CFCC convenes Maryland’s Family Justice System: A Symposium

Seventeen and a half years ago, Rule 16-204 created five Family Divisions in Maryland – and put the state on a path of family justice system reform that continues to the present day. On June 1, 2015 the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts and the Maryland Administrative Office of the Courts’ Department of Family Administration convened Maryland’s Family Justice System: A Symposium to consider Maryland’s family justice system – how far it has come, where it should go from here, and how to get there. Participants included judges, practitioners, services providers, and court administrators, among others, who offered diverse perspectives and experience regarding the family justice system in Maryland.

Family law cases currently account for 43% of the overall caseload in Maryland. As Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera pointed out, tremendous progress has been made in the capacity of judges, magistrates and family divisions’ ability to provide holistic approaches to the family-related challenges they see every day. She recognized, however, the challenge inherent in fairly resolving disputes in which parties are frequently unrepresented by counsel and the need for increased integration of alternative dispute resolution processes such as mediation, facilitation and collaborative law as well as better access to expedited processes and emergency hearing where necessary.

According to former Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, the last seventeen years have seen tremendous progress in the way family cases are handled in Maryland. These family divisions have allowed for a more “thorough and holistic treatment of families” within Maryland. However, there is still room for improvement and the need for professionals to get together to determine where that improvement needs to be implemented.

One of the most critical issues facing the family justice system in Maryland (and around the country) is how to provide trauma-informed care. According to key-note speaker Frank Kros, Executive Vice President of the Children’s Guild in Baltimore City, childhood trauma is the most significant public health issue in U.S. Its impacts can be seen not just in childhood but into adulthood and across entire communities. Especially considering this high rate of trauma, the adversarial system is not the best way to manage families in conflict. Rather Mr. Kros advocates for trauma-informed judicial practice, including trauma screens, increased training and even physical transformation of courtrooms.

In the afternoon, judges, magistrates, attorneys, court personnel, services providers, and symposium participants discussed how we can strengthen and improve the family justice system in Maryland. Numerous voices spoke up for increased training. While training has improved, they asserted, it could be even better. As one judge pointed out, in many districts in Maryland, the judges and magistrates rotate in and out of the Family Division. Therefore, all of them need to be well-trained in family law issues. Other panelists noted the importance of training all court personnel on how to interact with the families in the family court system and especially with children, many of whom have experienced significant trauma. Members of the audience called for better mechanisms to enable children’s voices to be heard, such as more pro bono attorneys or special advocates for children. Still others advocated for increased accessibility of free legal assistance for families, noting the large number of self-represented parties in family courts and the growing complexity of family law cases. Still other participants and panelists discussed the need for some cases to be resolved earlier, both through increased judicial participation in pre-trial and scheduling conferences and increased emphasis on using a problem-solving rather than an adversarial approach.

CFCC and AOC will capitalize on the momentum created by the symposium and will collaborate on follow-up programs and initiatives. Please let us know your ideas also.

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