A day in the Jefferson Family Court. When Blood Runs Cold

By Cameron Lawrence in the July edition of Louisville Magazine

It doesn’t take long for the air in Courtroom 603 to feel heavy.

On a Thursday afternoon in Jefferson County’s Family Court, Chief Judge Stephen M. George presiding, a hearing is under way to try to resolve a dispute over the financial settlement in a 2000 divorce. “He left me with nothing,” a woman says of her ex-husband, seated with his attorney at the opposition table. Like many clients of Family Court, she is pro se, representing herself because she cannot afford an attorney. He hasn’t paid her son’s health insurance, she says, and she’s lost her house. She’s angry.

“I can’t undo the divorce,” George, 53, says in measured tones, “but I can enforce the terms of the settlement agreement.”

Despair unfolds as the ex-husband tells his story: Recently unemployed, living on Social Security, rent payments taking half of what he gets each month, he’s ready to declare bankruptcy. She says he has a new truck. He says it’s an old truck he painted. The woman shakes her head several times and interrupts the judge. A deputy sheriff in the courtroom approaches her and says something quietly.

With sensitivity and firmness, George guides the sides toward resolution. He looks at the woman. “What do you want?” he asks. She says she’ll take her ex’s 1995 Impala in payment of the debt. After some discussion, the agreement is finalized.

Before the establishment of a unified Family Court in Jefferson County in 1991, family dramas like that in Courtroom 603 competed with all of the other hearings and trials of state district and circuit court. Small civil cases like disputes over divorce agreements fell among complicated civil cases and big criminal matters like capital murder trials. Often the divorce and custody cases got bumped.

“Family cases were not given the attention they needed,” says Vicki Buba, a local attorney in family law and other civil litigation, who says family cases could go on for months. And one family’s multiple problems — domestic violence, divorce, child abuse — might be heard by several different judges. This led to what the Kentucky legislature called “fractionalization and disruption in judicial decision-making,” and a lot of frustration all around.

Plus, say those involved, family law has special needs because of the emotional intensity of families in crisis. “In the criminal case, you basically have bad people who are on their best behavior when they walk into the courtroom,” says George. “In a family-law case, you have good people that are on their worse behavior when they walk into the courtroom.”

Proponents of court reform, including members of the Kentucky Supreme Court, began pushing the concept of a unified family court in the 1980s. In 1988, the Kentucky legislature, calling the family “the framework upon which a prosperous and healthy society is built,” set up a task force to examine the need for and feasibility of the new type of court, something just a few states around the country had at the time.

Along with issues of mixed dockets and lack of coordination, the task force found several other problems with the court system, including burnout of some judges overseeing family cases; long and “unconscionable” waits on child-abuse and termination-of-parental-rights cases; and lack of training among some judges in mental health and behavioral sciences as they relate to families in need. The task force’s final report recommended the creation of a family court pilot project. In April of 1991, with state funding, the Jefferson County Family Court Pilot Project began hearing cases. Three district court and three circuit judges volunteered to sit on the experimental court and focus solely on families and children.

What’s evolved in the years since has become a national model. “The architects of this court were way out ahead of their time,” says George. “When I tell other judges (about the tools he has at his disposal), they just shake their heads.”

One of those architects is retired Family Court Chief Judge Richard FitzGerald, a noted family-law expert who now teaches and consults around the country. Called by some “the father of family law in Kentucky,” FitzGerald says there was much resistance to the effort to reform the court system in Kentucky. “We were not looking at tinkering with the system” he says, “but re-engineering it.”

FitzGerald, who served on the bench from 1975-2000 and was one of the first six judges to sit on the pilot project court, says strategic planning was a key component of the building process. First, he says, “we asked, ‘What are our key values?’” What emerged were things like maximizing the use of alternate dispute resolution and providing prompt responses to family violence, as well as the efficient use of judicial time and preservation of the rule of law.
FitzGerald calls family courts “trauma centers” and says they must be portals of entry to broad social-services networks. So, from the beginning, social-service providers were involved in the project. In addition, the court used focus groups and surveys to solicit feedback from both clients and attorneys. Judges observed other family courts around the country and received specialized training.

