August 15, 2005 Assistant Editor Regular News It’s imperative for family courts to communicate It’s imperative for family courts to communicate ‘We’ve failed because our approach has been disjointed and fragmented. . . we don’t share information’ Melinda Melendez Assistant Editor For some Florida families, a unified court can mean the difference between life and death.According to the latest annual report of the Florida Child Abuse Death Review, of the 161 child deaths reviewed over the past five years, 92 children, or 57 percent, had five or more risk factors present at the time of the child’s death. If you ask Barry Krischer, state attorney for the 15th Circuit, some of these deaths may have been prevented through the utilization of a unified family court.“What all the numbers really mean is that we, and that includes the criminal justice system, family court, our juvenile court, DCF, among others, knew of these children, and despite as many as five risk factors, we failed these children and we allowed them to die,” said Krischer, who spoke at the Criminal Law Section luncheon at the Bar’s Annual Meeting. “That is unacceptable. We’ve failed because our approach has been disjointed and fragmented. And that occurs because we don’t share information.”The unified family court is an integrated approach to handling all cases involving families and children. In many cases a family with multiple problems is forced into a variety of courts. Under a unified family court structure, that family would have one judge preside over multiple issues affecting the family, instead of having to deal with issues singularly in family court, juvenile court, and criminal court.“The ‘one family, one court’ concept recognizes that there are a number of different ways into the court system that different members of the same family can utilize for different reasons, at different times. The end result is a disorganized system, one that fails to meet the need for a holistic approach, one that results in an inconsistent and often times contradictory order,” said Krischer.Krischer is certainly not alone in recognizing the need for a more cohesive family court structure, and the concept of a unified family court is not new. In 1991 the legislature’s Commission of Family Courts issued a report to develop guidelines for the establishment of a family law division within each circuit, and gave recommendations for organizational changes and for necessary support services. The Florida Supreme Court issued three opinions between 1991 and 2001 that stated the need for a family court system to provide better protection for children in court and resolution of family problems. In May 2001, a fourth and unanimous opinion was issued that cited 12 principles as a guide to implementing a model family court, including that cases with interrelated family issues should be consolidated or coordinated.For about four years, Pinellas County has operated a unified family court using aid from a federal grant that allowed it to utilize the necessary technology for identifying families. Pinellas serves as the model for other counties, including Palm Beach County (which comprises the 15th Circuit), which will begin to explore technology options this fall.Krischer is a strong advocate for adopting the unified court model.“Every aspect of that family and that child would go through one court. We have available to us the means and opportunity to save these children’s lives. Prosecutors, defense counsel, and family court attorneys need to identify these families and work together to preserve the future of the children living in these homes that are exposed to violence. We must work together with the courts, not against each other to decrease domestic violence and family dysfunction. We cannot hope to make our streets safer if we don’t make the effort to make our homes and children safe,” said Krischer.One of the major incentives to adopt a unified family court, according to Krischer, is because children who end up in juvenile court are often exposed to violence in the home, thus creating an overlap of issues for a single family in juvenile and criminal court.“The question we should be asking is, ‘How do we save these kids from a life of crime?’ If we solve that problem, we might find that the notion of treating children differently from adults, simply because they are children, is not so ridiculous. These children, growing up in violent homes, that we fail to recognize as victims today, become tomorrow’s abusers, the violent juveniles we prosecute in adult court,” said Krischer.Krischer, who has become somewhat notorious for bringing juveniles into adult court, suggests exploring the root of the problem instead of later dealing with the consequences.“The truth of the matter is the reason I rely so heavily on adult sanctions in adult court is because of the juvenile court’s shocking inability to impose meaningful penalties, and meaningful supervision. The one place I can deliver is in adult court. Why does it get that far? We need resources to change these kids’ behavior before they become the predators we so fear.“For every Nate Brazill, who shot and killed his teacher in front of a classroom full of students, who get all the attention, there are hundreds of other children around the state going through the juvenile court system. It’s the Brazills that get the legislature’s attention. But they respond by making the 10-20-life gun law apply to 15-year-olds. We can keep tinkering with the law; we can keep shipping children to adult court, but that does nothing to rescue the at-risk population before they become hardened criminals,” said Krischer.Another difficulty faced by courts and agencies in dealing with families is the often specialized services offered by child welfare and domestic violence programs. Often the programs have the facilities to deal with one form of family violence, but according to Krischer, few programs effectively address whole forms of violence when they occur together in the same family.“Courts regularly struggle with these issues individually, and out of the family context. Youth violence programs often fail to address the way that domestic violence impedes healthy development. That is yet another reason why model family court can incorporate innovative community collaborations between domestic violence agencies, child welfare agencies both public and private, the courts, school system, child protection teams, as well as health care providers, youth development organizations, and local churches. Each is integral in the resolution of cases in the model family court. Instead of five or seven courts making the same findings of fact and wasting limited judicial and community resources and trying to formulate a unique response to each family member, the model court treats the family as an organic whole,” said Krischer.Krischer closed his speech by underscoring the importance of moving to a unified court system as a matter of life and death for some kids and families.“We can wait for the next child to witness domestic violence or the next drive-by-shooting, and lock up those kids after the damage is done, or we can rescue them one child at a time through the effort of establishing a unified court,” said Krischer.