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An ethic of care: Book calls for new approach to family courts

UB Law professor, co-author advocate for holistic system

Professor Barbara A. Babb teaches a class at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she directs the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts. (Courtesy of the University of Baltimore)

Professor Barbara A. Babb teaches a class at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she directs the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts. (Photo courtesy of the University of Baltimore)

When family members go to an emergency room, they expect to leave feeling better than they did when they arrived.

The same cannot be said for families who go to family court. In a new book, authors Barbara A. Babb and Judith D. Moran propose ways to improve the family justice system.

The book, “Caring for Families in Court: An Essential Approach to Family Justice,” envisions the family court as a “care center,” where judges, attorneys and others who interact with families and children understand the underlying issues that brought them to a courthouse in the first place.

Babb, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and the director of its Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts, emphasizes the critical importance of a new approach to family court.

“The number of family law cases in jurisdictions worldwide dominates courts,” she said. “Combined with the increasing complexity of cases, family courts must consider ways to streamline operations and yield more helpful outcomes for children and families. Care is an essential ingredient in an approach to justice for families that is holistic and effective. Further, courts can strengthen their problem-solving capabilities by utilizing the ethic of care as an animating principle of the family justice system.”

Babb and Moran propose a blend of current theories surrounding court reform in family law, including unified family courts, the ecology of human development and therapeutic jurisprudence. They also stress the importance of making sure that everyone who interacts with families and children in court follows an ethic of care and strives to understand the individuals’ stories.

“Like hospital emergency rooms, people come to family court when they’re in crisis,” Babb said. “The notion of caring is essential if you are going to be able to provide an effective remedy for them.”

Babb and Moran have known each other for 20 years. They met when Moran was a student in Babb’s family law class after a career as a nurse and psychologist. Moran was attracted to Babb’s approach to family law.

“She spoke about the law in more holistic terms,” Moran said.

Moran became Babb’s research assistant and the two went on to publish several articles together. The duo decided they wanted to write a book that summed up their views on family law and that looked at how different disciplines come together, as well as at the ethic of care.

“These are some notions I’ve been thinking about, talking about for a long time and decided the time was right,” Babb said.

In the book, the authors talk about the importance of adopting a well-rounded approach to family law to ease the burden on courts.

“Family law cases are the reason people are coming to court,” Babb said. “That’s our rationale for focusing on handling these cases most effectively. If the court simply slaps on a remedy that is not thoughtful, not effective, the families will return because the court is not solving their problem.”

Babb said that family courts need to empower individuals to solve problems outside the court system when appropriate, such as in mediation.

Each family is unique and comes to court for its own reason, which requires a nuanced perspective – or narrative — that looks at each family’s story, the authors said. Not all families come to court to seek only legal relief. Some face economic hardship, substance abuse or mental health issues and courts need to be able to respond to the family’s global situation, the authors say.

“You really need to be trained in how to step into somebody else’s shoes, and that is achieved by really listening,” Moran said.

The book ends with a chapter devoted to “portraits of caring,” which includes empathetic judicial opinions and discusses the importance of court facilities and aesthetics. The chapter also describes courts in other parts of the world, including an aboriginal children’s court in Australia and a floating court on the Amazon River in Brazil.

Babb and Moran plan to hold a book event at the UB School of Law on April 25.