Reforms: Seeds Sown For Change in Illinois Family Courts

March 4, 2009 at 4:15 pm Leave a comment

By Josh Hoff
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Ideally, every child grows up in a home where the parents co-exist in harmony and provide fertile ground in which the children can thrive.  Often times, however, this is not the case.  When a marriage dissolves, children are frequently caught in the middle of an adversarial legal system.  Typically, these cases end up in family court, where children are subjected to the trauma inflicted by a prolonged trial.

In the state of Illinois, reforms have been established and are underway to mitigate the impact of trials on children.  The statewide reforms have three components:

In July 2006, all parents in custody and visitation cases will be required to undergo four hours of education involving how to lessen the impact of custody disputes on children.
Lawyers appointed to represent parents in custody cases will be required to attend continuing education programs.

Beginning January 1, 2007, all custody disputes must first go to mediation prior to a court hearing to attempt to resolve the dispute before it goes to court.

“The reforms are intended to focus the guardians and the court on the children,”
explains Madison County Associate Judge Barbara Crowder, who presides over the family court division for the Third Judicial Circuit in Illinois.

In past cases, disputes have sometimes taken up the majority of a child’s life.  As a result, the child becomes surrounded by chaos.  Sometimes, when children are interviewed by judges, they curl up in a fetal ball.  In some instances, they will cry about not wanting to see their mother or father.  In fact, judges observe an entire range of children, from the angry to the withdrawn.

Once the custody case reaches the actual courtroom, various members of the extended family are brought in, which frequently proves divisive and undermines the cohesiveness of a family unit.  The reforms are intended in part to lessen the trauma of such conflicts.

“Two attorneys might swear that two parties could never see eye to eye,” Judge Crowder elaborates, referring to the trial process.  “By the time that they go to mediation, they are able to get past some of the conflict.”

“People are more open to possibilities,” adds Judge Crowder. The seeds were sown for change when the Supreme Court of Illinois appointed a special committee and requested that members address matters relating to custody – more specifically, the court wanted to address the need for cases to be handled in an expeditious manner and in the best interest of children.

“We were asked to draft some rules for circuits that do not yet have mediation,” says Judge Elizabeth Robb, who serves on the Eleventh Circuit and is the chair of the conference of chief judges.

Ultimately, the primary objective of these reforms is to send a strong statement to parents, lawyers, and judges that Illinois’ courts put the needs and concerns of children first.  Otherwise, children are put underfoot in a messy legal proceeding.

“The overall effect of mandatory mediation, parent education, and continuing legal education will be to emphasize that everyone in this process must do everything possible to minimize the emotional damage to children that accompanies child custody disputes,” Judge Crowder said in a written statement.

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Entry filed under: Attorneys, Child Custody, Custody, Family Court. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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