Blueprint for a More Effective Family Court Intake Process and Beyond: Opening the Umbrella to Process Family Court Cases.

AuthorFieldstone, Linda

Designing an effective family court intake process is not new for Florida. The Florida Supreme Court Steering Committee on Children and Families recommended a design for a uniform court intake system in 2001. (1) However, elements for intake and case management were not integrated as a whole; rather, bits and pieces were tried by individual circuits and counties, and some systems were mandated rather arbitrarily. For example, each circuit has some form of self-help office or information center and each circuit includes different information on their websites. Taking into account that a need for a more uniform approach remains today, the Florida Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (FLAFCC) sponsored a Task Force on Family Court Intake in 2017. Co-Chairs Robert J. Merlin, Judge Sandy Karlan, Linda Fieldstone, M.Ed., and Peggie Ward, Ph.D., shepherded the work of the task force through its fruition. (2)

The task force employed several mechanisms to inform its recommendations with regard to helping parties navigate the family court system more effectively, including gathering existing options from Florida circuits and other national and international jurisdictions; compiling research; creating a "wish list"; initiating a statewide collaboration; and reviewing the possibilities generated. Four committees, comprised predominately of Florida judges, general magistrates, and professional court staff, were established. To create a blueprint for the future, these teams focused on four identified areas of exploration, creating the "ITAC" model, which includes three major components of a court case supported throughout by technology: information, triage, and case management:

1) Self-represented parties (SRPs) include those who are unrepresented by attorneys who want to file cases, as well as those who choose not to file after they better understand the court process. What information do they need and is it currently being provided, or could they be informed better? (3)

2) Triage is the process for court professionals to determine the needs of the parties with regard to the community services available, in combination with consideration for how to best track progress through the court system. The triage process begins before a case is filed and continues throughout the process as needed so that the parties can be directed in the most efficient and effective manner through the procedural steps of their legal process.

3) Case management (also referred to as case processing) and essential court-related tools to improve the way a case is managed in terms of time and court resources, including case management orders, time schedules, hearings during the process and the scheduling of a timely final hearing.

4) Technology is used to produce a more responsive, customer-friendly, effectively monitored and managed family court system.

The groundwork laid by the previous court opinion, subsequent circuit efforts, and the work of this task force and its committees was essential to the vision presented by the task force. Although the committees began their work independently to explore each specific aspect of the intake process, it became apparent that a systemic, integrated approach was necessary, and their collaboration quickly ensued. As the Florida Supreme Court envisioned:

Case differentiation means that a case should be evaluated at the outset to determine the appropriate resources for that case and the appropriate way to handle that case. Case coordination requires that the judicial system identify all cases involving that family. Case monitoring requires continued attention to the needs of the children and family as the case moves through the judicial system so that the appropriate court resources are made available and linkages to appropriate community resources are facilitated. (4) Consequently, educating SRPs, triaging a case, case management, and technology are not limited to intake procedures only; they are integral to the entire flow of each case from beginning to end. Accordingly, it is essential that procedures remain available throughout the court process to help determine the course of a case when new and compelling information is provided to the court; as the needs of the parties and their children, if any, change; and as conflict needs to be addressed and managed. Therefore, the synopsis of the task force recommendations below includes a universal model for processing cases from intake through outcome for Florida's family courts. (5)

Self-Represented Parties in the Courts Committee

The purpose of the SRPs in the Courts Committee was to develop best practices and/or recommend solutions to frequent barriers SRPs encounter while navigating the Florida family court system. SRPs are defined as any individual filing an action in the Florida civil courts who is not represented by an attorney. According to recent research, 72% of family cases involve at least one unrepresented party. (6) There are many reasons that parties choose to represent themselves, which is the subject of other studies. For our purposes, it is enough to know that SRPs make up a majority of family law dockets. The efforts to improve SRPs' experiences are vital and the subject of national attention by the National Center for State Courts. (7) When consistent best practices are implemented by the court, court support staff, clerks, and other individuals with whom the SRPs have contact, the parties' experiences with the court and legal system will significantly improve.

Pathway Identification Chart Conflict Level Possibility of Processes Indicated Resolution Low conflict or no Can resolve with Parent education, contest (few if any information and little resource referrals, resources) or no dispute mediation resolution process Medium conflict Can resolve with In addition to those (some resources input/recommendations above: co-parenting necessary to and/or professional facilitation, facilitate case flow) team in collaborative issue-focused process evaluation, collaborative process High conflict Requires more extensive In addition to those (more extensive conflict resolution and above: intensive resources, in addition coparenting oversight parent education, to those above, that parenting are necessary to coordination, social facilitate case flow) investigation, parenting...

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