Sen. Hall’s divorcee 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 on 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,” said Doherty of getting divorcing couples into parenting classes early. In Hennepin County, only about a third of divorcing couples now attend separation classes, he said.

Parental conflict is often 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 towards 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 personally endorsed the bill.

“I strongly support this bill,” wrote Peterson. “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 divorcees whom for various reasons the legislation could harm.

“I’m not sure you’re there yet,” said Marty 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 “rehydrate” 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 crafted more of a consensus bill.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Doherty flatly said.

During the same judiciary committee on Thursday, a bill by Limmer dealing with felony-level penalties for a caregiver or facility operator intentionally depriving vulnerable adults of necessary food, clothing, shelter, or health care passed the committee and sent to a Senate finance committee.

The bill had been hotly debated, because health care providers were concerned about its implications.

But the committee had also heard harrowing stories of vulnerable adults being intentionally abused by caregivers and expressions of frustration from law enforcement officials, such as Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman, over perceived weakness in state law in terms of prosecuting abusers.

Limmer’s bill had been tabled. But on Feb. 16, representatives of the health care industry appeared at the committee not to criticize the bill but support the reworked language.

In other matters, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove on Feb. 17 spoke of actively pursuing bipartisan legislation by Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin, and others dealing with school trust land reform.

“Some folks have spent years on that,” Zellers said.

On the Vikings’ stadium issue, Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said Gov. Mark Dayton might want to call a special legislative session on the stadium should lawmakers leave the Capitol without passing a stadium bill.

Both Zellers and Senjem said lawmakers had no intentions of waiting around into May for a Vikings’ stadium bill.

On on the pending release of redistricting maps by the court on Feb. 21, Zellers quipped that the long anticipate release will “about suck all the oxygen out the (State Capitol) building.”

But Zellers suggested lawmakers will quickly rebound.

A number of area lawmakers have expressed a fatalistic attitude towards redistricting — out of their control, they say.

On the proposed so-called Right to Work constitutional amendment, Zellers said the House Republican Caucus has not yet discussed the proposed amendment which, if passed, would prohibit joining a union or the payment of union dues as a requirement of employment.

“There’s not a fever,” Zellers said of support of the proposed amendment.

They would not take the proposed amendment to the House floor unless certain the votes existed to pass it, he said.