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Court reshaped for family issues

Unified Family Court, where a judge will hear all of a family's legal troubles at once, comes to west Pasco in January.

By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Florida courts have traditionally been ill-equipped to deal with families caught up in a myriad of legal issues.

A child might be appearing before one judge on a juvenile delinquency charge. Meanwhile, the child's parents might be going through a divorce, and that case would be assigned to a different judge. The husband might be accused of domestic violence. That means a third judge. And social service caseworkers might think the situation is so bad that they could seek to remove the child from the home.

Four cases. Four judges. Endless court hearings. And at every hearing, the judge would be concerned with deciding only the issue at hand, not the larger problem of fixing what was wrong with the family.

Until recently, this scenario was all too common in Florida courts. Even judges admit that the approach was unwieldy and often ineffective.

But things are changing, thanks to a new state initiative known as Unified Family Court. In January, the program comes to west Pasco.

The idea is simple: Find families caught up in an assortment of legal troubles and present the entire case load to a single judge. The goal is to better acquaint judges with families and their problems, so that life-altering decisions are not made in a vacuum.

"This will give me a broader picture," said Circuit Judge William Webb, who will preside over the Unified Family Court division at the New Port Richey courthouse. "It holds the promise of a significant improvement because I will have a greater understanding of all the dynamics of a family."

Court officials say they have identified more than 200 families in west Pasco for the program. The families are identified by searching databases of all family-related cases: divorces, domestic violence, juvenile delinquency, dependency, child support and truancy.

The program is considered a major turning point in the judiciary.

For one thing, appearing in court will be simplified for families. Instead of multiple court appearances on different dates in front of different judges, families can now take care of all their court business at once, in front of one judge.

As a result, parents will spend less time away from work, and children can spend more time at school. The improved efficiency, say advocates of the approach, benefits everyone involved, including court staff, attorneys, child welfare workers and law enforcement officers. That translates directly into a savings for taxpayers, Webb said.

But more than anything, advocates say, it brings a much-needed creative and practical approach to the task of addressing complex family problems.

"This is a reality check that there are no easy answers to complicated family issues," said Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children. "There is a middle ground that can be determined and acted upon when you have a unified approach that doesn't become apparent in a traditional win-or-lose setting."

Circuit Judge Frank Quesada, who presides over a Unified Family Court division in Pinellas, calls it "therapeutic jurisprudence."

"All I know is that I have a dysfunctional family in front of me, and all I want to do is put in place what the family needs," Quesada said. "I'm not in a hurry to try the cases. I want to know the family dynamics and try to solve the problem."

The idea still is in its infancy. At least seven states have unified family courts in all their circuits. Other states, such as Georgia and Kentucky, have launched pilot projects.

In Florida, it began last year with pilot programs in Pinellas and Broward counties and in Dade City.

Quesada, who as a former juvenile delinquency judge knows the shortcomings of the old way of doing things, said the new approach is working.

"In the past, courts were entrenched in the approach that family problems were social problems, not legal problems, so we stayed out it," Quesada said. "But now, this allows us to address the underlying problems, the alcoholism, the inability to manage anger, the mental health issues -- all the things that basically drive divorce, domestic violence, delinquency, abuse and neglect."

Said Webb: "A lot of people, primarily the families involved in the system, probably think this is a long time in coming."

Webb said one of his chief goals would be to get families talking about their problems.

"I want to get these divergent parties together and force them to talk to each other," he said. "Sometimes controversies are best resolved by the parties themselves."

-- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavis@sptimes.com .

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