The Benefits of Philly's New Family Courthouse

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    When Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Margaret T. Murphy and other Philadelphians involved in the family court system traveled to see Brooklyn, N.Y.'s family courthouse, she was struck that everything was brand new.

    Even the pushcarts matched.

    Murphy has been working in Philadelphia's domestic relations courthouse, where inmates must be brought into the courtrooms on the same elevators that the public uses, in which the courtrooms are so small that they are closed by default to the public, and in which victims of abuse and their alleged abusers await for their cases to be called into court in a waiting room with only a flimsy screen to keep them separate.

    “When you come from 34 S. 11th St. (where nothing matches), when everything matches, that's a significant moment in time,” said Murphy, the supervising judge of Philadelphia Family Court's domestic relations. “It also made us understand how important it is that you don't just get the bricks and mortar and that what you put in there is not just a bunch of junk.”

    Family court leaders also toured family courthouses in Delaware and Queens, N.Y.

    When a new family courthouse that will unify the domestic relations and juvenile branches opens next summer, an estimated 5,000 family court litigants who come to court every day will enter a state-of-the-art facility that reflects that they matter, Murphy said.

    Family law attorney Linda A. Kerns of the Law Offices of Linda A. Kerns recounted seeing the dismayed faces of clients when they walk into 34 S. 11th St. as they go to court for justice and fairness on matters that are close to their hearts. But clients feel stupefied that “’now I'm putting my fate into the hands of people in this building?’” Kerns said. The current domestic-relations courthouse is a maze of rooms and maze of reception areas.

    While the courthouse for delinquent, dependency and adoptions at 1801 Vine St. was constructed in 1941 with 37 Works Progress Administration murals and is “majestic in its appearance,” Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Kevin M. Dougherty said, “its functions at times are antiquated.”

    For example, there is no place for lawyers to talk to the children who they are representing, said Dougherty, administrative judge of the family division. Some cases involve the “most intimate, offensive and upsetting allegations,” and children won't be candid and honest regarding sexual offenses around 500 individuals they have never seen before, he said.

    Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, who oversaw the efforts to secure state funding to construct the new courthouse for several years, said the new courthouse is purpose-built while the other two courthouses were adapted to hear cases and “neither of those really fit the modern need for a ... functional, efficient courthouse.”

    Centralizing

    Family court has often been in the news in recent years. But the scandal arising from the First Judicial District's attorney entering a now-aborted dual role to co-develop the project (and the ensuing legal malpractice lawsuit) may have overshadowed other big issues in Philadelphia Family Court, including the need for a new facility and the opportunities that centralization and unification may provide to improve the practice of family law in Philadelphia.

    “A collocated family court with support agencies and support services also in the same location, that is now going to have some natural light coming through, that's going to have all the areas of family together, it's just going to transform how family law is practiced in Philadelphia and how people are going to be helped,” said Ourania Papademetriou, managing attorney at Philadelphia VIP, which organizes pro bono attorneys for domestic relations cases and adoptions.

    One of the most important things about the new building is security, Castille said.

    While 1801 Vine St. is fairly secure, the chief justice said 34 S. 11th St. “is really a horrible crime waiting to happen similar to what happened down in Delaware,” when a woman's former father-in-law murdered her and her friend in the lobby of that state's family court building.

    For the first time ever, pro se litigants will arrive at the right place no matter what the type of case, Murphy said.

    Dougherty and Murphy have jointly handled cases involving a father who has murdered the mother of their children. When other relatives have filed emergency petitions for custody of the surviving children, they were at the wrong courthouse because the domestic relations branch cannot give children to people who do not have standing, they said.

    “Now instead of saying to someone, ‘Oh, I'm sorry you're in the wrong building,’ with a child who is distraught, whose mother was just killed by his or her father, they're in the right spot,” Murphy said.

    There has been a growing trend in Pennsylvania to implement the policy of “one judge, one family” so that there are not conflicting decisions from different courts and so that jurists can be more familiar with the cases, and “we'll be able now for the very first time to at least attempt the concept of one judge handling a custody case and a dependency case,” Murphy said.

