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Never-Married Parents Get Help From Special Court

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Never-Married Parents Get Help From Special Court

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Never-Married Parents Get Help From Special Court

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In the United States today, 40 percent of children are born to unmarried parents. Many of the parents in these situations are younger and struggling financially. All this has people rethinking how to handle child support. The system was designed mostly to extract money from paychecks. But a court in Minneapolis is trying a new approach, one that's about more than just the money as it attempts to keep both parents involved in the lives of their kids. From Minnesota Public Radio, Sasha Aslanian reports.

SASHA ASLANIAN, BYLINE: Hennepin County Family Court Judge Bruce Peterson noticed a problem: Young men were showing up for paternity establishment and child support hearings, but the future of their families looked shaky.

JUDGE BRUCE PETERSON: We were telling young dads, congratulations, you're the father legally now, here's your child support obligation. So it was very apparent to me that there was much more work to be done to support these young parents in their parenting obligations towards their children and to each other.

ASLANIAN: Unlike divorce cases, where the couple has a shared history, never-married parents who show up in Peterson's courtroom may not know each other very well. And now they have an 18-year shared endeavor - raising a child together. The drop-off in father involvement is steep.

In 2010, Hennepin County created a Co-Parent Court modeled after problem-solving courts in the criminal system - like drug courts. The idea is that kids will do better with two involved parents, child support will be more consistent and the courts will have fewer conflicts to resolve.

On a recent afternoon, 10 mothers and fathers filled the jury box in Peterson's court room as he explains the experiment they'll be part of.

PETERSON: We understand that if you don't have a comfortable place to live or your health isn't good or you've got other problems that you're worrying about, you can't be an effective parent.

ASLANIAN: Parents are offered help from community agencies to find work or deal with domestic violence, addictions or mental health problems. They're required to participate in four weekly co-parenting sessions so they can write a parenting plan covering everything from holiday schedules to communicating with one another.

Maisha Giles and John Jackson are the parent navigators. Over a lunchtime buffet with six moms, they talk about some things to avoid, like bad-mouthing the other parent in front of the child.

MAISHA GILES: Y'all ever seen this? You know, one parent trying to be the favorite parent?

JOHN JACKSON: You put a punctuation on the end of it like, bet your daddy don't do that. Those kind of little things.

ASLANIAN: One of the moms agrees - it's not a competition.

Joseph Arrondando is a 28-year-old dad who went through Co-Parent Court last year. Arrondando has the name of his 2-year-old son Nasir tattooed on his neck. When Arradondo and Nasir's mom broke up, he says he didn't get to see his toddler son for six months.

JOSEPH ARRADONDO: I couldn't let that happen, because, you know, that's my son, that's my boy. And it's important to me that my son has his father. I grew up in a single-parent household, so I don't understand why any mother would do that to a boy.

ASLANIAN: Arrondando and Nasir's mom were assigned to go through Co-Parent Court and agreed to share custody. Nasir now stays with his dad three days a week and Arrondando's paying child support. Joseph Arrondando says Co-Parent Court held in downtown Minneapolis gave him a chance to show he's not a deadbeat dad.

ARRADONDO: I think more men should go downtown, don't be afraid to go downtown, regardless of if you're afraid that the relationship is going to get even worse. I think you need to go downtown, you know, on the strength of just your child, you know, and ask for time with your children.

ASLANIAN: And it's the children who court administrators will be following up with to see if Co-Parent Court pays off for them.

For NPR News, I'm Sasha Aslanian in Minneapolis.

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