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Joe Surkiewicz: Symposium to tackle families in crisis

Just over 15 years ago, Baltimore became home to one of the first courts in Maryland dedicated to solving the problems of families in crisis — and not just their legal problems.

Now is the right time to pause and look back at the family justice system’s accomplishments since the creation of the Baltimore City Circuit Court’s Family Division and to look ahead at ways to solve new issues facing families.

That’s what will happen June 1 at the University of Baltimore School of Law, which will host “Maryland’s Family Justice System: A Symposium.”

“We came up with the idea for the symposium because it’s just past the 15th year since Maryland implemented the Family Division,” said UB Law professor Barbara A. Babb, director of UB’s Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts. The center is sponsoring the symposium with assistance from the Maryland Administrative Office of the Court’s Department of Family Administration.

“We expect that a number of judges will be coming, including former Chief Judge Robert Bell, who put the Family Division together,” she added. “He’s the one who recognized that a family court for Maryland really made sense, and he made it happen.”

By court rule 16-204, family divisions were created in Maryland’s five largest subdivisions: Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Montgomery, and Prince George’s counties.

Since the Family Division’s creation in 1998, many new judges have been appointed to the bench and need to be updated about its role. In addition to divorce, Family Division judges have the authority to address adoption, guardianship, child support, custody and visitation matters, as well as juvenile delinquency and child abuse and neglect.

“The point of the symposium is to discuss what the entire family justice system in Maryland — not just the Family Division — is doing and to keep moving forward to make the system even better,” Babb said.

To prepare for the event, UB Law surveyed judges, magistrates and court services providers.

“We found there’s a need for a more holistic approach in order to truly help families — meaning, among other things, the provision of more nonlegal services,” Babb reported. “A majority of the survey respondents said they want to do more to help families, but they don’t know how.”

The survey also revealed that many are unaware of a key document, “Performance Standards and Measures for Maryland’s Family Divisions,” a collaborative effort that Babb helped write and that spells out the division’s mission statement, system values, performance standards and measurement tools.

On hand at the June 1 symposium will be Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, who gave administrative leave to the judges so they can attend. Former Chief Judge Bell will offer his reflections on how and why the Family Division was set in motion.

“We’ll hear why it was created, as a problem-solving court to address the legal and nonlegal issues in family law cases with the aim of making lives better,” Babb said.

While the symposium will be a celebration, it will also serve to explore ways to improve Maryland’s family justice system. Some family law issues coming into courthouses either weren’t around in 1998 or are significantly more pronounced than they were back then.

Take, for example, self-represented litigants.

“People now have access to the courts due to the provision of family law form pleadings,” Babb said. “Before that, most individuals had no access to family justice unless they had a lawyer. Now, self-represented litigant assistance projects housed in each circuit court offer assistance to thousands of individuals.”

While self-represented litigants getting help is a good thing, she said, it also presents challenges to the courts.

“How much direction can the court give to a self-represented litigant? It’s especially tough if one side in a family dispute has a lawyer and the other doesn’t,” Babb noted. “Family law is the greatest area of unmet legal need historically. How much can a judge tell a litigant to do or say to just, for example, get a divorce? It puts the judge in a difficult situation.”

Nonlegal issues are also more prevalent these days.

“In Baltimore City and throughout Maryland, there’s a terrible heroin problem,” Babb said. “In a family law case with an underlying substance abuse issue, for example, it’s important for the court to address this nonlegal issue in order to keep litigants from returning to court for the same or similar legal problems. Unless and until the nonlegal issues are addressed, family law cases cannot be resolved in a satisfactory manner.”

Other nonlegal issues in family law cases include homelessness and domestic violence. “We need to address those underlying causes,” she said. “We need to be attentive to issues that keep bringing people back to court.”

The afternoon symposium’s keynote speaker is Frank Kros, executive vice president of the Children’s Guild, a Baltimore nonprofit that helps children and adolescents with trauma disorders.

The first of two panels will consist of judges and magistrates (formerly masters). “They are decision makers who care deeply about family law,” Babb said. “The second panel is composed of attorneys and services providers with great insight about how courts can do better.

“The panels will be followed by a large group discussion that we hope can begin to chart a course to move forward in family justice system reform efforts,” Babb added. That will be followed by cocktails and mingling.

The symposium is Monday, June 1, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., at the John and Frances Angelos Law Center, 1401 N. Charles St. in Baltimore. Registration:

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is