N.D. divorce bill debated

BISMARCK—North Dakotans wanting to get a divorce would need to wait one year and go through mandatory marriage counseling if a proposed law is approved.

Senate Bill 2367 would affect married couples with children. Marriages with substantiated allegations of domestic abuse would be exempt.

Within the one-year waiting period, couples would need to participate jointly or separately in at least 10 one-hour marriage counseling sessions. The counseling could be provided by a paid or volunteer counselor, clergy member or any state-certified or licensed marriage mediator.

At least four counseling sessions would need to focus on post-marital financial planning.

A final divorce decree would not be granted or a final order entered until each party submits to the court certification of completion of the marital counseling.

Bill supporters emphasized the negative impact that divorce has on children, citing research that these children are more apt to live in poverty, do worse in school and are involved more frequently in crime and drug abuse.

However, the State Bar Association of North Dakota said the bill would mean additional expense for clients, delay their getting on with their lives and create additional opportunity for financial mischief and physical violence.

Bill sponsor Sen. Oley Larsen, R-Minot, said the goal is to help reach agreements acceptable to both parties, to promote the children’s developmental needs and to prepare parents for future co-parenting roles if they do divorce.

“If we can save marriages or if we can have discussion if the marriage is not going to last to have a smooth transition, I think that will help the kids, and that’s what this bill is about,” Larsen said.

From 2005 to 2009, there were 9,574 divorces in North Dakota, said Tom Freier, executive director of the North Dakota Family Alliance. Of these, 4,543 divorces involved 7,985 minor children, he said.

Sen. Stan Lyson, R-Williston, said bill supporters didn’t provide information about the effect on children who live with parents who stay married even though they dislike each other.

Freier said studies show the most important thing is an intact home and family.

“The damage of a family breakup is greater than mom and dad not getting along all the time,” he said.

Sen. Curtis Olafson, R-Edinburg, asked Freier how he could argue to keep people in a marriage for another year when there’s been infidelity.

“There is no marriage where the two individuals cannot make a decision that, no matter what the cause of their wanting to have a divorce, that it cannot be saved,” Freier said.

Sen. Dave Nething, R-Jamestown, asked about the “substantiated allegations of domestic abuse” exception and said it was subjective. Janelle Moos of the North Dakota Council on Abused Women’s Services also wanted more clarification on what the wording meant.

“I think we have to be very cognizant of victims that either do or don’t come forward publicly,” she said.

She expressed concern about required marriage counseling for victims and perpetrators.

The Rev. Paul Schauer of Wilton, N.D., also spoke against the bill. Schauer, who is divorced, said he was “somewhat offended” about the comments made about divorced people and their children.

As a pastor who has counseled couples going through divorce, he said he was “deeply opposed” to forced counseling.

“Counseling works best when a person recognizes that they need help and that they freely choose to seek help,” he said. “If you force someone to see a counselor, there’s very little hope for growth.”

If counseling was required, Schauer said the number of couples divorcing would overwhelm his time. He also said the bill allows couples to do the counseling together or apart.

“If I don’t meet with them as a couple, it’s not going to work,” he said.

He also questioned what would determine if someone has successfully completed counseling, saying someone could just sit there and refuse to talk during the sessions.

“If we’re realistic about this, if a partner has reached the point of filing for divorce, no amount of marital counseling will fix that,” Schauer said. “Counseling is not a magical treatment … if they’ve filed for divorce, the plane has already left the runway.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee did not take immediate action on the bill.

Chief justice delivers N.D. State of the Judiciary

BISMARCK—Veterans courts, issues affecting the elderly and space issues in the state’s courts were among the topics highlighted in this year’s State of the Judiciary.

North Dakota Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle presented the address to state lawmakers Wednesday.

The speech is an opportunity to discuss the goals and operations of the judicial branch, VandeWalle said. Here are some key points from the speech:

Racial and ethnic bias

The Task Force to Study Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts has hosted community discussions throughout the state. The group has also researched prison population, juvenile placement and minority representation on juries, in the legal profession and within the court’s workforce, he said.

