A man abuses his daughter, and somehow the authorities find out. The social services department in his county soon files a dependency-and-neglect petition, and the man's in the system. Then his wife accuses him of abuse, so a domestic-violence case is filed. The wife subsequently files for divorce, which means another series of hearings. It's not long before the daughter expresses her rage by assaulting someone else. Now a juvenile-delinquency case is pending.
In most jurisdictions in Colorado, each of these cases would be heard in a different division by a different judge. And it's unlikely that one judge would know what the others were doing -- if he even realized that family members were named in several cases.
Recognizing that families entering the court system are often involved in multiple cases with no one overseeing them all, Adams County officials considered conducting an experiment. What if they created a family court where people could have all of their cases heard by one judge, in one division? Would better decisions be made if that judge was aware of all of the family's problems? Would cases be resolved more quickly? To find out, two years ago Adams County adopted a pilot program modeled after a family court in Oregon. Judges took some of the dependency-and-neglect cases that had recently come in and searched court records for other active cases involving family members; those cases were slated for family court. For comparison purposes, the judges chose another set of families to track through the traditional court system.
The results were promising. An evaluation of the Adams County Family Court Pilot Program, completed last year, showed that children in dependency-and-neglect cases in family court were placed in permanent homes faster than those who had gone through the traditional court system. The report included a survey of attorneys who'd handled cases in the pilot and control groups; 77 percent of the family-court lawyers said the judge had helped to reduce the number of hearings in their cases, compared with 26 percent of the control-group attorneys. When asked whether the court improved communication between the family, the court and social services, 68 percent of the family-court attorneys said yes, while only 46 percent of the control-group attorneys answered in the affirmative. And 81 percent of the family-court attorneys agreed that their cases had moved through the system quickly, compared with just 44 percent of the control-group attorneys.
According to Jeff Koy, a guardian ad litem who has worked on many cases in Adams County since the family court was introduced, having all of the cases heard in one place allows him to make better decisions for the children he represents. "In one case, one of the parents was facing up to six years in jail, but the sentencing didn't come until a year after the dependency-and-neglect petition was filed," he says. "If we'd sat around for a year and waited for that sentencing and didn't plan for an alternative for the kids, it would have been really unfortunate."
Since Koy attended all of the father's hearings, he knew what the man had pleaded to and what sentence the district attorney was seeking. And since it was obvious that the father was facing considerable jail time, he adds, "That parent wasn't really an option, and we could focus on alternative placements for the children."
The program worked so well in Adams County that it was moved from pilot status to standard practice; although only thirty families currently have their cases heard in family court, more will be added in the years to come, according to Adams County court facilitator Bill DeLisio. "Jurisdictions across the country are piloting family courts," DeLisio says. "It's the cutting edge right now."
So far, 36 states and Washington, D.C., have introduced some kind of family court. Some states, including Delaware, Florida, Hawaii and New Jersey, have implemented family courts statewide; others, such as California, Georgia and Illinois, are still testing the concept.
Although Adams County's family court is the only one in Colorado, other counties are experimenting with different types of specialized courts. Weld County, for example, now has a domestic-violence court where judges hear those cases as well as all restraining-order cases. "We don't have one person arrested for domestic violence and bonding out and then getting arrested three days later for violating a restraining order and the judge not knowing that," says Judge Carol Haller. "That was happening regularly, but we don't have that problem anymore."
The Commission on Families in the Colorado Courts took note of such innovative programs, and several of its recommendations call for adopting the principles of family court. Although commission members aren't proposing that family courts be instituted throughout the state, they are suggesting that all jurisdictions move to a centralized case-management system in which a team of judicial officers and court facilitators stick with a family for the duration of a case and, when possible, hear all of the cases involving that family.
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"The central case-management team should be phased in over an 18-month period and should start with family cases that have a dependency-and-neglect component... by the nineteenth month, the central case management team should be sufficiently organized to accept all family cases," the commission's report states. "The central case management team must be knowledgeable of the history of legal proceedings and all open cases involving all members of the same family in order to offer a uniform and rational approach to resolving family issues."
Creating teams to manage family cases will take money, because additional court facilitators will have to be hired, but Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis says that some of those changes can be made by reallocating resources that the courts already have.
The commission took care not to suggest that every county handle family cases the same way. "They can choose to replicate Adams County's model if they want, but it won't be a one-size-fits-all approach," Kourlis explains. "Each jurisdiction will have the latitude to decide what works best for them. What may work in Sterling won't necessarily work in downtown Denver. For example, in a rural district with one guardian ad litem, you can't schedule all of the family's hearings in one court on one day and then have that person appear in another county on the same day. There are logistical issues that will have to be worked out.
"I don't anticipate that centralized case management will be in place in every judicial district within one year, but I anticipate it being in place in five years," she continues. "I don't envision changing things 180 degrees, but 20 degrees at first and then more later. I view this as an evolution of the court system rather than an overhaul."