In 2002, Kentucky voters —75 percent of them — passed a constitutional amendment making Family Court a permanent part of the state’s judiciary. Today, as part of circuit court, its judges are elected specifically as Family Court judges and serve eight-year terms. There are now Family Courts in more than 40 of Kentucky’s 120 counties with hopes of expansion into others as they request funding for it from the legislature.

There are 10 divisions of Jefferson County Family Court, considering several types of cases: dissolution of marriage (divorces, annulments), spousal support, child custody, child visitation, child support, adoptions, dependency (abused or neglected children), domestic violence (including emergency protective orders), juvenile actions (habitual runaways, truancy, beyond-control youth), paternity and termination of parental rights.

Cases are assigned to divisions alphabetically by the mother’s (or, if it’s a same-sex couple, the petitioner’s) last name. The idea is “One Family, One Judge, One Court,” meaning parties stay with one judge for all of their legal issues.

Let’s say that there’s a family domestic-violence case in which the husband has threatened his wife. She takes out an emergency protective order, commonly called an EPO. Later she files for divorce. Then the Cabinet for Health and Family Services determines that the children in the family have been abused. In a traditional court system, two or three judges might oversee the different parts of this family’s crises. But here, says Chief Judge George, “I’ve got them all. So you can get to know the family, you can get the counseling services, et cetera.”

One key innovation in Jefferson County is the high level of integration of Family Court judges with service providers. Two representatives of the Jefferson County Public Schools are in the Jefferson County Judicial Center at all times to respond to a judge seeking more information about a family. Is the child attending school? What’s happening with the child’s grades? These may be clues to an at-risk home situation or an improving one.

Other innovations were part of the 1999 move to the new facility on Jefferson Street. The Center for Women and Families has a satellite office in the building to offer support to victims of domestic violence. There’s a separate, designated waiting area so victims do not share a hallway with perpetrators. The EPO office is just inside the main entrance next to a security system similar to that at airports, including the presence of several armed deputies.

On one floor, a cheerful playroom filled with stuffed animals and games offers supervised activities for children whose parents are in court. Toys also line the sides of several courtrooms. Fans of Jefferson County’s system also point to “truancy court,” a school-based diversion program focused on improving student attendance and getting young people in crisis the social services they need.
Division 3 (and former chief) Judge Patricia Walker FitzGerald (a sister-in-law of Richard FitzGerald) says family court excels at “helpful services (provided) in a nontraditional way,” replacing a conventional adversarial plaintiff vs. defendant court model with a safety net that tries to catch the pieces of shattered family lives.

Other programs include Families in Transition, a divorce education program that helps parents understand children’s needs during dissolution, and a new pilot program called PACT (Parents Achieving With Collaborative Teams), an eight-week series for high-conflict families. Divorced parents who repeatedly return to court over issues like visitation rights can be ordered into the program. Developed with experts at the University of Louisville, psychologists and marriage and family therapists intervene with hopes of improving parental relationships and resolving issues outside of court. Another unusual feature is the case manager attached to each judge who coordinates referrals to outside agencies and organizes case files to present a full picture of each family’s situation.

The biggest challenge facing Family Court, several observers say, is its overloaded docket. “It’s true in almost every family court,” says Buba. Each of the 10 divisions will open about 2,000 new cases this year. Those numbers do not include continuances, like divorce cases that come back over financial disputes or motions to modify custody. It’s not unusual for a judge to face 20 or even 30 cases in a morning.

The biggest increase in recent years? Dependency (mainly child abuse and neglect) cases, which are “skyrocketing,” says Jim Birmingham, the county’s Family Court administrator. “There are more Jefferson County kids living in poverty and that corresponds with the increase in our dependency filings.” Other roadblocks are rising drug use as well as the unrelenting fiscal pressures on social services, job training, affordable housing — things that can help straighten a crooked path.

“You have overworked social workers, overworked court workers,” says local family law attorney Mitch Charney. “The dependency docket – there are months it is just out of control.”

It’s 8:30 on a Wednesday morning in late May. Just outside Judge Eleanore Garber’s courtroom, it’s crowded and hot in a tiny conference room as a dozen people run in and out. There are guardians ad litem, attorneys appointed by the court to represent children’s interests; court-appointed parents’ attorneys; county prosecutors; state social workers from Child Protective Services; and private attorneys. The parties negotiate agreements they will take into the 17 hearings Judge Garber will hear this morning. There’s an air of chaotic organization.

