×

New program aims for kinder, quicker divorce

  • Family consultant Deborah Roth-Howe talks with others involved in the Family Resolutions Specialty Court during a meeting in the Hampshire Probate and Family Court on King Street in Northampton on Monday, June 19, 2017. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Child's attorney Leslie Brown talks with others involved in the Family Resolutions Specialty Court during a meeting in the Hampshire Probate and Family Court on King Street in Northampton on Monday, June 19, 2017. Behind her is a portrait of retired Hampshire Probate and Family Court Judge Gail Perlman who has volunteered time toward the development and implementation of the FRSC. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Family consultant Deborah Roth-Howe, right, talks with attorney Leslie Brown and others involved in the Family Resolutions Specialty Court during a meeting in the Hampshire Probate and Family Court on King Street in Northampton on Monday, June 19, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Probation officer R.J. Waskiewicz talks with others involved in the Family Resolutions Specialty Court during a meeting in the Hampshire Probate and Family Court on King Street in Northampton on Monday, June 19, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hampshire Probate and Family Court Judge Linda Fidnick talks with others involved in the Family Resolutions Specialty Court during a meeting in Northampton Monday, June 19. The program, modeled after a similar one in Australia and believed to be the first in the United States, is designed at protecting children during divorce proceedings by using a team of experts. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Attorney Noelle Stern talks with others involved in the Family Resolutions Specialty Court during a meeting in the Hampshire Probate and Family Court on King Street in Northampton on Monday, June 19, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Child's attorney Leslie Brown talks with others involved in the Family Resolutions Specialty Court during a meeting in the Hampshire Probate and Family Court on King Street in Northampton on Monday, June 19, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Probation officer R.J. Waskiewicz, right, talks with attorney Leslie Brown and others involved in the Family Resolutions Specialty Court during a meeting in the Hampshire Probate and Family Court on King Street in Northampton on Monday, June 19, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Judge Linda Fidnick, left, talks with attorneys Noelle Stern, center, and Leslie Brown and others involved in the Family Resolutions Specialty Court during a meeting in the Hampshire Probate and Family Court on King Street in Northampton on Monday, June 19, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Judge Gail Perlman retired from the Hampshire Probate and Family Court in 2011 and, according to her successor, judge Linda Fidnick, has volunteered many hours to help develop and advocate for the Family Resolutions Specialty Court. This portrait hangs in the courtroom on King Street in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING



@ecutts_HG
Thursday, July 06, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — Touted as the first of its kind in the country, a special process set up by officials of the Hampshire Probate and Family Court is aimed at protecting children from becoming collateral damage in divorce proceedings.

Started in May 2016, the Family Resolutions Specialty Court brings a team of people together to put the child first in an effort to reduce the stress, anger and anxiety that can accompany a separation.

Entering the traditional divorce and child custody court setting can cause all kinds of negative emotions, something the specialty court seeks to avoid. Probation Officer R.J. Waskiewicz said that, in his experience of traditional divorce proceedings, “the parents are generally full of anxiety, they are full of anger, they are full of emotion.”

The specialty court looks at separation and custody as a series of problems to be solved with the help of the judge, a court probation officer, a family consultant, a child’s attorney and a mediator. If the parents can solve the problems on their own with the help of the team, Hampshire Probate Family Court Judge Linda Fidnick said, the chances are quite good they will have done it with very little conflict and will be happier with decisions.

“If you think about a family, there is a mother and a father and they create children, or two mothers or two fathers, and they are separating, and they will need to care about what happens to the other person because the better that each of them do, the better off their children are,” Fidnick said.

Instead of a “stranger in the robe” making a decision, Waskiewicz said, the family is joined by a team of people who all sit around a table together, a team that remains the same throughout the process.

“This specialty court process really helps facilitate that conversation with the family,” Waskiewicz said.

He said the new process “really takes away that animosity, the anxiety, the stress of going to court.”

The court, modeled after an Australian court, is used on a voluntary basis. Both parents must agree to participate and can opt out of the process at any time.

Fidnick said that in its first year, the court has had families who could not talk to each other, young parents, highly educated parents, parents who have their own psychological needs. The team has worked hard to build a system that works for all.

“We are really looking to have a model that will work for every single family that comes into the court,” Fidnick said.

A ‘flurry’ of activity

So far, the speciality court has handled the cases of 10 families. Seven of the cases have been completed. In June, two more families scheduled appointments to go through the intake process.

The specialty court procedure is more labor intensive up front, but even the most complex cases are completed faster, halving the 14-month timeline of a traditional divorce.

“There is a flurry of activity when a case comes in to FRSC,” family consultant Deborah Roth-Howe said. “Once the ball starts rolling, it keeps rolling.”

After a family completes an initial intake with a probation officer, the parents meet with Roth-Howe for an in-depth guided interview to help understand the family’s situation. A child’s attorney will then be assigned to speak with and for any children involved and make sure their positions are known to the parents, according to Attorney Leslie Brown.

“I always say the older they are, the louder their voices become,” Brown said. “A lot of times, when you have an attorney for the child the parents will listen. Sometimes one parent can be at point A, and the other parent can be at point C, and the child is like, ‘Well mom and dad this is really what I want and why I want it.’”

“It’s an independent voice to be able to say that,” Brown said.

A child’s attorney is not just for older children; it’s for every child whose parents go through the Family Resolutions Specialty Court. Recalling a case in which she represented a 3-year-old, Brown said her role was helping to facilitate a plan for the child’s education.

A child’s attorney also makes home visits and has access to the child’s records to give a more complete picture.

Proving its worth

The specialty court is overseen by an advisory board whose members come from the wider legal and mental health communities and includes the Hampshire Probate and Family Court first justice and former first justice, the court’s chief probation officer, academics, executive directors of local social service agencies, local mental health professionals, and local attorneys, mediators and conciliators.

In addition to acting in an advisory capacity, members of the board help to raise money to fund some of the positions not currently covered by the regular court budget.

All mediators with the specialty court are volunteer while the court’s family consultant, Roth-Howe, is funded by donations administered through ServiceNet, according to Fidnick. Roth-Howe’s position is funded for the first year. The board is working to gather the funds necessary for a second year.

In the near future, Fidnick said, they are hoping to prove to the state’s overall Trial Court and the Legislature that the Family Resolution Specialty Court is worth funding.

Noelle Stern estimated it would cost around $153,000 per year to make the family consultant a full-time court employee, as well as fund a child attorney for every case and mediation. That amount of money could serve close to 40 families, according to Stern.

Fidnick and the team are also hoping the specialty court helps reduce the number of people who return to court again and again over custody disputes. Stern said there are some families who have court cases almost every year and remain in the system until the children are emancipated. Stern said that backers of the specialty court believe a lot of the repeat cases occur because the people involved are unhappy with decisions they didn’t make for themselves.

“Every skill that we can give people to work with each other for their children really means that it is another situation where they are not going to be feeling compelled to go through the court process,” Fidnick said.

Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.