Field Trip to the Baltimore City Circuit Court Family Division

By Maria Iliadis, CFCC Student Fellow 2014-2015

On September 17, 2014, the Center for Families, Children and the Courts (“CFCC”) Student Fellows visited the Family Division of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City located at 111 North Calvert Street in Baltimore. We received a tour from T. Sue German, the Family Division Administrator.

The tour was a great opportunity to see how the Unified Family Court system operates. The Family Division strives to efficiently resolve matters involving families, such as, divorce, guardianship, child support, custody, and visitation matters. Further we learned that approximately 88% of litigants appear pro se.

The Family Division tailors its approach to each individual family to address the family’s specific needs.  The Family Division has many resources for the variety of clients with which it deals. For example, in the case of contested issues, the Family Division provides educational seminars such as COPE and SHAPE for parents and mediation if there are custody and visitation issues. Also, at scheduling conferences, the Family Division refers clients to other resources to address their needs, such as referrals to substance abuse services, for custody evaluations, and for other social services.

The tour revealed that the Family Division has faced budget cuts in recent years, however, which is surprising in light of the volume of cases that are dealt with in the Family Division. On a given day, attorneys at the Family Division Pro Se Project assist approximately 35-40 litigants. Further, cutting back on the resources available to the Family Division impedes its ability to effectively and efficiently deal with all the litigants’ issues it confronts.

The actual facility itself was very warm and inviting for the families and children who frequent it. The walls are adorned with art made by children in the community, and there is a staffed playroom for children while their parents attend to their various matters at the Family Division.  It was really wonderful to have the opportunity to tour.

5 thoughts on “Field Trip to the Baltimore City Circuit Court Family Division

  1. I, too, found that the visit to the Baltimore City Circuit Court Family Division was a wonderful experience. As the tour proceeded, I observed several components that shape the character of the “unified family court” blueprint. Most notably, I found the “user friendly” element to be a real strength. As you mentioned, the walls are laden with colorful, vibrant art made by children and the waiting rooms are geared at maintaining a family-oriented environment. T. Sue German and Judge Panos, two individuals that we interacted with while on tour, were extremely pleasant and courteous, wearing a smile from ear to ear. I shared similar experiences with employees at New Jersey’s Middlesex County Family Court House this past summer. This is important because well mannered personnel are essential to the holistic, therapeutic approach that family courts employ. Last, and perhaps most significant, the court’s central location in downtown Baltimore makes access to those in need of assistance feasible. This component, in addition to those already mentioned, make the Baltimore City Circuit Court Family Division extremely user friendly.

  2. I once walked into a hospital with blood freely flowing from a gaping wound in my chest. As I walked past patients lucky enough to afford their own personal doctor, I saw the line of people down the hallway and wrapped around corner waiting on the “pro se” office. By the time that I was at the front of the line I had seen other “pro se” patients removing their own bullets, setting their own broken bones, and tending to their own third degree burns, poorly. The doctor in the “pro se” office gives me, a needle, thread, a mirror, some sterilizing liquids and a smile saying “good luck.”This fictitious account seems unbelievable in the medical field, but for many litigants it is the absolute truth. Family law covers the majority of cases filed and “pro se” litigants make up a significant amount of family law cases. I believe that the pro se problem is especially important in family court because of the basic needs decided by the court such as child access and custody. An important and much needed next step for the pro se community would be doing away with pro se litigants in these important proceedings with a push for a Civil Gideon(the right to an attorney in a civil trial).

  3. Bryan raises a good point. The other day I witnessed a trial where an attorney had entered an appearance right before the hearing. The mother was under the impression that both parties were arguing pro se, and had not secured an attorney. Additionally, she was commuting from North Carolina, and postponing the proceeding was simply not an option for her. She was outmaneuvered throughout the hearing, and judgment was handed out in favor of the father. Situations like these continue to exist because Civil Gideon has not come to fruition in the civil courts, which could alleviate many problems litigants deal with when going to court.

  4. Although pro se litigants are at a disadvantage most of the time, there are certain people that try and make their experience as successful as those parties that have attorneys. I recently observed a child custody proceeding for my Family Law class with Professor Babb. Judge Panos was presiding over the case and only one of the parties was represented. Something that I found so great about the way Judge Panos ran his courtroom was that he made sure that everyone was on the same page, including the party without an attorney, but also the attorney that was representing the other party. There is a line in place that can’t be crossed when he is informing the pro se litigant without actually advising that person. However, I believe he did a fantastic job of that. Of course, the entire time, he had the best interest of the child in mind, but he also considered the best qualities of both parties. I believe that judges like this have a huge impact on the family law division because they want the proceedings to run smoothly with the true reason for the outcome in mind. He also made a point of pulling me aside to explain to me how he uses a holistic approach in his cases, which of course we learned about in this class. It was nice to see it used in practice and by a judge who greatly supports it.

  5. I think Bryan raises a valid point as well. It is a point that I heard several judges emphasize often when I was in court for my internship this past summer. One particular judge I observed wanted pro se litigants to have an attorney because an attorney understands the law and the rules of evidence. I agree with this point, however, I believe Bryan’s position reveals a bigger problem. The judgments in family court carry long term consequences, thus it is important to fully understand options and the law in family court. I have witnessed many occasions in which a litigant will appear pro se because they either do not have money for an attorney or have preconceived notions about how court will play out, so they do not see a point in obtaining counsel. Unfortunately, a lot of those same litigants leave the court room with limited access to their child and often try to return to court to change this outcome. Perhaps, if they had obtained counsel, the outcome would be different and they would not have to keep coming to court.

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