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Who will speak for children?

During the past few weeks, letters to the editors of North Dakota newspapers have been arriving from out-of-state writers in support of a child custody measure on the November ballot that would throw hundreds of kids back into the middle of bitte...

During the past few weeks, letters to the editors of North Dakota newspapers have been arriving from out-of-state writers in support of a child custody measure on the November ballot that would throw hundreds of kids back into the middle of bitter custody battles.

This letter-writing effort is an orchestrated national drive on behalf of a handful of bitter men who were unable to get their way in the courts. Their proposal would bypass the neutral judicial system and create confrontational situations between parents where lingering rancor still poisons family relationships.

Most of the letters present claims that cannot be verified. For example, one letter alleged that "shared parenting works in other states." But who does it work for? Remembering that the authors of these letters are those who lost in the courts, we can assume only that forced shared parenting works for people who have no case.

One letter claimed that North Dakota is one of 13 states that has no law promoting shared parenting. North Dakota has plenty of legislation making healthy shared parenting possible. It is administered on a case-by-case basis by an objective court system that encourages shared parenting when it is in the best interest of the children.

Still another letter stated that shared parenting is best for children. That is true in about two-thirds of divorces where the separation is civil and amicable. However, children are harmed in the remaining one-third of the divorces where the relationship ends in high conflict. These are the divorces from which the sponsors of the proposal have emerged.

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While some of the supporters of this measure are suffering from bruised male egos, others plan to use it to reduce their child support payments. The measure stipulates that support payments may not exceed the cost of bare essentials for children. It represents another form of revenge and intimidation.

North Dakotans feel strongly about healthy families. They see good parenting as a critical ingredient for raising well-adjusted youngsters. Because of this affinity for good parenting, many unsuspecting voters may support the measure, thinking that all forms of shared parenting are the right thing for children. Research does not support this opinion.

Unless the well-meaning voters are informed about the consequences of this measure, they may approve it on Nov. 7. This raises the question about who ought to be speaking out on this issue before the election. The answer is simple: those who have firsthand experience with the consequences of bitter divorces.

Because sitting judges must maintain their neutrality, the retired judges should be the ones citing experiences that highlight the danger of removing the neutral courts out of the custody process. Also, there are the officials who have been involved in the implementation of protection orders needed by women to protect themselves and their children from abusive spouses.

Social workers can cite numerous instances in which irreconcilable differences have poisoned the family situation so that forcing shared parents will only traumatize and destabilize the children. Folks in the state Department of Human Services are well informed about the cost of picking up the pieces of broken homes.

Most single moms who will be adversely affected by this measure are unable to fight back. Since divorce has left many of them poor, they don't have money to pour into advertising to explain the consequences of passage of the measure. However, the men come out of divorce better off and can afford to pool money to sell their case. They also have created a network across the country to write letters that sound good but offer information that is either unverifiable or unfounded. Regrettably, the children will have no voice in the matter.

This is the time for compassionate North Dakotans to step up to the plate and defend those who are unable to defend themselves.

Omdahl is former N.D. lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. E-mail lloyd_omdahl@und.nodak.edu

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