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The Family Department and the Delivery of Services

The Family Department and the Delivery of Services

The family department, like any other court, adjudicates only the most difficult cases within its jurisdiction: cases with complex facts, unsettled law, high stakes, or high emotion. The screening process of negotiation and settlement filters most cases. The judge is faced only with the most difficult of a difficult group of cases. This section develops what can and cannot reasonably be expected as goals for a family department, and offers suggestions regarding the structure for the delivery of services that will best meet those goals.

A. Family Department as a Court of Law

Much of the family court literature speaks of "solving the problems of dysfunctional families," of "addressing" in "holistic fashion" the "total problems of the family." Such phrases are not the hallmark of traditional courts of law. In the civil and criminal arena, courts do not "address;" they adjudicate or enter judgment. The court has before it not a "problem," but rather a case or controversy. The precision with which the family department identifies its purpose, its power, and its process is important. "Departure from established principles of due process have frequently resulted not in enlightened procedure, but in arbitrariness."(1)

The family department is limited by constitutions, statutes, rules, and case law designed, in part, to protect individuals from the power of the court. Before it can act, the family department needs a legal basis on which to act. The court needs subject matter jurisdiction over a justiciable controversy and personal jurisdiction over the parties necessary to the action. The action must be filed in or moved to the county of proper venue. There must be notice to the parties by the statement of a recognized cause of action. The parties must be afforded an opportunity to be heard. The party with the burden of proof must establish the elements of the cause of action by meeting the applicable standard of proof. Parties must have the right to appeal a decision of the trial court.

The family department is first and last a court of law, but once the legal basis for court action is established, the authority to apply principles of equity in the disposition of the case is well recognized. Equity has as hallowed a tradition in Anglo-American jurisprudence as the law. The legitimate application of recognized principles of equity need not be at the expense of the protection afforded parties by due process. The rule of law need not interfere with the application of an equitable remedy.(2)

B. Dissolution of the Marriage

It is not widely appreciated that Utah currently has a family court.(3)

Section 30-3-11.1 et. seq. establishes a county option family division within the district court. The family court envisioned by this set of statutes is not a court of distinct jurisdiction. It is a forum for the reconciliation of the parties. The county option family court was established only in Salt Lake County from July 1, 1969 to December 31, 1973.(4)

Using the considerable authority of the court for the reconciliation of the parties to a divorce is without merit. The family department should recognize and support the desirability of strengthening and preserving functional family ties. The family is the most important unit for the moral, emotional, and social development of children. But the court is not the proper forum for the reconciliation of the parties in a vain attempt to preserve the family.

By the time a party has filed for divorce, the spouses have generally tried to resolve their problems through the use of counselors and therapists. After a divorce action is filed, the party is no longer asking whether a divorce is appropriate. Rather, the party seeks intervention by the court for the purpose of establishing the legal rights and obligations of the marriage partners and of any children to the marriage.

The purpose of the family department is the dissolution of the marriage and the determination and enforcement of the legal rights and obligations of the parties and the children of the parties. The objective of the family department is to dissolve the marriage while educating the parties of their continued responsibility to provide the financial, emotional, and social support necessary to the development of their children into productive members of the next generation.

The obligation to dissolve the marriage does not preclude the use of education programs to teach the parties of their rights and responsibilities and to teach the parties of the impact of their divorce upon their children and how to minimize the adverse impact. The obligation of the court does not preclude the use of mediation programs and other alternative dispute resolution techniques to empower and encourage the parties to settle current and future disputes on their own initiative without -- or with minimal -- court intervention. These programs are intended not to reconcile the parties but to ease the transition of the parties and their children through the divorce, and, if possible, to avoid or to solve future disputes.

C. Delivery and Coordination of Services

1. Introduction

The family court has been described as a social service delivery system.(5)

A Utah family department should possess a slight yet significant difference. Rather than the court as, necessarily, the provider of social services, the court should be the overseer and coordinator of those services.

The need for coordination -- close coordination -- was well stated in a recent report of the American Bar Association:

Families and children are also hurt by the bewildering array of courts and social service agencies that are typically involved in complex cases. Services are fragmented: the same family may have different case workers from a child welfare agency, a school, a community health center, a juvenile delinquency program and a substance abuse treatment program. In virtually all cases, in virtually all communities, the myriad courts and social service agencies do not communicate adequately with each other, resulting in unnecessary delay, duplication and contradictory rulings and recommendations. Moreover, the same family may have to appear in a family court, a juvenile court and a probate court, all of which are located in different parts of the community. This system wastes money and does not serve children well.(6)

The responsibility of the family department in these programs can be divided into two categories: advocacy for services and delivery of services.

