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Family courts for pro se parents

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While family courts have been around in Indiana for the last decade, the counties that have them continue to make changes to improve access to justice to all litigants who are in the system.

A few of the upgrades since the programs first began in 2000 include cases being bundled together, education and information about non-legal services, better access to necessary documents, and starting in June 2009 in Marion County, a new in-house mediation program for low-income parties that is seeking volunteer mediators who will get paid for their time.

"When people get divorced, they think it'll be like a trip to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles," said Marion Superior Judge Robyn Moberly, the supervising judge of the Marion County Family Court Project. "They think they just need to come in, sign a few documents, and they're divorced."

Because of this misconception, she said the court staff would get frustrated because there wasn't much they could do.

This wasn't just the case in Marion County, said Loretta Oleksy, Family Court Project manager at the Division of State Court Administration. The program includes 23 of Indiana's 92 counties.

Some of the smaller counties might not need to have a family court program, she added, considering those counties might have only one court and one judge.

However, counties with large populations like Marion, Lake, St. Joseph, Porter, Vanderburgh, and Allen have litigants with multiple cases in multiple courts all happening at the same time.

With the bundling option available in many counties that have family court projects, if someone has a divorce case happening at the same time as a Child in Need of Services case, a paternity case, or even a criminal case, those cases can be grouped together so the same judge knows about all of them.

This can be helpful because sometimes there's an issue in a divorce about parenting time, said Marya Jones, the family court coordinator for Marion Superior Court. For example, if the father is given parenting time that would require him to pick up the children, but he has a pending DUI and doesn't have a license, or if there's a protective order, it would be helpful to the judge handling the divorce to know the father can't pick up the children and to arrange the custody agreement and parenting time accordingly.

Another example Judge Moberly gave was when a mother would have drug charges and a pending divorce at the same time, and the drug charges could be related to a CHINS case. With the CHINS case in the juvenile court and the divorce case in a different court in front of a different judge, the judge handling the CHINS case would benefit from knowing about the divorce case and vice versa.

As in the example of the mother with a history of drug abuse, the family court can help in other ways, she said. For instance, through Diane Griner of the service referral area of the Marion County Family Court Project, families can access services such as counselors, rehabilitation programs, job training, mental health services, or other services.

Griner works with the parents to determine if their insurance will cover any health services, and if not, she'll help them learn who can take them at a reduced rate. She then makes the initial appointment and follows up. This information is shared with the court official overseeing the case.

Indianapolis-based family law attorney Patricia McKinnon, who's been following the program, said, "From my point of view, conflicts between the parents often relate to other problems that remain unsolved in a parent's life, such as alcoholism, mental illness, etc. By treating the parent, the children can benefit from less conflict between the parents, and by a parent getting the help he or she needs with the assistance of the court staff."

Barbara Davis, who oversees the project's access program, helps parents reach an agreement that the parents are willing to live with on at least a temporary basis. The parties can meet with Davis as other issues come up.

The resource center, where parents can contact the access center and get information about services, is something Oleksy was particularly impressed with.

"It's a one-stop shop for services, referrals, and other needs," she said. "Familylaw issues cause emotional distress. To have someone who is separated from the emotional aspects of a case can be very helpful to litigants."

The center includes computers for litigants' use to download, complete, and print forms. They can also access the Supreme Court's pro se video through the center, as well as a pro se video Marion County has available. Litigants also can check out DVDs of these videos to watch at home if they can't watch at the center.

The newest program through the Marion Court Family Law Project, which is unique to Marion County, is a modest means in-house mediation program that started June 1, 2009.

By agreeing to participate they can be paid $100 per hour: litigants pay on a sliding scale and the court pays the rest for a maximum of three hours, Jones said.

Like any mediation, Jones said the litigants have a chance to have a say in what they agree to, while a judge would decide for them if they're case went to court.

"The greatest aspect of this mediation is that parents realize they can communicate and talk to each other without animosity," Jones said. "This way they can focus on what's best for their children."

Having the mediation in the courthouse is also beneficial to parties, Jones added, because "for better or worse, they already know where the city-county building is."

Another benefit, Jones said, is "we can set up child support right away by going to the office next door."

While the parties don't need attorneys to represent them at mediations, if one party does have an attorney, that attorney can look over the agreement.

Right now, the program has up to 18 regular mediators, but they're always looking for more.

Judge Moberly and Jones encouraged certified mediators looking to get experience to consider signing up for the program. To get involved, contact Jones at (317) 327-3705 or mejones@indy.gov.

To better serve litigants, the court recently received a grant for a national expert to look at what the court does and determine best practices for Marion County, which could also be applied to other counties' family court projects.

