Judiciary’s Family Administration helps children and families in legal crises
By Connie Kratovil-Lavelle, Director, Department of Family Administration
Though it operates mainly behind the scenes, the Judiciary’s Department of Family Administration plays a major role in how children and families interact with Maryland’s courts. Our overall mission is to help provide fair and efficient forums to resolve family legal matters in a problem-solving manner, with the goal of improving the lives of families and children whose issues have brought them into the court system. Children and families come to Maryland’s courts in times of crisis. We try to help minimize the adverse effects on families, particularly children, of family dissolution, domestic violence and contact with the state juvenile systems.
The Department of Family Administration has two major strategies to help families achieve better outcomes when they have a family law conflict:
promote the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR); and
promote a better and fairer trial process if the parties cannot reach an agreement out of court.
ADR instead of court
It is widely recognized that families with family law legal issues do better when they resolve the conflict on their own through ADR. As such, for more than a decade, the Department of Family Administration has provided support for mediation in cases involving divorce, custody and visitation, and marital property, as well as for families with children in the foster care system. The department also supports the use of volunteer attorneys in settlement conferences to help parties resolve their conflicts.
More recently, the department has developed other ADR programs, including:
community mediation in contested custody cases that are provided at no cost to the parties
pro bono collaborative law, whereby each party has a pro bono attorney to help them reach an out-of-court agreement that each party believes is in the best interest of the family
community conferencing, a process when a juvenile offender and the victim reach an agreement that results in the victim being compensated and the offender not re-offending
The department also provides grants for training and staffing to promote the use of ADR to resolve issues without going to court.
Our department has overseen the creation of the family divisions and family services programs in Maryland’s Circuit Courts to provide a comprehensive approach for families whose legal issues often involve non-legal issues, such as housing, substance abuse and mental health. Addressing these underlying challenges in a holistic way will more likely lead to better outcomes for families.
To help create a better in-court process, the Department of Family Administration provides grants to enhance services for families in Maryland’s legal system, including:
mental health and psychological evaluations
substance abuse assessments
psycho-educational programs for children
individual, family and group therapy
anger management and domestic violence abuser courses
substance abuse treatment
In addition to providing funding to each jurisdiction, the department makes funding available through its Special Project Grants to organizations that provide legal or other services designed to enhance the experience of families that come before the Maryland courts and enhance the court process. Some of these include:
providing attorneys to represent the interests of children in custody cases
providing attorneys for victims of domestic violence
funding supervised visitation centers so that parents who might not otherwise have access to their children have a safe and comfortable place to visit with them
Another department focus is what’s known as “best practices.” Department of Family Administration staff work with judges, masters, court administrators and family support services coordinators to develop family law policy and identify and promote best practices to handle domestic and juvenile cases. Program staff members have worked with each Circuit Court to help them develop a broad spectrum of services to help Maryland families.
And in keeping with the original objective of helping families get better outcomes in family law conflicts, the Department of Family Administration works with the committees of the Judiciary to review and draft legislation and court rules to improve the court process. Recently, the Court of Appeals adopted standards for parent coordinators, who facilitate positive communication and effective co-parenting for high-conflict families. Currently, standards for custody evaluations are being developed.