    Judges will have access to both the domestic relations case files and the dependency files, as well as access to the Philadelphia Department of Human Services and representatives from the Philadelphia school system, Murphy said.

    Centralization might also lead to other efficiencies in the system, judges and lawyers said.

    The city's social workers should have some of their time freed up from waiting around for several hours for one hearing, and they will benefit from closer proximity to DHS, said Janice M. Sulman, a family law attorney whose practice includes dependency cases.

    When social workers are sitting in court, they're not going to see children in their homes or get their paperwork done, she said.

    The majority of the families and children involved in family court cases are poor and don't have access to vehicles, Dougherty said, and it is a huge burden to require families to go to multiple locations for training, evaluations and services.

    Lessons Learned

    Murphy and Dougherty said in a joint interview that there were several lessons learned from trips to other family courthouses.

    The detention area in the courthouse will separate juveniles involved with delinquency cases and juveniles involved with dependency cases, and there also will be rooms for attorneys to interview their clients in confidence, Dougherty and Murphy said.

    There will be separate waiting areas for petitioners and respondents in domestic violence cases, Murphy said.

    Conference rooms will be provided on the floors with courtrooms to allow attorneys to try to settle cases, Murphy said.

    There will be a training area, which may allow for the introduction of classes for family court “clients” like co-parenting courses, Murphy said.

    While there already is mandatory education for court-appointed counsel, Dougherty said that it requires limiting the number of cases listed in an afternoon and shutting down courtroom waiting areas in 1801 Vine St. to hold the training in those spaces.

    Another benefit of a unified facility is that there are some services that are only available at 1801 Vine St., but there are times when people sent from 34 S. 11th St. won't go to 1801 Vine St. for the services they were instructed to get, Dougherty said.

    For example, a mother who was frustrated she lost primary physical custody of her children due to her substance abuse is not going to go to 1801 Vine St. from 34 S. 11th St. for drug testing and other services, Dougherty said.

    “We're going to lose her,'' he added.

    Now there will be one customer service floor with a pantheon of services for families, including the prevention services unit and Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, Dougherty said.

    Many Philadelphians, when struggling with an out-of-control child, think they need to have their child arrested or get DHS involved in order to get services for education and therapy, so the unified building is an opportunity to educate them on how to get assistance, Dougherty said.

    A unified family court also may educate the public on the huge difference between custody and dependency cases, Dougherty said.

    Right now, many Philadelphians, when they have lost custody of their children, report false allegations of abuse or neglect that trigger dependency cases, or false allegations of abuse that trigger protection from abuse cases, Dougherty said.

    Government Is Not a Good Parent

    Custody disputes are between private individuals, but dependency involves the government intrusion into the family, Dougherty said. Government is not a good parent, he added.

    Another potential benefit of the building is having an entire floor available for filing every single case type, whether it is a custody, support, delinquency, or protection from abuse matter, Dougherty said.

    Currently, the computer systems in the two branches are not interconnected, the judges said, although there is a manual procedure in place to try to catch cases pending in both branches involving the same families.

    The plan is to have computers in every courtroom with access to the databases involving domestic violence cases, child support cases, juvenile and dependency cases, and for custody and divorce cases.

    The database for support is probably going to be the first domestic relations type of case initiated into electronic filing, and the new building will allow for the provision of computers for pro se filers, Murphy said.

    All of the courtrooms also will allow for children to testify in separate rooms from their alleged abusers with those defendants able to view the proceedings and consult with their counsel through closed-circuit television, Dougherty said. Many times children refuse to speak against a relative who abused them, but a pilot project has shown that their testimony increases with the CCTV courtroom setup, he said.

    The family court system's pinnacle of success is achieved when families are reunified, Dougherty said.

    Finally, “after a long separation, we have finally unified the two branches back to being one family,” he said.

     


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