: Susan Carpenter is owner of Life’s Doors Mediation in Golden Valley, Minnesota.  She participated in the Minnesota Child Focused Parenting Time Guide Work Group.  She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and is pursuing a Master’s degree in Family Education.  Her professional work includes mediation, parenting neutral work, parent education, coaching and mentoring with a focus on communication, co-parenting, perception and perspectives, conflict management and resolution, and resilience skill building.