AUGUSTA — Three attorneys weighed in Thursday on changes they would like to see in the workings of the Family Division of the Maine court system, and it was a familiar refrain to the people collecting comments.
A task force appointed by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court took public comments in a session at Augusta District Court, the eighth and final hearing in a series that crossed the state over the past two weeks.
District Court Judge Daniel Driscoll, who heads the Family Division Task Force, said the focus has been largely on the family court proceedings that involve children, particularly in divorces.
“There are so many family cases where parties are not represented by attorneys or only one attorney,” Driscoll said. “We constantly need to reassess that we’re offering services to those people that are understandable and usable and that they feel like they’ve been heard. We need to meet their needs.”
Driscoll said the public hearings have been “eye-opening and amazing” and allow him and others to see a broader view than they usually get because of the crush of cases each day. He said the task force has heard from professionals who use the system, mental health workers, and consumers, among others. “It’s been eye-opening to hear their stories,” he said. “We picked up some really good tips, suggestions and pointers.”
On Thursday, 36-year practitioner Tobi L. Schneider, of the Waterville law firm Schneider and Brewer, had several suggestions, including one that magistrates presiding in the family law cases distribute literature about the Kids First programs, which help families of separating and divorcing parents, as well as a recommendation to take the coparenting course.
Driscoll, who was a family law magistrate before being appointed to the district court bench, had high praise for that program.
“It takes the focus off themselves and puts it on the children,” he said.
He said other courses are offered to grandparents, step-parents and in high-conflict cases.
Schneider also suggested that individual judges be assigned to cases.
“It would be wonderful for families to have a one-judge system, if the judge was able to follow the case through completion,” she said.
Her third suggestion involved guardians ad litem, people who serve as guardians to represent the best interests of children in cases.
She said they deserve the same $5 an hour raise as court-appointed attorneys, and that those guardians be brought in earlier in the process where possible. She also asked that printed material be available to people to explain the role of the guardian ad litem.
Her law partner, Jared S. Brewer, requested scheduling orders with deadlines be given out in divorce cases involving children just as they are in divorces without children.
“In the end, it makes it easier,” he said.
Richmond attorney Alice Knapp requested improvements in the paperwork that divorcing parties are expected to fill out.
“The forms are dreadful from a mediator and client perspective,” she said. “They’re very difficult for many of my clients just visually.”
Knapp requested more training for decision-makers, particularly around the best interests of the child.
After a three-day trial last year, she said, one parent got custody of the children and immediately moved 2,000 miles away.
“Mom is in Tennessee and dad is here and there’s no money to be flying around,” Knapp said.
State Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, an attorney and a task force member, said that while he found the attorneys’ comments helpful, he was disappointed not to hear from people who had been through the system.
He suggested consumers provide written comments. Those can be emailed to email@example.com, or sent to State of Maine, Administrative Office of the Courts, 171 State House Station, 24 Stone St., 1st Building, 1st Floor, Augusta, ME 04333-0171. The task force is also accepting written comments until 5 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24.
Almost 25,000 cases were filed in the District Court’s Family Division in fiscal 2013, according to statistics posted on the judicial branch website.
These included almost 2,998 divorce cases involving children and more than 3,227 without children, 2,277 cases involving paternity or parent rights, 6,409 cases of family post-judgment motions, and 369 cases classified as other family matters, which includes emancipation and grandparent rights, among other things.
The task force report and recommendations are to be submitted to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and the chief judge of the District Court by May 30.