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By Jerome Shestack, President, American Bar Association

Imagine one family, one court, and one judge who has the entire picture of that family's problems. It happens in some places, where they have unified family courts.

But stories like this are much more common: Mary, a mother of three, finally summons the strength to leave her abusive husband, Jim. She flees with her children to a domestic violence shelter, where the staff encourages her to take out a protective order against her husband. Meanwhile, he files for temporary custody of the children, and has her arrested for kidnaping. What does Mary do?

Mary goes to court. Or rather, Mary goes to many courts.

She goes before one judge to get the protection order, another to defend the kidnaping charge, and yet another to fight the custody petition. If she wants to obtain custody of the children, and to file for divorce, that probably means she goes before yet another judge. Do all the judges know what is going on with this case in other courtrooms? Not necessarily; in some jurisdictions, not likely. Just when Mary needs the support of the justice system, bureaucracy gets in the way.

Unified family courts, in contrast, normally require a single court team to track and decide all the family's legal problems, including custody, divorce, juvenile delinquency, child support, and criminal charges arising from domestic violence. Judges are trained not only in the law, but also in the delivery of social services, and, in most cases, dispute resolution. Unified family courts are based on the premise that a family's social and legal needs are best served when one judge and social services team is assigned the case. The team stays with the family until the issues are resolved, and sometimes beyond.

Unified family courts ensure that domestic problems are comprehensively addressed, and help ward off potential domestic crises in the future. The courts employ social and mental health counseling, and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, to address problems within families that may manifest themselves in abberant behavior. Nonlegal issues and legal issues that don't require a judge can be separated out by experts, so that they don't take up precious court time.

Twelve states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have unified family courts of some kind, and some localities in a few other states use such a system. But that's not enough. All citizens of all our states should have access to this type of system.

At a time when daily headlines of family disfunction, domestic violence and juvenile crime jump out at us, we need another approach.

Mary and the thousands like her should receive appropriate, efficient resolution from the justice system, including the services they need to ensure the family's health and safety. Unified family courts can provide that.

EDITORS: For verification, please contact Chris Tozer, American Bar Association, Media Relations, at 312/988-6128, or [email protected].