The task force continues to investigate and provide the court with recommendations for improvement.

“I repeat what I have said before: the strength of the court relies on the respect of the people,” VandeWalle said. “Our state demographics are changing, and now is the time to be certain that every resident of North Dakota is assured of access to a fair and impartial justice system.”

Divorce

In 2007, the judicial branch began a mediation pilot program to address the needs of families going through divorce, VandeWalle said. The program has exceeded expectations, with 83 percent of participants reporting they were satisfied with it, he said.

The program is now in all of the state’s counties and allows rural, low-income, minority and self-represented people access to alternative dispute resolution otherwise not readily available, he said.

During the next few years, the intention is to study extending mediation services to contested probate cases and family law cases on appeal, VandeWalle said.

The Parenting Coordinator Program helps parties after the divorce and is designed for high-conflict cases where children are caught between parents.

The judge can order the parties to pay for a parenting coordinator, who has the authority to handle parenting time disputes immediately, he said.

This program has been slow to get off the ground due to the lack of familiarity with the program and its cost, VandeWalle said. The judicial branch continues to work with the program and expects to see its usage increase in the future, he said.

Veterans

There is growing interest in veterans courts due to the number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with problems like post-traumatic stress syndrome, VandeWalle said.

The state’s Court Services Administration Committee is looking into the possibility of establishing a pilot veterans court if there is a need and if suitable treatment alternatives are available, he said.

Elderly issues

VandeWalle again pushed for a resolution to study elder issues.

“I am convinced that this is an area that North Dakota can no longer wait to confront,” he said.

Within 30 years, more than 30 percent of the population in many of the state’s rural counties is expected to be over age 65, he said.

A lack of public guardians, limited funding for nonprofit guardianship services and the unsupervised use of representative payees and power of attorney agreements all contribute to conditions that make it easier to take advantage of the elderly, he said.

“Elder abuse, neglect and exploitation involve complex civil and criminal issues that require a sustained and committed response by the courts and society,” VandeWalle said.

Space issues

The state Supreme Court is not the only court in the state where space is an issue, VandeWalle said. Courts in some of the state’s largest cities are squeezed for space, and some areas have aging courthouses in need of substantial repair or that may be reaching the end of their useful life, he said.

Since 1995, most court fees are required to be deposited in the state treasury rather than county treasuries. VandeWalle proposed the state pay the counties rent for court space or provide counties with one-time payments for building or substantially expanding court space.

“I am not suggesting a new courthouse in every county,” he said. “Rather, the solution must be equitable for all counties while still ensuring that the space provided is adequate in need, size and functionality.”

The final major speech of the week, the Tribal-State relationship message, is planned for Thursday afternoon.

N.D. holiday tourism events

BISMARCK — The state Tourism Division suggests these family-friendly events this holiday season.

15th annual Medora’s Old Fashioned Cowboy Christmas

Medora

Dec. 3-4

Cowboys and cowgirls of all ages come together for the 15th annual event. Activities include wreath ceremony, musical entertainment, eats on the steet, cowboy poetry and fireworks display. http://www.medorandchamber.com/ 701-623-4910.

Frontier Winter at Fort Union

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, near Williston

Dec. 4-5

Journey to Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site for a hands-on look at frontier life. The Fort Union Muzzle Loaders will occupy Fort Union, acting the role of American Fur Company employees during the winter. www.nps.gov/fous/index.htm.   701-572-9083

Custer Christmas

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, Mandan

Dec. 11-12

Experience an 1875 Christmas with General Custer on the Dakota prairie. Sing carols and make cookies and decorations. www.fortlincoln.com 701-667-6380.