2. Advocacy for Services

The only institution that can reasonably exercise leadership on behalf of the society and the children is the juvenile court. The reason is simply that no other institution can claim to have an equally broad view of all the interests at stake, to have as wide a range of action, or to be able to make decisions that are designed to reflect the values of this society as expressed in its law and constitution.(7)

The greater the quality and diversity of service programs the greater the ability of the family department to craft a treatment plan specifically suited to the needs of a family. The family department should develop a leadership role in partnership with community and government organizations for the advocacy and stewardship of service programs. The family department should promote collaboration among community and private groups and state, county, and municipal organizations within the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government to develop innovative strategies for the timely delivery of community based services to families and to avoid costly duplication.

The family department should challenge its own staff and executive branch agencies to identify public and private resources sufficient to build a treatment program specific to the needs of the family.

Information is always a powerful tool, and the family department should work to improve the quality of and accessibility to information through improved management information systems and through collaboration and cooperation among public and private organizations. Improving the quality of information and building a cooperative network can improve efficiency in the disposition of cases and the delivery of services.

Court involvement in the regulation of services should be limited to participation in developing standards for the education and experience of providers. The regulation itself should be left to the authority of the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, or some other appropriate regulatory agency.

Judges and court commissioners of the family department, and by extension the court staff, should take particular note of the Code of Judicial Conduct and its application in the context of advocacy for service programs. The intricacies of the application of the Code to family law issues is beyond the scope of this report, but there may be a conflict between the generally recognized need for family department judges to assume a strong leadership role in the advocacy for programs and the restraints of the Code.(8)

3. Delivery of Services

Some services will be provided directly by the family department. For example, the Utah juvenile court has a substantial court services arm that is an integral part of the court's operation. The probation department of the court is responsible for a variety of intake and disposition functions.(9) As another example, the court has an extensive guardian ad litem program that provides attorneys to represent children.(10)

In May 1992, the Ancillary Court Services Task Force was established by the Legislature to determine the propriety of attaching various non-judicial functions to the courts. Functions now attached to the courts such as the probation department of the juvenile court, guardian ad litem, divorce education, divorce mediation, and the children's legal defense fund were studied. The task force reported to the Legislature and the Judicial Council its recommendation that those services performed by court personnel or administered by contract with the court remain within the control of the court.(11)

Another important service within the family department is a case management unit that is familiar with the resources of the community, executive agencies, and the court. The responsibility of the case management unit will be to identify the multiple needs of the family as soon as the family enters the court system and to link the family with the services best designed to meet those needs. The unit should consist of attorneys, social workers, probation officers, court clerks and other professionals to coordinate and help procure services for families before the court.(12)

Testimony before the task force revealed case examples in which the lack of a collaborative and coordinated delivery of services resulted in conflicting orders of courts and agencies and confusion and frustration by the parties. No statistical research exists, but anecdotal evidence shows that inconsistent treatment of families between different courts does occur. Testimony revealed that executive branch agencies charged with the responsibility for services to the parties and to the courts do not always perform those services or perform them poorly or slowly.(13)

However, the fact that services and programs are not delivered timely, are not directed to the needs of the party, or are unavailable does not necessarily mean that the court should assume responsibility for those services and programs.

a) Services in the Marketplace

Experience will help determine which services should be provided directly by the court and which should not. Generally, there is no need for the court to develop at significant cost programs already available through public and private institutions. Public, private, and religious institutions are far better suited than the court to provide counseling and therapy for marital reconciliation, drug and alcohol abuse, control of domestic violence, criminal and anti-social behavior, and all of the other problems that will be presented to the family department. The court must take a leadership role in advocacy for such programs but as a general rule need not administer them. When programs are split between the courts and executive branch agencies, both suffer by competing for appropriations. Agencies and the courts, which should be allied in their goals, compete with each other over scarce resources to the detriment of those we serve.

If the court works to support the development of quality programs, the court benefits by its access to them. The general public benefits as well. Programs administered directly by the courts are available only to the parties before the court. Programs developed by public agencies and private professionals are available to a larger population, often times to the public at large. Improved voluntary access to these programs may reduce the need for court intervention.

b) Services within State Government

Determining what programs to administer within the courts and how to administer them is a four step process: (1) Is the program critical or important enough to be developed? (2) Can the program be developed in the marketplace? (3) If the program cannot be developed in the marketplace, should the program be developed within the executive or judicial branch of government? (4) Should the program services be provided through contract or by employees?

