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When divorce, custody issues and domestic abuse collide

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Mike Haywood seemed to be in an ideal situation. Last month the former Miami (Ohio) football coached was named the University of Pittsburgh's head coach. Within weeks, parts of his life were played out in the national media and unraveled. On New Year's Eve afternoon, he was arrested and jailed in South Bend, Indiana, on suspicions of physically abusing a woman, the mother of the couple's young son. Haywood was granted a weekend hearing, charged with a felony and released. A trial is expected. For its part, the University of Pittsburgh acted quickly as its own judge and fired Haywood.

If the allegations of domestic violence against Coach Haywood are true and if the alleged actions are not part of a pattern, university officials missed a great opportunity: not to summarily fire Coach Haywood but to make him a public face and example for reducing incidents of domestic violence. Haywood could have been told he would keep his new job on the contingency he become publicly active in combating domestic abuse, sharing his mistakes (if they are true) and helping others in similar situations recognize warning signs and avoid potentially bad situations that might result in domestic violence before it occurs.

I know too well how one can make a mistake like this, having done something similar when my now ex-wife and I were going through our divorce. When I ran for governor of Minnesota last year and made family law reform one of my main social platforms, my story was plastered on the front pages of the newspapers and on TV long after I had first gone public with my story and admission of my mistake.

Instead of hiding behind my error, I faced it head-on publicly in hopes others could learn from my errors. I am launching an organization this week called Reform Family Law Now (www.rflnow.com) which among other things, will work to find ways to reduce incidents of domestic violence for people going through divorce and custody battles. I will always have my critics who argue there should be zero tolerance in matters of domestic violence, and that I have no right to talk about such issues. However, I really believe what I learned from my mistakes can have a small voice in helping people avoid making the same mistake I did.

No one who has not gone through a divorce or custody battle can predict how their emotions can run amok and result in stupid, unacceptable behavior. There are no guides or required classes on how to deal with these situations. Too often we only hear about domestic violence issues after incidents occur. Programs exist to help perpetrators of domestic violence avoid making repeated mistakes, but few, if any, offer suggestions to avoid making a mistake in the first place.

As I work to push for changes in family law in Minnesota and other states, focusing on the need for 50/50 shared custody to be the legal presumption--a starting point in custody discussions not a guaranteed outcome - I also want to make sure divorcing couples with contested custody issues are required to take a class within thirty days of filing for divorce. This class needs to focus on how to avoid conflict during a divorce and look at the harsh realities of the gamut of emotions one might experience, how to avoid potential confrontational situations between spouses and the repercussions of domestic violence.

We can never erase our past, but people like me can take the lead in helping others avoid making the same mistakes. It's too bad the University of Pittsburgh didn't operate with the same vision and fortitude. Together university officials and Coach Haywood could have done a lot of good.

Rob Hahn can be reached at rob@rflnow.com