People involved in the older programs have helped the newer programs, Oleksy said, which has been helpful to all the programs.

"The programs are so varied," she added. "Every county has different challenges and resources. Populations vary in size, in terms of issues of urban and rural areas, or even different pockets of ethnicity."

On the statewide level, she added, there will soon be a client satisfaction survey offered to litigants, and two new programs will be announced in the coming weeks.

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  1. Falk said “At this point, at this minute, we’ll savor this particular victory.” “It certainly is a historic week on this front,” Cockrum said. “What a delight ... “Happy Independence Day to the women of the state of Indiana,” WOW. So we broke with England for the right to "off" our preborn progeny at will, and allow the processing plant doing the dirty deeds (dirt cheap) to profit on the marketing of those "products of conception." I was completely maleducated on our nation's founding, it would seem. (But I know the ACLU is hard at work to remedy that, too.)

  2. congratulations on such balanced journalism; I also love how fetus disposal affects women's health protection, as covered by Roe...

  3. It truly sickens me every time a case is compared to mine. The Indiana Supreme Court upheld my convictions based on a finding of “hidden threats.” The term “hidden threat” never appeared until the opinion in Brewington so I had no way of knowing I was on trial for making hidden threats because Dearborn County Prosecutor F Aaron Negangard argued the First Amendment didn't protect lies. Negangard convened a grand jury to investigate me for making “over the top” and “unsubstantiated” statements about court officials, not hidden threats of violence. My indictments and convictions were so vague, the Indiana Court of Appeals made no mention of hidden threats when they upheld my convictions. Despite my public defender’s closing arguments stating he was unsure of exactly what conduct the prosecution deemed to be unlawful, Rush found that my lawyer’s trial strategy waived my right to the fundamental error of being tried for criminal defamation because my lawyer employed a strategy that attempted to take advantage of Negangard's unconstitutional criminal defamation prosecution against me. Rush’s opinion stated the prosecution argued two grounds for conviction one constitutional and one not, however the constitutional true threat “argument” consistently of only a blanket reading of subsection 1 of the intimidation statute during closing arguments, making it impossible to build any kind of defense. Of course intent was impossible for my attorney to argue because my attorney, Rush County Chief Public Defender Bryan Barrett refused to meet with me prior to trial. The record is littered with examples of where I made my concerns known to the trial judge that I didn’t know the charges against me, I did not have access to evidence, all while my public defender refused to meet with me. Special Judge Brian Hill, from Rush Superior Court, refused to address the issue with my public defender and marched me to trial without access to evidence or an understanding of the indictments against me. Just recently the Indiana Public Access Counselor found that four over four years Judge Hill has erroneously denied access to the grand jury audio from my case, the most likely reason being the transcription of the grand jury proceedings omitted portions of the official audio record. The bottom line is any intimidation case involves an action or statement that is debatably a threat of physical violence. There were no such statements in my case. The Indiana Supreme Court took partial statements I made over a period of 41 months and literally connected them with dots… to give the appearance that the statements were made within the same timeframe and then claimed a person similarly situated would find the statements intimidating while intentionally leaving out surrounding contextual factors. Even holding the similarly situated test was to be used in my case, the prosecution argued that the only intent of my public writings was to subject the “victims” to ridicule and hatred so a similarly situated jury instruction wouldn't even have applied in my case. Chief Justice Rush wrote the opinion while Rush continued to sit on a committee with one of the alleged victims in my trial and one of the judges in my divorce, just as she'd done for the previous 7+ years. All of this information, including the recent PAC opinion against the Dearborn Superior Court II can be found on my blog www.danbrewington.blogspot.com.

  4. On a related note, I offered the ICLU my cases against the BLE repeatedly, and sought their amici aid repeatedly as well. Crickets. Usually not even a response. I am guessing they do not do allegations of anti-Christian bias? No matter how glaring? I have posted on other links the amicus brief that did get filed (search this ezine, e.g., Kansas attorney), read the Thomas More Society brief to note what the ACLU ran from like vampires from garlic. An Examiner pledged to advance diversity and inclusion came right out on the record and demanded that I choose Man's law or God's law. I wonder, had I been asked to swear off Allah ... what result then, ICLU? Had I been found of bad character and fitness for advocating sexual deviance, what result then ICLU? Had I been lifetime banned for posting left of center statements denigrating the US Constitution, what result ICLU? Hey, we all know don't we? Rather Biased.

  5. It was mentioned in the article that there have been numerous CLE events to train attorneys on e-filing. I would like someone to provide a list of those events, because I have not seen any such events in east central Indiana, and since Hamilton County is one of the counties where e-filing is mandatory, one would expect some instruction in this area. Come on, people, give some instruction, not just applause!

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