If a program or service is critical and cannot be made available through the marketplace, the program will generally have to be administered as part of state government if it is to be available at all. If the functions of the service provider align with the functions of the judge or court, then the program may be administered within the court. If the functions of the service provider do not align with the functions of the court, then the program should be administered within the executive branch of government.

c) Employee Services or Contract Services

Providing services through employees or by contracts both present difficulties and dangers. Provided that these are anticipated and guarded against, the program can be a strong success without damaging the independent judicial decision making process.

The advantage to the court and to the parties of providing programs and services directly by employees is continuity. The lack of continuity is a weakness in programs administered by contract between the court and the provider. Contracts must be rebid periodically with the possibility that the contract will be awarded to a new provider. This is an especially difficult prospect for continuing counseling or treatment programs. An exception from standard procurement rules for counseling and treatment contracts should permit a provider to complete a program for existing patients even though the provider is not awarded the new contract. There is turnover in professional court employees as well, but generally not to the same degree as independent contractors.

Of the programs and services provided directly by court employees, the court must be vigilant against the problems associated with bureaucracy generally. Bureaucracy accretes. Bureaucracy tends to protect its programs even though they may have outlived their usefulness. Bureaucracy tends to protect its employees even though they may not be competent. Left to market pressures, poorly qualified and poorly delivered services will be winnowed out.

The court will be in a better position to use its considerable power to demand quality, responsive programs from providers that are independent of the court. An arms length relationship puts the court and the program providers in a potentially adversarial relationship, but such tension between parties is inherent in business contractual relationships even though the parties are clearly aligned towards mutual goals. Too close a relationship between judges and professional staff may result in excessive delegation of decision making authority or to information being provided to the judge without notice to the parties and so protected from challenge by the parties.

Programs and services administered by contract between the court and private providers presents the difficulty of effective supervision over the quality of the service. Generally, contracts in state government are awarded to the low bidder, who may not be able to meet even the expenses of overhead at the contract price. If services are provided by contracts between the court and private providers, the court needs to maintain complete discretion to abrogate the contract for nonperformance if services are not provided in a competent, professional manner.

4. Alternatives

Two alternatives to the traditional method of delivery of services by government should be explored after the formation of a family department: independent agencies and vouchers.

An alternative to the traditional delivery of services within the executive branch of government is to provide the service through an independent agency. The executive branch may have significant responsibility for monitoring the independent agency, but the agency would operate on its own and be organized in the nature of a nonprofit corporation.

Another alternative is the use of vouchers where a party or family member has the ability to choose among several private providers. As always, staff and judges would have to stay current on developments in techniques and providers. Staff could assist the judge in crafting a disposition order suited to the specific needs of the individual or family and develop a list of providers. State finances that would have gone to pay an employee or contract provider would be used to pay the private provider.

5. Separation of Judges from Program Supervision

Regardless of the method of administration of the programs, administration and delivery of services should remain independent of the judges. Judges, court commissioners, and other decision makers play a critical role in the macro world of advocacy, but need to conduct an independent and unbiased evaluation of the applicability of a program to a family before the court. Excessive responsibility on the part of the judge or court commissioner for the administration of a program may interfere with that independent judgment.

Also, regardless of the method of administration of programs, there needs to be a process for lodging complaints regarding the effectiveness of providers. There needs to be a process of evaluation of the quality of the services provided. Recipients of the services should have the opportunity to provide comments about their perception of the quality and effectiveness of the program. Exit surveys should be conducted to gather this information.

6. List of Programs

Rather than assume the difficult, and probably futile, task of determining the "ideal" placement and method of administration of the many available programs and services, the task force accepts the current structure as the environment in which the family department will initially operate. This structure may merit changes in the future, but changes should be developed with the full participation of the agencies involved and only after a family department has been established and has gained some experience.

