How judges think about children’s best interests

Knowing the best interest factors is only part of the story. Minnesota law also tells judges how they are supposed to apply the factors.

Judges must, for example, “make detailed findings on each of the factors.” To help judges make those findings, parents need to come to court with reliable evidence connected to each factor.

But it can’t be just any evidence — it must be evidence about the child, and about the child’s relationship with his or her parents. The statute is clear and direct on this point: “The court shall not consider conduct of a party that does not affect the party’s relationship with the child.” This is one way most TV shows get it wrong. Digging up dirt on the other parent won’t help your case — the judges don’t want to hear about, and in Minnesota they aren’t allowed to hear about it unless there is clear connection to the child.

Minnesota law also tells the courts to start from certain assumptions. They are directed to “consider that it is in the best interests of the child to promote the child’s healthy growth and development through safe, stable, nurturing relationships between a child and both parents,” and they should “consider both parents as having the capacity to develop and sustain nurturing relationships with their children unless there are substantial reasons to believe otherwise.”

This rule brings us back to where we started — with the recognition that one size does not fit all. Judges are required by law to “recognize that there are many ways that parents can respond to a child’s needs with sensitivity and provide the child love and guidance, and these may differ between parents and among cultures.”

That statute only applies to judges, not to parents. But if parents go into their cases recognizing that their way isn’t the only way, and that the other parent might love and guide their child in way that is different but just as good, then it will make things so much better for them, for the judge, for the lawyers, and, most importantly, for their children.

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