Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Family Courts in Ohio
Below ME2 asks if anyone knows about the Family Court versus Juvenile Court Model. The Ohio Supreme Court provides access to the Ohio Family Court Feasibility Study on its page covering the Family Court subcommittee of the Governor's task force on the investigation and prosecution of child abuse and child sexual abuse cases--interestingly enough, there is no page on the Ohio site for the Governor's task force. The 1999 Family Court bulletin discusses family courts in the United States.

Additionally, the Fall 2001 bulletin discusses the Family Court program focusing on Fayette, Mercer and Lorain Counties. Very interesting reads. My personal opinion is that Family Courts are the optimal model to follow, because there is so much overlap between Domestic Relations, Probate and Juvenile Divisions of the Common Pleas courts. However, the ability to issue orders varies between the Courts. For example, Temporary Restraining Orders in Domestic Violence matters can only be issued by a Domestic Relations Court; however, a TRO may have great impact on visitation or custody issues in a private custody matter or an abuse, neglect, or dependency case in the Juvenile Court. Child Support orders may be issued in Domestic Relations or Juvenile Courts, but may affect proceedings in Probate Court, as well as in the Domestic Relations or Juvenile Courts. Familes often don't understand that these three Courts are separate entities and can't understand the contradiction in orders and difficulty in navigating to the correct court for their specific issue.

Judges can be reluctant to consolidate the courts and lose their power base: in a small county, a juvenile court judge who serves as that court's Administrative Judge may not want to be folded in with the county's Probate and Domestic Relations Court judges and potentially lose control of the administration of the Court. Judges also ultimately specialize in a particular subject matter, and may be reluctant to cover juvenile matters in addition to probate or domestic issues. I once overheard a Juvenile Judge speaking disdainfully of handling wills and estates in addition to a juvenile docket. Finally, some people feel very attached to "the way things have always been done," and this can also cause reluctance to create family courts.

Many of the smaller counties in Ohio already have one judge for Juvenile and Domestic Relations matters or Juvenile and Probate matters. Franklin County (the Columbus metro area) has five judges who hear Juvenile and Domestic Relations cases. Clearly this is the trend.

The Feasibility study recommends that Ohio draft a unified "Family Code" and that the Supreme Court take the lead in encouraging and supporting the creation of Family Courts. The Spring 2001 bulletin discusses the need for a comprehensive and consolidated Family Code. I found this quote interesting: "Last summer, the
Ohio Legislative Services Commission (OLSC) adapted the product of the Task Force's labor into bill form that legislators could consider as early as summer 2001." Well it's 2004 and we haven't seen the creation of a Family Code. Since the website for the Governor's task force no longer exists, I think the job of promoting Family Courts will be solely up to the Ohio Supreme Court. I hope it continues to push for Family Courts because I think Ohio families would be better off in the long run.

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