By ROBIN J. DAVIS
CHARLESTON -- In the "Year of the Child, Too," the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals is making children involved in Family Court matters a priority.
Prolonged uncertainty can have lasting negative effects on children at the heart of Family Court cases, which can include divorce, paternity, changes in custodial responsibility and decision-making authority, child support, grandparent visitation, sibling visitation, infant guardianship, and domestic violence protective order proceedings. In July the Supreme Court adopted amendments to the Rules of Practice and Procedure for Family Court to improve efficiency in Family Court cases.
The amendments are available on the Supreme Court's Web site (http://www.state.wv.us/wvsca/rules/2007FCAmendments.htm). The Supreme Court also approved an expansion of "high-conflict" parent education classes and is making plans to launch a program in September 2008 for children whose parents are divorcing.
The "high-conflict" parent education classes have proved to be a success in a pilot program in Family Court Circuit Five, which includes Mason and Jackson counties. The classes are designed for parents who continue to have disputes after attending a mandatory one-time parent education class required of all divorcing couples who have children. Family Court judges refer select couples to the series of six, two-hour classes.
Beginning late this fall, the classes will be expanded from one region to 10 regions. Within the next year, each region will conduct three sessions of six-week classes with ten pairs of parents per session. The classes will use the "Cooperative Parenting™ and Divorce" program designed to assist parents experiencing moderate to high conflict.
The regions that will be conducting the classes will be:
* Cabell and Wayne counties;
* Jackson, Mason and Putnam counties;
* Wood, Wirt, Pleasants and Ritchie counties;
* Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall, Wetzel, and Tyler counties;
* Monongalia, Preston, Taylor, and Barbour counties;
* Randolph, Tucker, Grant, Pendleton, Hardy, and Pocahontas counties;
* Mineral, Hampshire, Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson counties;
* Greenbrier, Monroe, Summers, and Fayette counties;
* Raleigh, Wyoming, Mercer, and McDowell counties;
* Kanawha County.
The Supreme Court hosted a conference in Charleston Sept. 14-15 for those who will be teaching the new "high-conflict" parent education classes and those who currently teach and coordinate basic parent education classes. Every parent of a child at issue in a Family Court case must attend a one-time parent education class.
Each class teaches parents how to minimize the negative effects on children of divorce and family dissolution. They also learn about mediation, the negative effects on children of domestic violence, resources available for dealing with domestic violence, and how to prepare a parenting plan.
A form parenting plan -- available on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Web site at http://www.state.wv.us/wvsca/rules/FamilyCourt/parenting.pdf and at local Circuit Clerk offices –- assists parents in proposing important details regarding caretaking and decision-making for their children. The parenting plan may be filed by one parent or as an agreement between the parents.
When parents attend their initial Family Court hearing without a parenting agreement, the Family Court refers the parties to mediation screening.
If approved, the parents attend a mediation session with an approved Family Court mediator to try to reach consensus on issues regarding their children. Parents pay a $25 fee for parent education and another mediation fee (a sliding scale of $45 to $150 per hour), unless the fee is waived due to a parent's financial circumstances.
The Supreme Court also provides continuing education for all approved Family Court mediators every two years, with the next conference scheduled for April 21-22 in Charleston.
While parent education and mediation are designed to help parents ease the impact of their separation or divorce on children, the Supreme Court is making efforts to assist children directly. In September 2008, a Court-funded pilot children's education program in Family Court Circuit Six, which is Cabell County, will commence.
Parents may elect to have their children attend this class, which will be divided into two groups, one for ages six through 10 and one for ages 11 through 15. The classes will take place at the same time as basic parent mediation classes and will have activities to help children cope with their parents' separation or divorce. The classes will explain the divorce process to children, teach them coping mechanisms and boost their self-esteem by assuring them that the divorce or separation was not their fault and they do not have to take sides.
Keeping the best interests of children paramount, Family Courts also offer an array of other services aimed at easing the transition of families going through divorce or domestic violence proceedings. The Supreme Court's Family Court Services Division and local Family Courts distribute to children a coloring book called Visiting the Courthouse: A Kid's Guide to the Courts of West Virginia.
In cases involving serious allegations of child abuse or neglect, Family Courts report their suspicions to the local Child Protective Services office, initiating the "Overlap" process under Rules 48 and 48a of the Rules of Practice and Procedure for Family Court and Rule 3a of the Rules of Procedure for Child Abuse and Neglect.
Family Courts also may appoint a Guardian ad Litem or Parenting Plan Home Study Evaluator to assess the family situation and make recommendations. It is also quite encouraging that there has been a growth of services in the private sector for families in crisis.
The lives of people who file civil actions in Family Court are often in turmoil. They face mixed emotions and significant life changes. The West Virginia Supreme Court will continue to explore ways to transform the experience of those families from adversarial to collaborative.
Davis is Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.