Across the U.S., 40 percent of children are now born to unmarried parents. This demographic shift, primarily among younger, low-income parents, can pose a challenge to a child support system designed chiefly to extract money from paychecks.
A court in Minneapolis is now 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.
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.
"We were telling young dads, 'Congratulations, you're the father legally now. Here's your child support obligation.' " Peterson says. "So it was very apparent to me there was much more work to be done to support these young parents."
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 well. They now 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 courtroom as he explained the experiment they'll be part of.
"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 you're worried about, you can't be an effective parent," he tells the parents.
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.
"Y'all ever seen this?" Giles asks. "You know, one parent trying to be the favorite parent?"
Jackson jumps in with an example, "You put a punctuation on the end of it like, 'Bet your daddy don't do that!' Those kinds of little things, that's what she was referring to."
One of the moms nods and says, "It's not a competition."
Joseph Arradondo is a 28-year-old dad who went through Co-Parent Court last year. When Arradondo and the mother of his 2-year-old son, Nasir, broke up, he says, he didn't get to see his toddler son for six months.
"I couldn't let that happen. That's my son, that's my boy," Arradondo says. "It's important to me that my son has his father. I grew up in a single-parent household, and I don't understand why any mother would do that to a boy."
Arradondo 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 Arradondo is paying child support.
Arradondo says Co-Parent Court, held in downtown Minneapolis, gave him a chance to show he's not a deadbeat dad.
"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," he says. "I think you need to go downtown on the strength of just your child, and ask for time with your children."
It's the children court administrators will be following up with to see if Co-Parent Court pays off.