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Free program guides parents through legal system

It was a bad breakup.

Derrick Malaney's girlfriend left him abruptly, taking their 6-month old daughter with her.

"I wasn't allowed to see her," Malaney. "I had no way to contact her."

A year later, when his ex wanted him to pay child support, which requires establishing paternity, Malaney began to fight for visitation rights. The Wadena resident turned to the Fathers' Resource Program, a free service for low-income parents between 18 and 25 offered in the 11 counties served by Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership.

The program helped him properly complete court documents, "translating the legal mumbo jumbo," Malaney said. "Without it, I would have gotten nowhere. It's been exponentially easier."

A judge granted initially Malaney three-hour weekly supervised visits. After a hearing Friday, he's now allowed unsupervised visits.

Once mainly focused on Otter Tail County residents, since becoming a part of Mahube-Otwa last fall, the program has began serving more Wadena clients. In March, it fielded 27 calls from the county.

In addition to legal advocacy and assistance, Father's Resource Program offers parent education and one-on-one counseling.

"I think it's a positive thing," said Amie Gendron, supervisor of the Wadena County Human Services child support division. "It's definitely something that was needed."

Gendron refers clients to the program, although it is up to them to follow up.

Despite the name, it's open to both mothers and fathers.

Minnesota state law does include systematic procedures in that give mothers a legal advantage, said Mike Anderson, program counselor. "There's just more steps for an unmarried father to go through to enjoy the same rights as an unmarried mother ... We help them go to court to petition for their rights."

A second counselor, Lori Wheelright, joined the Father's Resource Program in March. She drops by Wadena every other Thursday. Her next visit is May 8.

While it doesn't replace legal advice, the program can help parents navigate the labyrinthine court process, Wheelright said. "Some of these court forms are really difficult to understand and if the (client) doesn't have them properly done, the court administrator won't file them."

Father's Resource Program also periodically hosts clinics where attorneys dispense free legal advice. The last Wadena County clinic was in January. Wheelright said there will be another one in a few months.

Malaney said getting the court to recognize his parental rights has been an uphill battle worth waging.

"I ended up in tears the first time I (had visitation with) her," he said. "It is truly a blessing."

Malaney's not done fighting. His goal is 50-50 custody.

"I want to be that much a part of her life," he said, "not just a weekend dad."