Nearly 15 years after the Indiana Supreme Court launched its Family Court Project, 22 counties — including Lake and Porter — are working toward a kinder, gentler, more holistic way to resolve family crises, court officials say.
"Family law cases are different than most cases," said Merrillville attorney Debra Dubovich, head of the Family Law section of the Lake County Bar Association.
"If you're hit by a drunk driver, it's an emotional thing. But when being sued by the person who promised to love, honor and cherish you your entire life, it's takes on a whole new dimension. The courtroom is never a good place to decide those issues."
A litigant may never see a drunken driving defendant again after the case is concluded, she said.
But that's not the case with families.
"If you have children, then it's for the rest of their life," Dubovich said.
Changing faces of Family Court
Initially the high court's Family Court Project focused on the basics of how the courts could share information on families that had multiple issues before the court — be they related to divorce, criminal or juvenile proceedings.
The scope since has broadened to offering services of all sorts, from mediation and counseling to truancy programs and even free legal assistance.
Few of the participating counties ended up consolidating a family's multiple cases under a unified family court system in which a family's issues are heard by a single judge or judicial officer.
And the existing projects have proven to be far from "one size fits all." Instead, they are tailored to each county's needs and resources, according to a 2011 report by the high court on the project's progress.
There's even a four-county project involving four separate counties: Bartholomew, Brown, Jackson and Lawrence. These counties share a single mediator to expedite certain divorce and paternity cases as well as those involving children in need of services.
Porter County a pioneer
While he was a legislator in the 1990s, now Porter Superior Court Judge William Alexa was in the vanguard of the high court's family court initiative.
Working with Porter Circuit Court Judge Mary Harper, Alexa obtained funding for the county as one of the three or four original demonstration projects.
"The purpose was to maintain contact with families that may have things going on in different courts," he said.
Today he receives at least a weekly printout listing families involved with the family court, Alexa said.
"It's important for me to know if one of my defendants is also involved in a domestic violence case," he said. "It's also important at sentencing time for a presentence report."
Alexa said the extra awareness allows him to modify an order in his court when he learns of a family's issues in another court.
But all family court initiatives are under the domain of Harper and have been since 2000.
Since then, Harper has sought to bridge the gap between the fields of adult and juvenile justice, according to a 2011 report to the high court.
In the report, the county details a comprehensive "full service court" process to collect information on families involved in family law and juvenile cases and provide an array of services.
Any family with multiple cases is eligible for family court and, when selected, all pending cases involving the family are included in family court proceedings — though the cases remain in their original courts.
Over the years, the county's family court initiatives have expanded to include a mental health diversion program and a juvenile and family drug court.
Lake County jumps in
In Lake County, while there is technically a single family court project, each of its three separate courts — circuit, superior court division 3 and juvenile — has established programs tailored to specific jurisdictions or needs.
"We all have similar goals," Lake Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Tavitas said recently. "It's just we have different ways of reaching them."
Lake County adopted its family court project in 2004, with Tavitas taking over the lead in superior court two years later.
"One thing we do together is share information," Tavitas said. "If there is, for example, a divorce proceeding and in the same family a child has an issue in juvenile court, I would need to know that information. It's not public record. It's confidential."
The courts' information-sharing agreement makes such information available to her, she said.
Tavitas said all three courts offer low-cost mediation services funded from court costs.
The innovation in Tavitas' court includes a pro se clinic for low-income parents filing for divorce in which a lawyer assists the couple in filling their own pleadings.
The clinic has since expanded, she said. All such divorce cases are set on a single afternoon during which a mediator assists the couple in working out an agreement.
"They go to court the same day, and the judge will approve the decree — all without any real lawyering," Tavitas said.
"Divorce is an emotional process," she added. "They've made the decisions without an adversarial process."
In 2012, Tavitas saw 1,032 new filings with the legal clinic serving 122 litigants, according to her office. Some 182 individuals benefited from mediation services.
Bar association on board
Lake County courts in recent years also adopted local family court rules, all with the support of the Lake County Bar Association.
The rules are modeled on a cooperative approach developed by Indianapolis attorney Charlie Asher.
Asher, a former trial lawyer, now works solely with a foundation created by his family to work with families in crisis.
Asher's approach can be explored by visiting uptoparents.org, designed for divorcing parents, and proudtoparent.org, focusing on parents in paternity cases.
Lake County has its own version available at lakecountykids.org.
Lake Circuit Court Judge George Paras said he supports the effort while throwing in a dose of realism.
"The cooperative rules are only as good as the people who are party to them," Paras said.
"It works well when the people want to use the tools available to them," he said. "But if they want to have a 'fight,' they have to come to court."
Residents in Lake County may file for divorce in either circuit or superior court, with about an equal number filed in each.
The circuit court's family court offering includes the Domestic Relations Bureau, which offers a wide range of services including mediation and a clinical psychologist providing low-cost custody evaluations, Paras said.
Child care for parents waiting to appear in court is offered in the children's playroom.
Some 50 percent of divorce filings are self-represented, with such court calls held on Fridays, Paras said. Litigants are directed to the website and shown what documents need to be filed.
Over in Lake Juvenile Court, Magistrate Elizabeth Tegarden said the court offers a parenting course and mediation services to parents pursuing paternity rights.
Tegarden said the programs do work when there's a reasonable possibility parents can work things out together "without going brickbats in court."