Paternity matters in Minnesota courts are still treated as quasi-criminal. Reviewing the legal forms reveals that the parties are usually referred to as Plaintiff and Defendant, rather than Petitioner and Respondent, as is now used in divorce matters. Fathers are referred to as putative, a term denoting a mood of the verb in some languages used when the speaker does not have direct evidence of what he is asserting, but has inferred it on the basis of something else. It is strangely similar to the accused. The statute focuses largely on his duties, obligations and responsibilities rather than rights or entitlements. In any event, the interests of the child’s parents are pitted against one another, leaving the child vulnerable.
This is somewhat understandable, since the context in which the law was created emerged to impose a duty of care that was usually not being provided without some encouragement from the court. When I began my practice of law, my paternity clients almost always arrived with the same tune – “Get me out of this! It is the worst thing that has happened to me. Make it go away!”. Without a legal process, mothers were often raising children without help from their fathers, and children were frequently not having the benefit of a critical relationship with their father. Children were vulnerable in many ways.
Generalizations are always dangerous because no group always performs in the same way. Indeed, for many children conceived outside marriage the parents choose to marry, and the child is born into a marriage. Other people may choose not to marry, but remain in a committed relationship where fathers have participated in every aspect of their lives. Still, when considering the entire population of children both outside marriage and children born inside marriage, the stereotypes are often supported.
It is also dangerous to make assumptions based upon our own experience, since that may well not be consistent with what is actually happening. Over time, however, fathers began to show up in my office with a very different tune. “My partner is pregnant, and I am certain it is mine. I intend to provide support, and I want to be sure I have legally protected rights of access.”
Given the uncertainty that often exists, the parents are faced with new accountabilities they may not have been prepared to undertake. When this occurs, the collaborative model is well suited to minimize conflict and help create a secure and structured environment for the new child.
In my next article, I will outline in more detail how this may be accomplished.Tagged with: children • Co-Parenting • keeping children at the center • parenting plan