Family justice more efficient, compassionate with `one-stop shopping'

May 02, 2007|By Karen J. Mathis

In traditional court systems, it is easy for a family in crisis to get lost in the shuffle.

Start with a troubled teen bound for juvenile court, where a judge focusing on a minor crime may entirely miss other family troubles. The parents' marriage might be cracking up, leading them to divorce court in front of another judge. In extreme situations - say, if the parents are drug addicts - the children might be sent to foster care, involving yet another judge.

Such a fragmented approach often undermines the best interests of families and of society.

That explains a growing movement - in which five Maryland jurisdictions are taking a leading role - to establish unified family courts that address all family justice legal needs in one courtroom.

These courts offer a more efficient and more compassionate model for children and families at risk.

One judge or management team, getting to know each family in depth, is much better equipped to find the best services and solutions.

Tomorrow and Friday, an important national summit in Baltimore will address ways to improve and expand unified family courts. This gathering comes at a time when reforms in the family justice system are receiving increased attention across the United States.

The goal of the conference - co-sponsored by the American Bar Association and the University of Baltimore's Center for Families, Children and the Courts - is to assist family justice system reform along three tracks: states that are just beginning or piloting unified family courts; states that have had them for a moderate amount of time; and states with longer experience.

The ABA first recognized the value of unified family courts in 1980, and has formally supported this "one-stop shopping" model since 1994. The movement for such courts gained force in the 1990s when the ABA, using funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, helped form five pilot courts.

In 1996, that effort led to the formation of a unified family court in Baltimore, and later to similar courts in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The effect has been significant: In fiscal year 2006, there were 127,974 family cases filed or reopened in Maryland.

These courts have streamlined the system for families. No longer must they face a series of separate and distinct legal issues with different judges, different courthouses and court calendars, and different examiners conducting redundant interviews of children.

Advocates also believe that positive outcomes in a family law setting could reduce the need for other, more punitive parts of the law - especially the criminal system.

The Baltimore conference will address many practical challenges that have been identified since 1998, when a landmark gathering in Philadelphia inspired the formation of new unified family courts.

Some states, such as California and Indiana, have established unified family courts statewide, while others have created various innovative models and programs within the context of existing family courts.

As a result of these changes, courts need clearer practical tools to guide them.

These include a definitive guide to best practices for unified family courts, guidance on cross-disciplinary solutions, and measures for assessing the effectiveness of unified family courts. Training of lawyers in the new family justice paradigm is also crucial.

Many Americans will need the protections of the family justice system at some point in their lives. It's important, for the future of many families and their children, that we all support a model that seeks holistic solutions, not fragmented reactions, from our courts.

Karen J. Mathis, a Denver commercial and estate lawyer, is president of the American Bar Association. Her e-mail is abapresident@abanet.org.

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