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Should Washington create special family courts?

Community leaders and panelists discuss amending the state Constitution to establish family courts statewide.
An expert panel argues for specialized family courts in Washington.

An expert panel argues for specialized family courts in Washington. Julianne Peterson, for Amara

Our legal system ensures that bankruptcy, maritime and copyright cases are heard by presiding judges who have special legal expertise in those respective domains. Why not do the same for cases involving family law?

That was the question before a panel of community leaders in downtown Seattle Monday morning. Panelists included Joel Benoliel, emeritus officer at Costco and former vice chair of the Washington Council for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect; State Supreme Court justice (ret.) Bobbe Bridge, founding president and CEO of the Center for Children & Youth Justice; Representative Ruth Kagi (D-32nd District), chair of the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee; and Jennifer Strus, DSHS Children's Administration assistant secretary.

Separate, specialty courts or divisions would mean that families would appear before one judge throughout the sometimes extended process of resolving their entire case. Alternatively, a single case management team would coordinate the process for each family.

Courtroom proceedings involving children and families are unlike those that play out in traditional adversarial settings. The laws are straightforward, but judges hearing family and child cases need “a huge amount of discretion and a high tolerance for ambiguity," said Justice Bridge. “A particular issue one morning is probably only a small piece of what’s going on in the life of a family. You need to go beyond the adversarial system and ask more questions of the kind we don’t, or can’t, in an ordinary courtroom.”

Moreover, in such proceedings a judge needs a solid understanding of best practices in this area of the law, an awareness of legal trends and a knowledge of what systems and services are available in the community for a particular situation. A judge’s “decisions," said Justice Bridge, "benefit from … experience that develops only over time, through commitment to these types of cases.”

As CA's acting secretary, Jennifer Strus is not in a position to advocate or oppose the creation of independent family courts. However, she said, any change "that moves cases through more quickly is good,” especially if it avoids frustrating families or failing them when a different judge is suddenly presiding. “You have a case file this thick and a new judge with no knowledge of the case making a decision for that family,” said Strus. Can that judge really understand what is “in the best interests of the child”? (The operative phrase in these cases.)

One family was in court three years running “and never saw the same judge twice,” recalled Rep. Ruth Kagi. Still, she added, to forestall this kind of situation by passing a Constitutional amendment that reconfigures the court system would require a two-thirds majority vote. That, said Kagi, is “a very high hurdle.” Statutory change, she said, has a better chance of drawing support.

Five years ago Kagi sponsored a bill to provide $700,000 in grants that courts could apply for and use to improve their juvenile divisions. Among other requirements, judges would commit to rotations lasting two years or more and receive training in areas such as brain development, attachment issues, and child abuse. Setting minimum standards like these for judges in child welfare cases is essential for developing a stable, well-trained bench, Kagi said. “Over 40 percent of court cases are family law, but there certainly aren’t 40 percent of judges with backgrounds in family law.” Thirteen courts in Washington state chose to participate in the grant program, and statistics showed significant improvement in them, according to Kagi.

Bridge noted a North Carolina study indicating the benefits of separate family courts. Longitudinal research at Duke Law School showed that when foster children's cases are heard in a specialized family court, they fare better. Foster kids in North Carolina counties with family courts spent less time in foster care, were more often reunited with parents and did better in school than their counterparts in counties without such courts.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Dec 13, 8:25 a.m. Inappropriate

I worked briefly for the Deschutes County Courts in Bend, Oregon. We had a 'family court' process. It was the only functional component of that judicial system--if you define functionality as improving lives and bettering community. Three aspects of the system were fundamental to its success:

1. The same judge heard cases involving any family member from a participating family. This familiarity enriched the context surrounding the 'crime' and allowed the judge to mete out sentences that had more chance at effective rehabilitation--essentially obviating the motivation for that same crime in the future.

2. Representatives from the various schools, housing, health and welfare programs with whom the defendant was involved would meet to discuss the defendant's life--how it manifested now and through an arc of time. In a coordinated and collaborative fashion, they would reduce the obstacles facing the defendant that constrained him as he tried to rebuild his life while paying the debt imposed by the courts.

3. The family court advocate--a staffed position in the courts--sat in on every case involving family court members. No defendant fell through the cracks. Every defendant was known: judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys could consult with the family court advocate in a manner that went against the grain of the conventional adversarial process of our judicial system and with the grain of repair and reconstruction that are fundamental to the messy task of building harmonious community.

Every task of judgment should be so well informed.

Posted Fri, Dec 13, 4:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Email from Prof. Eric J. Bruns, UW School of Medicine, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences:

Judy,

Thank you for your piece in today’s Crosscut on the panel of leaders held Monday on specialty family courts. At the end of the article, you referenced research from North Carolina that found benefits to youth in foster care and their families when they participated in specialty family courts.
 
I wanted to ensure that you were aware of the recent completion and publication of an outcomes study focusing on a specialty family court here in Washington State.
 
Our team evaluated King County’s Family Treatment Court (KCFTC) using a rigorous quasi-experimental design. This court that is specific to families whose children are involved in child welfare due to parental substance abuse (which characterizes nearly half of all families involved in the system). The court featured many of the hallmarks of specialty family courts you described in the Crosscut article.
 
Our study found that KCFTC parents had significantly more review and motion hearings, were significantly more likely to enter treatment, entered treatment faster, received more treatment, and were more likely to successfully complete treatment.
 
KCFTC children spent significantly less time placed out of home, ended child welfare system involvement sooner, were more likely to be permanently placed and discharged from child welfare, and were more likely to return to parental care.
 
We concluded that the study adds to the evidence that FTCs promote positive treatment and child welfare outcomes without deepening participants’ involvement in justice systems. http://depts.washington.edu/pbhjp/downloads/projectsD/eval_king_countyD/Outcome_evaluation_final_report_2-22-2011.pdf
 
Thank you for your continuing dedication to issues facing children and youth with complex needs and their families in your reporting.

Eric J. Bruns, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
University of Washington School of Medicine
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

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