Using the IAALS Model to Change the Family Law System from Within

Marsha Kline Pruett Marsha Kline Pruett
Maconda Brown O'Connor Professor, Smith College School for Social Work
Deborah Roth-Howe Deborah Roth-Howe
Family Consultant, Family Resolutions Specialty Court, Hampshire Family and Probate Court
August 21, 2019

Between 2013 and 2017, IAALS launched two centers in Denver to provide separating and divorcing families with an alternative to litigation and access to more supportive services. The vision was to replace the common legal experience in which families led with disagreement, resulting in emotional and economic hardship, with a dispute resolution model focused on mediation, mental health services, financial planning, and co-parenting collaboration. First in a university setting at the Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families and then in the community at the Center for Out-of-Court Divorce, IAALS’ centers provided these integrated services and supported parents in cooperatively making their own decisions with the help of professionals and the judge—without ever having to go to court. An evaluation of the centers found that they delivered high-quality services to participating families, yet not enough parents knew about them or chose to participate and the centers were ultimately not financially sustainable. Some families were simply afraid to step outside of the legal system, thinking it was their only option. As much as they believed it was not for the betterment of their families, it was the process with which they were familiar.

In Massachusetts, we replicated the IAALS model with some adaptation; most importantly, we chose to create change from within the system, while changing the traditional adversarial process into a more collaborative one that retains the rules of law. An advisory group of professionals, community service providers, and other stakeholders (attorneys, judges, mental health professionals, and court staff) worked together to create the innovative Family Resolutions Specialty Court (FRSC). FRSC is a program of the Probate Court and works within the system to see how education and collaboration from within can effect change.

Here’s what we created:

The FRSC was designed to help parents of minor children work through issues related to a divorce, separation, unbundled legal assistance, contempt of court, modifications, paternity, guardianships, change of parenting plan, child support, and/or legal custody. The program serves parents who are married, never married, self-represented, or guardians. Every parent who voluntarily chooses the FRSC route to resolution of the disputes that brought them to court is assigned a team that consists of a family consultant (mental health professional), a mediator, a family services officer (called a probation officer in the Massachusetts system), an attorney to represent the child(ren), themselves, and—if represented by counsel—their attorneys. There is no cost to parents for the support they receive from these professionals, except for their own attorneys.

Like the IAALS model, the FRSC program is explicitly supportive and respectful of each parent. By keeping the focus on the best interests of their child, we help parents develop effective communication skills, make decisions for their children that are not influenced by their own emotional needs, and take ownership of their agreements. The intended—and expected—result is a healthier co-parenting relationship and an increased ability to resolve problems that arise in the future.

The FRSC program is more informal than the traditional adversarial court process—a hallmark of the IAALS model. Court conferences are one essential component of the legal process and the FRSC program. In FRSC, these conferences include all members of the team plus the judge. The family and professionals sit around a conference table with the judge at the head. The judge wears the judicial robe, but no one stands when the judge joins the conference. The judge enters, shakes the parents’ hands, and always asks to see a photo of their child (in the age of cell phones, these pictures are readily available). The judge then speaks to the parents directly and they are free to ask questions and share whatever they would like the judge to know. If the parents are represented by counsel, their attorneys take a “back seat” and are there to ask questions, clarify legal concerns, and consult, but the clients speak freely for themselves. The other team members also share their impressions, report on what has been accomplished, and what is left to resolve. This process continues until parents come to a full Agreement with the support of their team or identify any unresolved issue they would like the judge to decide.

FRSC has become an increasingly popular choice for families in western Massachusetts who need the services of Family and Probate Court. We are now at capacity, serving approximately 20 families at any given period of time. We have also begun a waiting list.

Responses from participants have been gratifying:

My children will no longer be exposed to the atrocities of their parents’ previous conflicts. I used to live in a constant state of terror of the repercussions of not being able to make regular support payments. The FRSC process found a creative solution. . . . (FRSC) is legally and financially the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“I have learned a tremendous amount through . . . FRSC both as a parent and individual. FRSC has helped to make me the best father I can possibly be. . . . Truly life-changing. I hope . . . all divorces can be done in this manner.”

“Being treated professionally by all members of the team brought some closure to negative emotional hang ups with the other parent. . . . It allowed me to let go of the tie-ups with the other parent that were in the way of me seeing my kids clearly.”

“This process was very beneficial to myself as a parent and was minimally stressful. . . . It has helped me to learn to never speak poorly of her Dad in front of her. . . . We fight almost never now and seem to be understanding toward each other. I would STRONGLY recommend this process. . . . I hope it becomes the standard.”

Sometimes systems change is possible from within. It is like slowly turning an ocean liner away from an approaching storm into calmer waters. It is a slow process, and it feels heavy at times, but you can see it happening. And everyone involved has their perspective changed, just a little, as the ship turns onto its new course.

The next step for FRSC is to stabilize funding by having the legislature vote FRSC into the legislative budget. That is a process already underway, with strong support across the state. Then we hope to expand the program throughout the state. We’re excited to see IAALS’ model for improving the family court process taking hold in our state—in a somewhat different but equally exciting way than originally envisioned. All successful visions evolve and adapt, and to do so they must remain flexible and capitalize on the resources at hand. It is what we are teaching the families to do, it is how we are leading the charge in Massachusetts, and it is how IAALS continues to foster improvement across the realm of family justice.

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