Ecology of Human Development – an Invaluable Approach to Family Justice

By Lesley Kamenshine, CFCC Student Fellow 2010-2011

The ecology of human development that we have learned about in class is most exciting. The concept was first applied to the legal system – specifically family law – by Prof. Barbara Babb, Director of the Center for Family, Children and the Courts, in her groundbreaking blueprint for unified family courts.1

Developed by psychologist Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner2 who founded Headstart, the ecology of human development seeks to understand how the complex interrelationships people develop in different settings affect individuals’ lives. How do parents and children function with each other, with and within the school, the community – and even the culture? How much impact does a parent’s employer have on a child? These are examples of questions an ecological approach seeks to answer.

As applied to the legal system, Prof. Babb has provided a systematic way for judges, attorneys for litigants, and the parties themselves to explore – separately or together – the connections and relationships between various facets of a person’s life. The ecology of human development makes a person more three-dimensional. A case is no longer just about a plaintiff’s claim or a juvenile delinquent’s record. Through the ecology of human development approach that Prof. Babb has fostered in her work with unified family courts, a legal actor now has the informal legal blessing to explore connections with other facets of a person’s life – relationship to the job, the community, school, etc.

While legal actors often do explore such relationships, incorporating the ecology of human development into unified family courts ensures that such relationship exploration is not just random or implicit, but becomes part of the problem-solving process. This would appear to make the legal actor’s investigation, interview and/or interrogation more thorough, and provide more opportunities for problem resolution.
1. Barbara Babb, “Fashioning an Interdisciplinary Framework for Court Reform in Family Law: A Blueprint to Construct a Unified Family Court,” 71 S. Cal. L. Rev. 469, 507-508. Content defining the ecology of human development (paragraph 1, above) comes primarily from p. 507.
2. Id., n. 31, Urie Bronfenbrenner, The Ecology of Human Development (1979).

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