The investigation of the task force revealed numerous services and programs associated with a family department. These were divided into four categories:

Current Programs Administered within the Courts

  • Court data base
  • Juvenile court probation
  • Intake screening and diversion
  • Nonjudicial adjustment
  • Counseling
  • Probation supervision
  • Presentence evaluation and report
  • Community Service/Work Restitution
  • Judicial education
  • Court commissioners
  • Collection of fines
  • Case management
  • Child custody evaluation
  • Guardian ad litem training
  • Guardian ad litem attorneys

Current Programs Administered by Contract with the Court

  • Guardian ad litem attorneys
  • Divorce education
  • Divorce mediation (pilot)
  • Child support enforcement program
  • Court interpreter
  • Traffic school
  • Psychological and Substance abuse counseling

Current Programs External to the Court

  • Marital property evaluation
  • Child custody evaluations
  • Mental commitment evaluations
  • Interagency Coordinating Council
  • Adult protective services
  • Executive branch data base
  • ORS child support enforcement program
  • Indigent defense counsel
  • Department of Mental Health
  • Psychological evaluations
  • Crisis intervention
  • Pretrial services
  • Foster care
  • Medical services
  • Immunization, prenatal, dental
  • Dept. of Human Services case management services
  • In home services
  • Children's justice center
  • Domestic violence shelters
  • Domestic violence counseling
  • Job counseling
  • Truancy counseling
  • Shoplifting classes
  • Substance abuse counseling
  • Private probation
  • Victim restitution
  • Shelter care
  • Detention
  • Secure placement
  • Community homes
  • Work farms
  • Parole Supervision

Programs for Potential Development

  • Alternative dispute resolution
  • "Home builders" Intensive in home services in lieu of foster care
  • Nonadversarial procedures
  • Child mentors
  • Domestic intake
  • Job interview skills
  • Coparenting instruction
  • Custody evaluations for indigent persons
  • Community law program
  • Domestic violence victim assistance
  • Private collection of child support
  • Uniform forms for simple proceedings
  • Divorce education programs in non-divorce cases (e.g., domestic violence, paternity)

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1. In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967).

2. "[D]ue process, equal protection and proportionality in sanctions are in the best interests of children. States and localities such as Massachusetts, Utah and Missouri which possess humane enlightened treatment programs, also pay careful and appropriate attention to protecting the legal rights of minors." Krisberg, Barry, In Whose Best Interests?, The Champion (June 1993) at 9.

3. Laws of Utah 1969, Chapter 72.

4. Report Number 25 of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel tot he 43d Legislature, Utah (1979) at 17.

5. Id. at 11. A Family Department for the District Courts of Kansas: Recommendations for Implementation, at 8, E. Hunter Hurst and Jeffrey A. Kuhn (May 1993).

6. America's Children at Risk: A National Agenda for Legal Action, American Bar Association Working Group on the Unmet Legal Needs of Children and their Families, 53 - 54. (July 1993).

7. Szymanski, Linda, Theresa Homisak, and E. Hunter Hurst, Policy Alternatives and Current Court Practice in the Special Problem Areas of Jurisdiction Over the Family, National Center for Juvenile Justice, 16 (1993) citing Moore, Mark H., From Children to Citizens, Springer-Verlag, Inc. (1987).

8. See Resolving the Ethical, Moral and Social Mandates of the Juvenile and Family Court, 44 Juvenile and Family Court Journal 6-7, 9-11 (1993)

9. For a more detailed outline of juvenile court intake responsibilities see the section entitled "Screening" beginning on page 56.

10. Under 30-3-11.2, 78-3a-44.5, and 78-7-9, the guardian ad litem represents the best interests of a child who is the subject of a custody or support dispute or the victim of dependency, neglect, or abuse. This program is distinct from defense counsel appointed to represent juveniles charged with crimes.

11. Ancillary Court Services Task Force, Report to the Interim Judiciary Committee of the Utah State Legislature, Kay S. Cornaby, Chair, October 1992.

12. America's Children at Risk: A National Agenda for Legal Action, American Bar Association Working Group on the Unmet Legal Needs of Children and their Families, at 55 (July 1993). For a more detailed discussion of the concept of case management, see the section entitled "Case Management" beginning on page 54.

13. The guardian ad litem program was transferred from the Division of Family Services to courts. The Division of Family Services no longer performs custody evaluations or does so only at a cost to the parties. Adult Probation and Parole no longer completes presentence investigations or conducts supervised probation on adult misdemeanants. The Office of Recovery Services charges a percentage of the child support amount to collect child support payments. Capacity at the former Industrial School was about 350 beds. Current capacity for secure confinement for violent or repeat youth offenders is limited to about 100 beds with plans for about 100 more.

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The Utah State Courts mission is to provide the people an open, fair, efficient, and independent system for the advancement of justice under the law.

Page Last Modified: 5/19/2010

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