Courts get approval to create family divisions

January 14, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The state's highest court approved yesterday judicial rules to formalize the creation of family divisions for Maryland's five largest circuit courts.

The family divisions will consolidate domestic matters such as divorce, custody, paternity, child support, name changes, involuntary commitments to state hospitals and the withholding of medical care.

Many courts in the state have moved toward creating family divisions to better manage swollen caseloads. Family issues account for at least half of all civil case filings in the state.

The affected courts are in Baltimore -- which in 1996 started a family unit -- and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. An hour after the Court of Appeals adopted the rule, the Anne Arundel court's family services coordinator was explaining to lawyers procedures instituted Jan. by the county's Administrative Judge Clayton R. Greene in anticipation of the new rules.

Proponents hailed the top court's changes.

"We are expecting our judges to be social workers," said Barbara Babb, a University of Baltimore School of Law professor instrumental in pushing for a consolidated family division to coordinate the many social and legal services some families require. "There is underlying behavior that needs to be dealt with."

Judy Moran, family division case coordinator for Baltimore, said that by linking litigants to support services such as counseling and mediation, her office has helped many cases move more quickly.

Yesterday's action authorizes a six-hour seminar for divorcing parents and enables the court to help families obtain services.

Much of the change is conditioned upon a $5.8 million funding request, which proponents acknowledged will be a hard sell in the state Senate. Legislation to create family divisions has failed in the General Assembly since 1990 and has not reached the Senate floor amid squabbling by judges over assignments and among senators over cost and value.

But the rule removed a point of contention among the judiciary by letting administrative judges decide how to organize their family divisions.

Pub Date: 1/14/98

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