Superior Court Improves Services to Families in Crisis

4/10/2008

NOTE: National County Government Week is April 6 – 12. This year’s theme is Protecting our Children. This release is part of a multi-part series that examines how Pinal County Government works to protect and serve children in the county.

FLORENCE – Maybe this sounds familiar: Mr. and Mrs. Jones are getting divorced. Two of their three children have recently been arrested and are now on probation. Last week Mrs. Jones’ mother contacted CPS and said that Mr. Jones is abusive of all three children. The Jones family now has a total of four cases in Pinal County Superior Court: a divorce, two juvenile delinquencies, and a juvenile dependency.

Under normal court procedures this family would likely have two or even three different judges hearing their cases. Because the Jones family lives in Mammoth, this means a one hour drive to the courthouse in Florence every time one of their four cases is scheduled. Each of the judges may order the family to participate in various services. This means the family will likely have to travel to as many as six different counseling agencies, as often as once or twice per week. They will also have to meet with a CPS caseworker and a juvenile probation officer. And no one person can serve as a single point of contact for all of these agencies.

Pinal County’s Integrated Family Court (IFC) project is making significant changes to this scenario, thanks to grant funding from the State Justice Institute and matching support from the Arizona Supreme Court. The grant funding and early successes of the project are due to the coordinated efforts of a hardworking task force of stakeholders, including a judge, state attorney, Child Protective Services, Juvenile Court Services, the Clerk of Superior Court, the County Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, Court Administration and the behavioral health community.

The Integrated Family Court in Pinal County follows a one-family-one-judge model. Personnel funded by the grant identify families with multiple cases and case types. Those families are then screened by a coordinator, also paid by the grant, to determine whether their various cases have interrelated issues. If so, a judge will assign all that family’s cases to the IFC judge. Then, all that family’s cases are scheduled for the IFC calendar; one morning each week set aside to address only multi-case families. Hearings that will involve extensive testimony are scheduled for a different date and time.

As a result, a family that would have had to make three or four separate trips to court may now have all their matters reviewed, and perhaps resolved, with a single trip. At the same time, appointment of attorneys for various family members is streamlined when a single Judge knows which attorneys are already working with the family. This avoids later discovery of attorney conflicts that would require setting an additional hearing to appoint a different attorney.

The Integrated Family Court also eliminates conflicts caused by having more than one judge rule on issues related to a single family. Perhaps most importantly, this one-judge-one-family model, with all the family’s cases set for a single day, enhances the coordination of services from the many agencies connected to a family in crisis. Prior to each court session, the judge receives a summary of the family’s status with each agency and service provider.

Is it working?

  • The program has already stopped proceedings that would have placed two children with the wife of a relative who was accused of sexually abusing those same children. A guardianship case was in process when IFC was implemented, and that judge was ready to grant custody of the two children to the wife of a relative. Then, the IFC clerk discovered that there was a dependency case before a different judge, in which the relative was accused of sexually abusing the children.
  • In another example, the IFC judge handled a child custody case and a juvenile dependency case within the same family. The parents were requesting a decision of who should be given custody, but Child Protective Services had concern that neither parent could provide a healthy environment for the children. Without IFC, two separate judges would have handled these cases and may not have known that both cases even existed. With IFC, the judge was able to put the custody decision on hold until the dependency case could be decided. In the mean time the children were placed in a safe environment, allowing time for the family to receive support services under the dependency case. Had the family not been in IFC, the children could have been placed with an unfit parent.
  • These are just two of the families impacted by the IFC project. In just three months of operation, the project has identified and serves more than 23 families representing more than 55 cases. Early indications show that the project is creating the desired outcomes and court officials have high expectations for its continued success.
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