The Family Court Project was initiated in 1999 as a cooperative effort between the General Assembly and the Indiana Supreme Court. The purpose of the Project is to develop common sense models to better serve children and families in our courts. The initial emphasis of the Family Court Project was to create models to coordinate families who have multiple cases pending before multiple judges and to share information. Over time, the scope of the project broadened to include various types of family-friendly programming.
Beginning in 2000, three pilot counties – Johnson, Monroe, and Porter – developed family court models under the direction of the Indiana Supreme Court, Division of State Court Administration, with guidance from a statewide Family Court Task Force, led by The Honorable Margret G. Robb of the Indiana Court of Appeals. A private family court consultant assisted the pilot counties.
Most of the family court projects involve only one county, but some projects have included multiple counties. Each family court project develops model processes and programs tailored to its needs and resources. The original counties remain actively involved in the statewide project and continue to share ideas and mentor new pilot counties. During calendar year 2011, 22 counties participated in the Family Court project. These projects served 6,794 families and a total of 6,479 children. Programming types included service referral, direct service case management, truancy programming, assistance for self represented litigants, mental health related services, and high risk screening.
In 2011, the Family Court Steering Committee sought input from current projects and from trial court judges who had not participated in the project. Based on the feedback received, the project was amended to broaden the focus from coordinating families with multiple cases to developing innovative programming in family law cases. Three major areas of emphasis were developed, using the input received: Alternative Dispute Resolution/Early Case Management, Assistance for Self-Represented Litigants, and Court-Related Services.
Access to Justice
Increasing numbers of self represented parties need assistance in filing appropriate pleadings and presenting needed documentation to the court in family law cases. Some counties have chosen to coordinate a volunteer self represented litigant help desk or legal clinic to answer basic legal questions and help self represented litigants obtain access to and complete basic pleading forms. In 2011, over 700 families received self help assistance through their local Family Court Projects.
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)/Early Case Management
Alternative Dispute Resolution: Families benefit from affordable services that enable them to resolve their own disputes with the assistance of a neutral professional, and to take increased responsibility and ownership in the result. In 2011, 19 of the 22 counties participating in the Family Court Project had also adopted ADR Plans under 33-23-6 and administered those programs jointly with their Family Courts. ADR programming can take several forms, including mediation, which uses a registered mediator to help parties resolve pending cases in accordance with the ADR Rules; facilitation, a more flexible model that uses a “neutral” to help parties reach resolution but which is not subject to the ADR Rules; parenting coordination, a more long-term process for high conflict families; and parental counseling to help families learn to work more cooperatively to place the needs of their children first. In 2011, more than 1250 families participated in domestic relations mediation/facilitation through the family court projects, and 64% of those families reached at least a partial agreement.
Early Case Management: Active case management early in the life of a domestic benefits both courts and families by resolving cases via alternative means and avoiding future litigation by referring families to supportive community services. Providing opportunities for early ADR increases the likelihood of agreement and decreases opportunity for conflict. In addition, families can be assessed for non-legal problems such as substance abuse, domestic violence, emotional illnesses, and referred to the appropriate resources for treatment. Finally, divorcing and separating parents can be referred to services that help them gain skills to mitigate the effects of the family dissolution on their children. In 2011, approximately 750 families received some type of early screening, case management, or service referral through the family court projects.
Several other programming needs were identified by the judges surveyed in 2011. These other court-related services include:
Pro Bono Guardian ad litem (GAL) Training: Many judges have identified a need for GALs to serve in custody cases involving domestic violence, allegations of abuse, and other complex issues. The Family Court Project is addressing this need by providing limited funds for courts to provide trainings for attorneys who are willing to commit to serving pro bono in at least 2 cases per year. This helps to provide better services to families by providing standardized training and also provides the court with a pool of GALs who can be appointed in cases where families cannot afford to pay GAL fees.
Brief Focused Assessments: This programming option allows judges refer families for brief, focused evaluations based on issues raised in court and parental concerns, especially with respect to child safety. Written reports are provided to assist attorneys and judges in resolution of issues.
Access and Visitation Programs: This programming option can include a range of services, including providing a safe location for supervised visitation or visitation exchange, co-parenting education, or mediation of access and visitation issues.
Legislature and Court Improvement Program (CIP)
The Family Court Project began in 1999 with an annual appropriation of $200,000 per year from the Indiana General Assembly. This appropriation was later expanded. The funding level for the current biennium is $604,000. Additionally, the Family Court Project has at various times received federal Court Improvement Program grants for pilot family court counties with family focused programming for child abuse and neglect cases.
The bulk of the family court funding is distributed each year to counties as seed grants. From the inception of the Family Court Project through the end of 2011, $2,551,138 has been distributed directly to family court counties. The remainder of the family court funding covers the cost of the Family Court Project Manager and statewide meetings.
A significant source of revenue for family courts is community funding and collaborative grants. Some family courts entered into collaborative grants or resource sharing agreements with local mental health providers, local offices of the Department of Child Services, and youth service bureaus. Many counties have obtained local government funding through court or probation budgets for ongoing program maintenance. During 2011 the pilot counties raised over $1.58 million in local funds through community and alternative funding sources.