A Place for Families to Tell It to a Judge

April 02, 1995|By SARA ENGRAM

There may have been a time when lawmakers could look at the price tag on a piece of legislation and yawn. If so, it's ancient history now. With citizens demanding effective government at an efficient cost, the fiscal note can make or break a bill.

For several years, the price tag has helped stall attempts in the General Assembly to create a family division within the state's circuit courts. Legislators would take one look at the inflated fiscal note, and everyone knew the legislation was doomed -- despite evidence that a family court would vastly improve the effectiveness of Maryland's judiciary in dealing with domestic matters.

So it's hardly surprising that the success so far of a House bill creating a family division within the circuit courts of the state's five largest jurisdictions depends in large part on a revised fiscal note.

The new note takes into account the fact that the support services needed in a family court -- such as social workers, legal experts or psychologists -- are expenses the state already incurs when these same cases are heard within the current judicial structure. The advantage of a family court is that it can speed along proceedings for which the cost mushrooms as they are left unresolved.

As legislators come to understand this connection -- efficiency and cost-effectiveness -- the appeal of a family court grows. Supporters are even daring to hope that this year the budding awareness of the cost of letting family matters get pushed aside in busy courtrooms may even propel the bill through a balky Senate committee and into law.

That would be a big victory for effective government -- and for the men, women and children whose lives are shaped by those cases.

Two recent studies of family law in Maryland have concluded that the state's judiciary needs a better system of handling family-related cases.

You will get no arguments on that point from anyone familiar with the legal hassles involved in asking a distracted or unsympathetic judge for protection from an abusive relative, or the legal obstacle course involved in placing a child for adoption, or the frustration of having to place a child in foster care because a relative cannot afford a lawyer to initiate custody proceedings in circuit court. Unlike juvenile courts, a family court would have the power to establish paternity and award custody -- speeding child-support orders and, in many cases, alleviating the need for foster-care placements.

Family matters already take up a significant amount of court time, comprising half of all cases filed in circuit courts. They also cover a wide range of situations, from the hearings required by law when a child is removed from his home or placed for adoption, to divorce proceedings, custody arrangements or child-support enforcement. They encompass domestic-violence cases, involuntary admission to state facilities and family medical issues, such as decisions on withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining medical procedures.

Since almost any of these cases can be littered with emotional land mines, it's understandable that many judges would rather avoid family law. The prospect of having to hear these cases full-time has helped to generate opposition to a family court among many members of the judiciary.

On the other hand, some judges relish these challenges and handle them with admirable sensitivity and skill. Maryland needs more judges with these talents, and one goal of family-court advocates is to prod judicial nominating commissions to remember that when they review candidates for the bench.

The revised estimates of the cost of a family court come down to roughly the cost of the new judges and support staff needed to run them. That's a bargain.

In other states, unified family courts, rather than the separate divisions proposed for Maryland, significantly recoup their cost because of their ability to increase the effectiveness of child-support collections or to avoid foster care or institutional placements through quicker intervention for children in need of assistance. There is plenty of room for those savings in Maryland, too.

In future years, we may find that cost savings alone will justify a family court. But there's a more important reason to pass this legislation. Courts exist to serve the people and the cause of justice. In Maryland today, too many families find themselves in the back of the line in court -- at the very time they most need the services of the state.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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