Perfecting divorce, part 1: It's all OKby Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio
A few years ago, my daughters were playing in their bedroom. They were listening to a tape of Barney, the purple dinosaur from public television. The lyrics Barney and his little friends were singing caught my ear.
"There's a girl I know who lives with her mom, her dad lives far away. Although she sees her parents just one at a time, they both love her every day!"
I thought, "Huh. When I was little, I don't remember any songs like this, about how all families are terrific no matter what they look like. I'm glad kids have that nowadays."
That's one big difference between 1979 and today. There are a lot more kids whose families aren't the traditional nuclear family with mom and dad and the kids. And Barney's singing on TV that it's all OK.
Kids today have "Banana Splits" groups. These are peer support groups for kids whose parents are getting separated or divorced.
If you search "kids and divorce" on Amazon books, you'll get more than 2,000 hits for self-help books or children's books that explain divorce. There are a lot of good intentions to make divorce easier on kids. But no matter what, it's an enormous change for most kids.
TAKING KIDS OUT OF THE MIDDLE
One county that's taken aggressive steps to improve divorce is Hennepin.
Judge James Swenson joined the family court bench in 1995. Back then, by the time a divorce case made it to his chambers, it was already 12 to 18 months old.
"The cases I got were ones that seemed to be unsettle-able, with quite a bit of animosity and rancor, which led to unpleasant experiences as a judicial officer," said Swenson.
He felt like he was getting in the middle and refereeing a fight. Swenson said the pain for the kids involved was readily apparent. They were stuck in the middle while the legal process dragged on and the court costs drained precious family resources, adding to the stress level.
"We wanted to get kids out of middle of messy custody fights," said Swenson.
So in 2000, Hennepin Country tried something different. What if judges acted more like triage nurses and intervened quickly, before things got a chance to fester?
They would try a completely different tone. At the first meeting with the judge right after filing for divorce, there would be no motions. No judicial robes. And the attorneys would sit on the sidelines.
"The judge would sit down with the parties and talk to them about such things as childhood development. What they could do to help their kids. What would send their kids' mental health south real fast," said Swenson.
He offered parents a devilish choice. Would they rather spend their money on their children's extracurricular activities or college, or on their attorneys' children's extracurricular activities and college?
After the initial meeting, the couple would come back a few weeks later and meet with a male and a female custody evaluator. They would try to come up with a reasonable custody plan that everyone could buy into. A separate meeting dealt with the financial part of divorce.
An astonishing thing happened -- 65 percent of divorce cases settled within 30 days.
Swenson jokes that it was an absolute boon for judges. His days in trial went down by 35 percent. Even the cases he did have to try seemed to have benefited.
"The number of cases where it was highly vitriolic, with ugly testimony and warring by the lawyers, dropped off the edge of a cliff," said Swenson.
The average divorce in Hennepin County in cases involving kids now takes 5.6 months. That's about a month faster than the rest of the state.
This year, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government cited Hennepin County's Early Neutral Evaluation program as one of the top 50 innovations in government.