The path to healthy families
When parents split up in Nevada County, the first thing the court makes them do is listen to the words of children who have lived through divorce:
“One time, my dad didn’t have any contact with me for more than a year.”
“Because my parents split up so soon after I was born, I felt I had caused their problems, that they would still be together if I hadn’t been born.”
“My mom would say to me, ‘Now when you see your dad, tell him he needs to pay child support because you need new jeans.'”
These are children who are pawns in their parents’ power struggles; children who watch their parents scream and call each other foul names; children who are being asked to choose sides in a war that isn’t theirs.
At a recent orientation for parents coming into Unified Family Court, a half-dozen people watched the short film about children of divorced parents. By the end, they all were sniffling and blowing their noses.
In this court that encourages cooperation over litigation, parents are supposed to come to understand that this is not about them, their broken hearts and their righteous anger.
It’s about their children.
Divorce is the most common way people come into Unified Family Court, but they also could come because of juvenile delinquency, parental neglect or family violence.
One problem can spawn another and another, showing up in the children and the grandchildren.
“It’s central to get these parents to stop the cycle of conflict,” said Superior Court Judge Carl F. Bryan II, the man most responsible for shaping Nevada County’s Family Court into its present form. “Our central theme is that conflict between the parents hurts the children now and forever.”
The idea for creating Unified Family Court came to Bryan many years ago when he visited court proceedings in Los Angeles. As an anonymous member of the public, he saw some things more clearly than when he was on the other side of the bench.
“It was apparent that an adversarial approach wasn’t good for families and children,” said Bryan, of the Nevada County Superior Court.
He talked with lawyers, therapists and teachers about how to get to the root of the problem. He realized the root was conflict.
“The greatest unrecognized problem in our community is that children are asked to carry the weight of their parents’ conflicts,” Bryan said.
A child is like a flower, and conflict strangles the flower’s roots, said family court mediator Serge Aronow, a former probation deputy turned licensed family therapist. He has seen the court’s approach to families evolve since 1978, when he started working at Juvenile Hall.
“If the roots are knotted up, that child will never be all he can be,” Aronow said. “That was Judge Bryan’s vision. ‘Let’s untangle the roots.'”
Since then, Bryan and other like-minded people developed a court system that relies on mediation as a first course of action whenever possible.
People are asked to come to agreements about their behavior. The court may get help in living up to those agreements, including anger management counseling or parenting classes.
A negligent parent can get help with a substance-abuse problem.
A boy who shoplifts because of family conflict can trigger counseling for the whole family.
A truant girl can get help in healing the scars of sexual abuse.
Angry parents can learn to put their children’s needs above their own pain.
“Every family problem I’ve ever dealt with has been an emergency,” Bryan said. “It’s an emergency room model of mediation. We wanted to design a court process that helps people when they are in crisis.”
In Unified Family Court, family members with different legal problems see the same judge and lawyers.
“It gives us a place to look at the dynamic of the family in a bigger context,” said Superior Court Judge Julie McManus. Before being appointed in December, she prosecuted child abuse cases in Family Court and later represented Child Protective Services for the County Counsel’s office, also in Family Court.
“In Juvenile Dependency Court (one of the components of Family Court), maybe the parents have drug problems,” McManus said, sketching out a common scenario. “I might be prosecuting an older sibling involved in drugs. I might be prosecuting the parents for abuse or neglect in criminal court.
“The children have been taken away. The parents participate in Adult Drug Court. They have rehabilitation as part of their efforts to reunify the family. Case managers oversee the cases, giving them structure and supervision. If we can resolve the addiction, they can become very good parents and can keep the family together.”
Girls’ Court is another Bryan vision, McManus said. “There are other issues for the young girls that wind up in Juvenile Court. Often, they are acting out past issues of abuse and they need to be treated much differently from the boys.”
Mediation doesn’t solve all problems laid bare in Family Court.
A woman tearfully related her frustrations by cellular telephone to a friend after a recent mediation with her child’s father. Earlier in the morning, Superior Court Judge Sean P. Dowling had ordered the couple into their fourth mediation session.
“He called me a vindictive bitch,” the woman said of her former partner, talking through her sobs. “The judge told him that sometimes it takes repetition to come to understanding, but he just doesn’t get it.”
McManus, who said she prosecuted the grandparents of some of the children now appearing in juvenile courts, says “The biggest frustration is we’re starting to see the third generation coming through the system.”
As Nevada County’s population grows, so does the stress on local families and the court system.
“Fortunately, it’s still manageable,” Dowling said. “We’re not underworked, but it’s still manageable.”
Yet more could be done to support families in crisis, the judges said.
Teenagers going through the system could benefit from parenting classes, McManus suggested. In many cases, they first came into the courts because their own parents did not know how to be parents.
“Then they turn 18 and go out and become parents themselves, and the cycle repeats itself,” McManus said.
Some families could benefit from a thorough psychological evaluation at the beginning of the process, Dowling said. But that’s costly – about $5,000 – and only the most conflicted cases get that now.
“In some of these cases,” Dowling said, “we just don’t know enough about the people. Are they capable of being parents?”
Bryan recently announced he would retire at the end of his term, which expires at the end of this year, after 23 years on the bench.
Yet the also-recent appointments to the bench of three people who have spent years in the same court system – Dowling, McManus, and Court Commissioner B. Scott Thomsen, formerly a private family law and criminal defense attorney – make Bryan feel sure that the vision of the Family Court will continue to grow and evolve.
“We all have a strong belief that, if we don’t have an impact in the family law and juvenile courts, then we’ve failed because that’s where we need to address and stop the problems,” McManus said.
Dowling now heads up the Unified Family Court.
His brings his own experiences to the task: he raised his three children as a single father for several years. His second wife brought a fourth child into the new blended family.
A particular boy who was in his court recently reminded Dowling of the reason for this kind of court system, and its power to allow healing.
“He was about 12 or 13 years old. The family was in just a lot of conflict.
“But I really felt he was a good kid. I talked to him. I spent a lot of time with him. I think we can reach him,” Dowling said. “That’s very satisfying.”
To contact staff writer Trina Kleist, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4231.
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