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Judge creates unique problem-solving court to help unwed parents

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When the county summons parents to court to establish paternity or child support, 200 parents are randomly assigned to Co-Parent Court instead of regular family court. Participants are drawn from high-poverty ZIP codes on the north side. Most are on public assistance, and nearly all are racial minorities.

On a recent afternoon, 10 mothers and fathers filled the jury box in Peterson's court room. The judge explained how Co-Parent Court would work. Participants would be offered help from community agencies to find employment or deal with domestic violence, addictions or mental health problems. Parents would be required to participate in four weekly sessions on co-parenting. Mothers and fathers meet in separate groups before each pair comes back together to write a plan.

Peterson signs off on these plans. Before adjourning, he asks for the parents to approach the process with goodwill and good faith.

"We're trying to see if this approach works better for children and parents than the typical courtroom where a judge tells people what to do," Peterson said.

Maisha Giles and John Jackson are the Co-Parent Court "navigators." Over a month, they'll spend eight hours of class time with the participants. Attendance is 80 percent, which is much better than they projected.

Ms. Giles said sometimes they need to overcome some resistance on the part of mothers.

"A lot of times the moms are offended. 'I'm a parent, I've been being a parent, so why are you asking me to go to workshops?' " Giles said.

She explains the purpose is to focus on co-parenting, not parenting.

"They've accepted this single parent mentality... but we're going to do what we can do to make sure there's two parents in the picture," he said.

In a classroom in north Minneapolis, Giles and Mr. Jackson sit down with six mothers over a lunchtime buffet. Giles goes over some of the bad habits parents can develop, such as bad-mouthing the other parent in front of the child.

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