Family court opens in city and 4 counties New division aims to make legal system more efficient, humane

October 26, 1998|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Caitlin Francke and Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.

A woman waits in a Towson courtroom for a judge to hear her custody case, sobbing, "I can't believe they want to take my son away." Another holds a dozing baby on her shoulder, moments after nearly losing her parental rights.

In Baltimore County and elsewhere, the dockets are full of cases with names such as "Mullaney vs. Mullaney" and "Forman vs. Forman" -- dead giveaways to the most acrimonious of lawsuits, involving divorce, custody and visitation rights.

This month, in an effort to better deal with family disputes -- nearly half of the state's civil docket -- Maryland began operating a new family court division, hearing cases in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Modeled after a family court division in New Jersey, the system replaces one in which family cases were distributed among all Circuit Court judges, who juggled them with criminal cases and other lawsuits.

The system is intended to more efficiently handle the heavy family caseload and to provide a more humane approach to litigating sensitive disputes.

That includes services for couples filing for divorce without a lawyer and court masters to settle custody and visitation issues early in the case, giving children a stable environment while their parents are getting a divorce.

"You as a stranger are immersing yourself into the private lives of people, and you're called upon to make very personal decisions about their children and property. And that's not easy to do," said Judge J. Norris Byrnes, who volunteered for a one-year stint as a family court judge.

The caseload alone can have serious practical implications for an already busy local court system, say family court supporters.

In Baltimore County, for example, 4,612 civil suits involved domestic disputes in the first nine months of this year -- nearly half of the 10,119 civil suits filed in that time. That doesn't include 2,400 cases involving juveniles.

The state's largest jurisdictions have been moving toward a specialized family court system for several years, arranging classes on child rearing for parents, and providing mediators and court masters trying to settle divorces and custody disputes.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell of the Court of Appeals has been an advocate of a family court since taking the state's top judicial position two years ago. Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City were among the first to try such strategies in pilot programs.

In Baltimore County this month, four judges have begun to hear domestic cases -- a daunting task for some because of the stress involved in choosing between warring spouses.

For Byrnes, the most stressful cases "are not when you have a good parent and a bad parent, but when you have two good parents and they both want primary custody," he said.

Judge Barbara Kerr Howe also volunteered and says her years as a lawyer in private practice handling divorce cases conditioned her for the job. But she acknowledged that a judge's "emotional stress level is heightened in family cases."

The family court division aims to minimize the toll that divorce takes on children by quickly settling emotional issues.

"If you can get custody, child support and visitation resolved early on, the rest of the case can fall in place as an uncontested divorce," said Circuit Judge Edward A. DeWaters Jr., Baltimore County's chief judge, who is one of the family division judges.

The cases that do not get settled early are inevitably the most contentious.

On a recent day, DeWaters heard testimony in a divorce case in which a wife was requesting alimony from her husband of four years. The soft-spoken, silver-haired husband was cross-examined as his wife, impeccably dressed and manicured, sat stiffly beside her lawyer, Harold I. Glaser.

In addition to inquiring about the husband's finances, Glaser noted that the wife was previously awarded two court orders banning her husband from their home because of abusive behavior.

At lunchtime, the judge called the lawyers to his chambers to see if the couple would compromise on their financial differences. In exchange, they could be divorced that day -- and avoid months of legal fees and uncertainty.

They agreed to divide $23,000 left from a house sale. The husband gave his wife part of his pension plan. The wife gave up her fight for alimony. The divorce was final that afternoon.

"Calmer heads prevailed," said DeWaters.

Pub Date: 10/26/98

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