Bits of conversation rise above the din: “Mom got evicted.” “Dad isn’t meeting the conditions.” “There was domestic violence.” “They had no place to go.”

“It can be depressing,” says Jefferson County Prosecutor Geri Anderson. “We’ve developed thick skins.”

An hour later, temporary-removal hearings commence. The first case checks in with grandparents who have temporary custody of their daughter’s children after there was domestic violence in the home. There are two fathers. One is in jail. The other, who just recently came into his children’s lives, wants overnight visitation. The grandparents object.

Garber orders expanded daytime visits only and continues the case for 60 days.

The next hearing starts a minute later. A woman too young to look as worried and sullen as she does sits in front of Garber. At 18, she has an emergency protective order out against a boyfriend. She’s already lost a three-year-old daughter to temporary foster care and the state has petitioned to remove her six-month-old daughter from the home. The woman hasn’t made any of the changes the court ordered a few months ago.

“I think that (the mother — all names on dependency dockets are kept confidential) needs to know that the court is serious,” says Garber. She orders the child removed from the home and placed in temporary foster care.

The young woman is upset. She stands and turns to walk out. Garber orders her back. The mother pushes out the back door and is brought back a minute later by the deputy. An older woman in the back of the court starts crying.

The young mother walks out again. “I don’t want to be here!” she says. The deputy gets her and escorts her back.

“You have a chance to turn things around,” Garber says to her firmly. “(No one here) wants you not to parent your daughter. I do find you in contempt of court for walking out twice in 10 minutes.” She orders one hour’s custody in an adjoining detention room.

“We’ve got to move along a little more,” Garber says. It’s 10 a.m.

It makes a huge difference, says Dawn Lee, executive director of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), which helps guide children through the court process, to have judges and support workers committed to family issues. “To sit in family court, you can begin to get overwhelmed,” she says. “The hopelessness. For these men and women to come back every day and not succumb to that,” she says, is inspirational.

What plagues some court systems — inefficient and even antagonistic relationships among the various players — does not seem to be a significant issue here. Judges work closely with the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which may investigate a claim of child abuse reported to the Child Abuse Hotline, for example, and with the county attorney’s office, which may prosecute abusive parents.

Programs that intervene in dysfunctional cycles can help resolve some situations outside of court and lessen the number of cases on the docket. Mediation might be ordered in divorce disputes, for example. And in Division 5, one afternoon a week, Judge Eleanore Garber oversees Family Drug Court, which she helped start four years ago. Garber says statistics show that drug use is implicated in the abuse and neglect of the children she sees in court in 70 percent of families. “It’s mainly crack cocaine, alcohol and meth,” she says.

Family Drug Court is a volunteer and “rigorous” system designed to get people quick treatment and increase the chances of children staying or returning to their biological parent(s). There are strict requirements: court attendance, drug tests and monitoring — rules needed for lives lived without the boundaries that functional, stable homes can provide. The program started with two clients in 2002. Last year, it worked with 75 families.

In Garber’s court, the next hearing on the Wednesday morning dependency docket is a continuation of an earlier case. A 30-ish woman sits with counsel in front of the judge. She’s smiling. She’s had her children back for a while now and has been under court review. Garber looks up from reading the file.

“How are things going, ma’am?” she asks.

“Wonderful,” the mother says. She looks happy. “The kids are wonderful.”

“That’s great,” replies Garber. “We don’t hear the word ‘wonderful’ in here very often. Good work. Good luck to you, ma’am.” She orders the case closed.

The next hearing begins. It’s a review of a foster placement. A broadly smiling 61-year-old man sits with a young boy in his lap and two other children nearby. He and his wife are first-time foster parents. Garber guides a conversation about how things are going. How are the kids doing in school? How is their health?

The man answers her questions. “We love them like our own,” he says. The children look happy and bright-eyed.

Garber asks if there’s a possibility of a permanent adoption. The foster father says he’s concerned about his age and wants to do what’s best for the kids. Garber says that some people at 61 are like others at 51.

She smiles, congratulates the man and excuses the party. Then she reaches for the next file in a long and patient morning in Family Court.


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