Christmas at the Confluence

Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center, Williston

Dec. 12

Enjoy a wonderful winter concert, make your own hand-crafted ornaments and enjoy special treats during this special Christmas at the Confluence. 701-572-9034

Holiday Train

Hankinson, Enderlin, Harvey, Minot, Carpio

Dec. 15-16

Lighted Canadian Pacific Train rolls through North Dakota with stops in several North Dakota towns. On-board musical entertainment at each stop.  http://www.ndtourism.com/whatdo/events/festival-details.asp?AID=4230

Holly Jolly Zoo Days

Red River Zoo, Fargo

Dec. 18-19

Take the family to the zoo this holiday season and enjoy a variety of holiday activities, visit with Santa Claus, ride the carousel then finish up with hot cocoa and cookies. http://www.redriverzoo.org/ 701-277-9240

Papa’s Polar Patch

Papa’s Pumpkin Patch, Bismarck

Dec. 26-Jan. 3

Visitors of all ages will discover snow-covered bale mazes and caves, old-fashioned sled rides, horse-drawn sleigh rides, Slide Mountain, the Polar Pond ice-skating rink, Papas’ville and more. http://www.papaspolarpatch.com/. 701-224-1253.

These are just some of the North Dakota activities and events in December. For more information, go to NDtourism.com

Autism task force report shows lacking services in N.D.

BISMARCK—Autism spectrum disorder services in North Dakota are inadequate, information is scarce, and training is needed for parents and professionals, a recent survey found.

Results from the state Autism Spectrum Disorder Task Force’s spring survey were included in an 11-page report presented Tuesday to state lawmakers on the interim Education Committee.

Survey responses said North Dakota needs more qualified individuals to deliver evidence-based services, and people need to know how to access autism spectrum disorder services.

The survey responses are a snapshot, not an official sample, said JoAnne Hoesel, the task force chairwoman.

“But it did give us some insight into what people are thinking about this situation in the state,” she said.

Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan, called the report “enlightening.”

“When you look at the Legislature’s history in dealing with autism, we have been responsive,” she said. “Having this study and having this report, we’ll take this seriously. We will take a real strong look at what we need to do during the legislative session.”

The 2009 Legislature created the task force to study autism spectrum disorder and develop a state plan. The task force includes state officials, a pediatrician, a behavior analyst, parents and educators.

“These are individuals that work with individuals that have conditions on the spectrum,” said Hoesel of the Department of Human Services. “So I believe that it (the survey) confirmed what they see on, if not a daily basis, what they see and hear from individuals that they work with.”

The task force report pointed to a lack of accurate and localized information for parents, lack of standardized training for screening and long waits for diagnostic consultations.

Other barriers listed include inconsistent health insurance coverage for diagnosis and treatment, as well as limited service options for those who don’t qualify for developmental disabilities Medicaid waivers or the autism spectrum disorder waiver.

The report also said respite care is minimally available and insufficient to meet needs, and employment supports are lacking for individuals with the disorder.

Top survey suggestions and recommendations relate to training for educators, a resource list and school mistrust issues.

Popular responses to “What would you like included in our state plan for addressing autism?” were increase funding in education for these needs, train all teachers – not just special education teachers, and early identification and earlier intervention.

Hoesel said the role of the task force is to present the information and its recommendations to lawmakers for them to decide how to move forward.

Rep. Phil Mueller, D-Valley City, said he expects more specifics will be available about what the state needs to do and how much it will cost by the time the Legislature begins in January.

“The problem here is that most families cannot deal with these issues with their own resources. There has to be help,” he said. “I do think we need to do what we can do to assist the parents of these young folks with these afflictions to get the proper treatment for them.”

Hoesel said the task force will continue to meet to review and update the state plan.

“Parents have been dealing with this situation a long time. I want them to know that there’s formalized attention being paid to this,” Hoesel said.

“The task force takes their job seriously, and we’ll continue to monitor and inform the policymakers on what we hear from them and also what we hear from service providers in the state.”

A copy of the task force report can be found here: autism task force report.