Unified Family Court now in session
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
© St. Petersburg Times,
LARGO -- For any one judge, it's often impossible to know and understand all the problems and issues confronting the family of an individual appearing in court.
Mom and dad might be involved in a domestic violence hearing because one is accused of hitting the other. A divorce might be pending. A child faced with an unstable home life might be charged with a misdemeanor.
And three different judges in three different courtrooms might have a hand in it all.
"We've had so many judges involved in the lives of families, it was often difficult for one judge to know what another was doing," said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada. "And you can't look at any one case in a vacuum."
Pinellas-Pasco judges hope the vacuum ended Monday with the opening day of the new Unified Family Court, a $400,000 pilot program whose goal is to better acquaint judges with families and their problems.
The program and an identical pilot launched in Fort Lauderdale are the first of their kind in Florida.
"Frankly, what we've done (in the past) is a pretty good product," said Circuit Judge Peter Ramsberger. "But this takes it up to the next step."
Four Pinellas judges, including Quesada and Ramsberger, and a fifth in Pasco County are assigned to the new division. Family-related court issues will be assigned to judges based on Zip code.
Once a family member is assigned to a judge, that judge will hear all cases that family becomes involved in, from juvenile to domestic violence to dependency.
"So we'll get to know certain families, quite candidly, a lot better than we've been able to do in the past," said Quesada, who is the administrative judge for the new court. "We'll be able to stick with families and identify the underlying problems that help cause their legal problems."
Aside from getting judges better acquainted with families, the program will have other beneficial effects.
For one, appearing in court will be simplified for families. Instead of three 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.
Advocates of the program say that will result in less time lost to work and fewer missed court dates.
"We hope it's going to be a much saner approach to work with families and whatever problems they have," said Nancy Hamilton, chief operating officer of Operation PAR, a non-profit substance abuse treatment program.
"We hope families will be able to do the things they're supposed to do and get better and go off and be regular citizens and not be subjected to bounce around from system to system, judge to judge," Hamilton said.
"The judges are just going to have a better understanding of a family's dynamic."
The benefits are great, advocates say. A judge who understands the home life of a teen charged with breaking the law can better craft a sentence, they say. A judge deciding parental custody rights who knows about a spouse's domestic violence history can make a better-informed decision.
"Our hope, of course, is to minimize the burden of a legal problem and maximize the use of services," Quesada said.
He looks to the new court as a turning point for the judiciary, which he acknowledges has sometimes shied away from tackling some family issues, instead leaving them to social workers.
"It's been kind of the stepchild of the legal system for a long time," he said.
The Office of State Courts Administrator, which provided program funding, hopes to expand the unified court concept to Florida's other circuits. Quesada said the concept has already been successful in other states, including Kentucky and Georgia.
If it's successful here, new funding will have to come from the state or locally after the pilot ends in a year, he said.
"You either do a great job and get funded," Quesada said. "Or you do a lousy job and nobody knows you."
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