Consider idea of split custody - Only Lawyers Win with Current Divorce System - Children and Families Lose

I made the September 20, 2006, issue of the Houston Chronicle regarding

Consider idea of split custody

THE Chronicle's Sept. 17 article "Families pay for court delays / Proposal made to spread family law cases among other civil judges" shed a dark light on the nightmare that is our state's family court system.

OK, so the woman who was profiled, Teresa Lauderdale, won custody of her children. But at what cost? Close to $300,000, and she had to file for bankruptcy after the divorce.

One may surmise that Lauderdale's former husband paid a significant amount to his lawyer, as well.

The way our courts handle custody issues means that the "winner" usually the mom gets the child, regardless if both parents are fit. It also means that the "loser" usually the dad is ordered to pay child support, regardless whether both parents are earning equitable salaries.

Who loses in this custody court? The child routinely loses frequent contact with the father.

This civil court action also guarantees work for future criminal courts, as children raised without a dad are much more likely to drop out of school or get into trouble. Our prisons are full of men who did not have an involved father.

Why not consider the concept of 50/50 shared parenting and no one pays child support? When there is a conviction of violence or a parent does not want custody, child support can be ordered. But the cost to divorcing parents and for taxpayers to build more family courts could be avoided.

Another advantage to shared custody: Children would have equal access to both parents.

DON MATHIS editor of newsletter for noncustodial parents, Sherman


Sept. 17, 2006, 10:50AM

Families pay for court delays

Proposal made to spread family law cases among other civil judges

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle


Four years after getting divorced, Teresa Lauderdale remains bitter about how things went in court.

In the end, she won custody of her children. But she said the divorce shouldn't have taken 18 months, and she shouldn't have had to spend $300,000. A lawyer appointed to represent her children called an attorney ad litem prolonged the proceedings, greatly raising the costs, Lauderdale said.

"The costs wouldn't have gotten close to $300,000 if she hadn't been the ad litem," said Lauderdale, who filed for bankruptcy after the divorce.

Lauderdale is among the critics who say divorces and hearings are delayed in Harris County family courts that have overwhelming caseloads and rely too heavily on ad litems, whose busy schedules sometimes result in postponed hearings.

With local officials and state district judges casting about for ways to get family cases heard more quickly, two judges have agreed to take part in a pilot study that could provide lessons on reducing the caseloads in the nine family courts.

Judge Martha Hill Jamison, who presides in the 164th state civil district court, will provide relief to family court Judge Frank Rynd when she begins hearing a few of his cases next week.

She eventually may handle as much as 10 percent of Rynd's docket an arrangement that could mean hearings on temporary custody and other divorce-related matters don't have to be rescheduled when Rynd and his associate judge are backed up.

"Some days, we have 25 hours of hearings slotted," Rynd said. "On those days, I can give Judge Jamison a call. People can get frustrated when they don't get a hearing."


Arrangement sought

County Commissioner Steve Radack has been urging civil and family judges to negotiate an arrangement that would allow most or all of the 25 civil courts to hear family cases.


But civil District Judge Mark Davidson, the county's administrative judge overseeing the state district courts, wants family cases to stay in family courts, where he says the judges have expertise in family law, domestic violence and child support.

Most urban counties nationwide have such courts because they tend to reach better and fairer arrangements for children and parents, he said.

"Speciality courts have met the test of time. They are being used in nearly every urban county in the country. The people of Harris County are entitled to a judiciary that is as knowledgeable about the law as the lawyers appearing before them," Davidson said.

San Antonio is among the nation's large cities that do not have separate family courts. In Bexar County, the same 13 judges hear family and civil cases.

Gary Hutton, Bexar County state district civil court administrator, said the judges are adept at both types of cases because they hear so many.

In Travis County, most family cases are heard by three associate civil judges and two state district civil judges. But the seven other state district civil judges in Austin hear family cases when their civil dockets don't interfere or a family case is especially pressing, said Leticia Rodriguez, a Travis County judicial aide.

Dallas County has criminal, family and civil speciality courts.


Ad litems add to cost

Divorce can be especially costly there and in Houston. When the Texas House juvenile and family issues committee examined divorce costs seven years ago, it concluded that Houston was the most expensive place in the country to go through a contested divorce, followed by Dallas, said state Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, the committee's vice chair.


The cost of a contested divorce in Houston often exceeds $40,000, he said.

Lauderdale said costs could be much lower if judges did not appoint ad litems, psychologists and psychiatrists in so many cases.

"Ad litems and experts often just aren't needed," Lauderdale said.

She suggested creating an oversight committee on ad litems, comprising judges, lawyers and nonlawyers.

Lauderdale does not think civil judges should hear family cases because they lack expertise on family-law matters.

Radack said, however, that family cases can drag on for years because family judges have such large caseloads. He praised Jamison and Rynd for agreeing to the pilot study. "It's a move in the right direction, but more civil judges need to do this," he said.


Spreading cases around

Radack said spreading family cases among civil judges would save the county money because it could avoid building a proposed $90 million Family Law Center. Commissioners Court is mulling over whether to ask voters to float a bond to pay for the building and will discuss the issue Sept. 26.


Radack wants the nine family courts to move into the new Civil Courthouse, which opened in March.

In a memo obtained by the Houston Chronicle, Mike Yancey, director of county facilities and property management, said the 17-story Civil Courthouse has four unused courtrooms and shell space where four others could be built on the 16th floor. A ninth courtroom could be built on the 17th floor.

Excluding cases stemming from failure to pay taxes, which do not take much time, each of the 25 civil courts had about 1,100 pending cases at the end of last year, compared with an average of 2,600 in each of the nine family courts.

Supporting Radack's idea of having civil judges hear family cases are lawyers and others who view the family courts as clubby fraternities where a lawyer's ties to a judge outweigh evidence and rules of procedure.


Insider clout

"If you're not an insider down there, your client is in a bad, bad position, especially if you're up against someone who is down there all the time and is donating to the judge's campaign," said Chris Maurer, a civil lawyer from Bellaire and member of Fathers for Equal Rights, which advocates for fair treatment for fathers in the family courts.

Spreading the family caseload among more judges could lead to a fairer system, he said. "I think it's a fantastic idea," he said. "I've long maintained that having courts of general jurisdiction could solve many of the problems in these speciality courts. It would really be to the benefit of children and families."