Wednesday, July 18, 2001
Treatment of Children, Families in Court Will Affect Future, George Says
By J’AMY PACHECO, Staff Writer
The way children and families are treated in the court system will determine “what our society will look like in the future,” Chief Justice Ronald George said Monday.
George made his remarks during conference sponsored by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Courts, held in Monterey.
“It is safe to say that no family truly wishes to find itself before the courts,” he said. “After all, marital dissolution, child custody, child neglect, delinquency, and criminal conduct typically are the reasons that bring them there. What we do for these families in trouble—how we treat them and the resources we can bring to bear to assist them, can have profound consequences not only for each affected individual, but also for our society as a whole.”
The state’s court system, George said, has undergone “sweeping changes” in its structure over the past few years. He recalled having made visits to each of the state’s courts in 1996, and learning that the courts faced severe financial problems “with no relief in sight.”
He recalled the implementation of the Trial Court Funding Act, which shifted funding of the courts to the state, and also recalled the steps that led to the unification of the state’s trial courts.
“The implementation of unification has been followed by a flowering of new initiatives in courts across California,” he said. “New dedicated drug and domestic violence courts were begun in locations across the state. More courts were able to offer more services at more locations, and innovations, such as the first juvenile mental health calendar in the nation, held in Judge Edwards’ now county of Santa Clara last February, became the rule, rather than the exception.”
Other services, including increased assistance for pro per litigants, family court coordinators, certification systems for interpreters and the increased use of technology, were also added, he said.
George lauded unification and state funding as “the twin building blocks of a stronger foundation for the California court system.”
He credited the Judicial Council with also taking “a far more active role in fulfilling their constitutional responsibility for setting policy for the judicial system in our state.”
The jurist called California “a fertile place for experimentation and for learning about what can best serve all aspects of our communities.”
“Ours is the most diverse and populous state in the nation, with a population that has grown almost 14 percent in the past decade to approximately 34 million people,” he said. “Our economy is the fifth largest in the world. And at the beginning of the year, we became the first state in the country without a majority or racial or ethnic group.”
That growth and diversity, he pointed out, have “presented some daunting challenges for our juvenile and family court systems,” as well as to the justice system as a whole.
“The percentage of children is growing at a faster rate than the general population—and California has racked up some numbers that we are not proud of,” he said.
In 1997, he said, the state ranked 48th out of the 50 states in terms of the number of incarcerated juveniles.
At the same time the state had some 20,000 juveniles in custody, it had more than 100,000 children in out-of-home care – a number that represents about 20 percent of the total in the nation.
“Improvements in California’s ability to deal successfully with juvenile and family law issues necessarily will be crucial to progress in the United States as a whole,” he pointed out.
The challenges faced by the state’s juvenile and family courts, he said, seem difficult to solve.
“But in California, we know that our best chance for success lies in continuing to learn from and cooperate with each other, exchanging information and strategies for meeting critical needs and planning for the future,” he observed.
The most pressing challenges, he said, “arise in multiple jurisdictions.”
“For example, juvenile and family courts often are considered of lower status than other court assignments,” he pointed out. “Calendars in those courts frequently are overcrowded and emotionally taxing, and the use of novice judges combined with the rapid turnover of those who do serve in those assignments often created problems of lack of expertise and continuity.”
Those conditions, he said, can be traced back as far as 1949, when a study determined that there was “an urgent need for improvement” in juvenile proceedings.
“Unfortunately, not enough has changed since that dismal evaluation almost 50 years ago, except that there is now a growing awareness and desire to improve how we deal with juveniles,” he said.
Juvenile and family courts, he said, are often “the last to receive upgraded facilities and equipment.”
“A recent statewide study by the Task Force on Court Facilities highlights the sad state of these structures in many counties across California, and it is our hope that state funding and unification, combined with this recent survey and related recommendations for action, will allow us to mitigate some of the disparities that have developed among counties over the years and to provide facilities that meet the unique needs of family and juvenile proceedings,” he said.
George pointed to the increasing number of pro per litigants as a particular challenge. In some counties, he said, as many as 60 percent of family law cases involve at least one self-represented litigant. In an additional 30 percent of the cases, neither side has layers, he said.
“These self-represented individuals typically are unfamiliar with their rights and with court procedures, leaving them at a disadvantage,” he said. Courts, he added, are also required to expend “an inordinate amount of resources” aiding those litigants.
He praised the state as having a “tremendous resource of talent and dedication to draw upon in crafting effective responses to the challenges that confront us.”
“Our partnership with you,” he told those present, “and our ability to learn from the efforts of other states has been a crucial component in the inroads we have been able to make.”
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company