Task force: Family Court litigants need training

New meeting set Feb. 18 on child abuse cases
February 6, 2014

The Family Court Task Force says people with cases in Family Court should have access to training.

The task force, expected to recommend whether the General Assembly should pass legislation to make Family Court proceedings public or allow them to remain private, met Jan. 23 at Legislative Hall in Dover.

Several task force members said litigants often come to a proceeding without an attorney; afterward, they feel Family Court judges or commissioners have treated them unfairly.

Patricia Dailey-Lewis, of the Attorney General’s Office, said people do not always understand court proceedings, so they feel they have been wronged.

Task force co-chair Lynn Kokjohn said more training should be provided for pro se litigants.  “So they don’t go in there feeling so isolated, alone, untrained,” she said.

Lewis said she would try to organize classes to educate litigants and walk them through mock trials.  “We would do it all over the state,” she said.  “So people understand what it means to object to something.”

Task force member Raetta McCall said an instructional internet video or a DVD that is available at local libraries would be helpful to residents who could not attend a seminar.

Kokjohn also said there should be a process to complain about a judge or commissioner who acts inappropriately.  “It seems like there’s one in particular we hear a couple of people talking about,” she said, without naming the judge.

She said complaints should be reviewed when a judge is up for reappointment to Family Court.

Family Court Judge Michael Newell said complaints can be filed with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, and some education for pro se litigants is available on the court’s website.

Lewis said the website is difficult to navigate, and specific information can be hard to find.

The task force is tentatively set to recommend granting public access to most Family Court proceedings, including guardianship, visitation, divorce, custody and alimony hearings. Adoption proceedings would remain private under the recommendation.

The group also agreed a proceeding could be made private if both litigants agree, if there were a substantial likelihood that private financial and medical information would be revealed, or if a public hearing would have an adverse affect on the children involved.

“And judicial discretion overrides everything,” Kokjohn said.

Attorney, volunteer oppose public proceedings

Only those in favor of making Family Court proceedings public spoke at task force meetings Oct. 29 and Jan. 7.  At the group's Jan. 23 meeting, members of the public presented a different side of the argument.

Kara Swasey, a private family law attorney in New Castle County, spoke in favor of keeping the proceedings private.  "I have some true concerns with public proceedings," she said.  "There's a lot of ugliness in people's past that they try to leave in the past."

Swasey said sensitive information about the litigants and their children is revealed during many Family Court proceedings, including reports of rape and incest.  "Medical records are very personal," she said.

"We're also exposing people to identity theft," she said. "I look at people's bank statements."

Swasey said public proceedings could also impact testimony.  Litigants sometimes admit to drug problems on the stand, she said.  If there were testifying in front of family members or employers, they might withhold certain details during testimony, she said.

Mariann Kenville-Moore, co-chairwoman of the task force, said attorneys could introduce bank accounts into evidence as "Account A" or "Account B," rather than reading real bank account numbers into the record, to prevent identity theft.

“There would be ways that confidential information can be introduced in a more private way,” Moore said.  More pre-trial work for the attorneys is a possible consequence of public proceedings, she said.

Members of the public have also argued public access to the courts would aid testimony by giving people incentive not to commit perjury, Moore said.

Swasey said she would be in favor of more education for litigants who enter Family Court without an attorney.  She said there could also be benefit in making judges' decisions public.

Dover resident Tillie Snable also spoke in opposition to public proceedings.  She said she has been a volunteer in Sussex and Kent County Family Courts for 18 years.  "When I hear Family Court, I think children," she said.  "To me, Family Court is very sensitive and very personal, and I say it should be private," she said.

Attorney Janine Howard-O’Rangers said the Delaware State Bar Family Law Section opposes making public any Family Court hearing.

The task force is slated to deliver its full recommendation to the General Assembly by Saturday, Feb. 15.  The group requested an extension of the deadline and is planning to hold another meeting at 1:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 18 at Legislative Hall to discuss cases involving child abuse and neglect. A one-hour public comment session is scheduled prior to the meeting, at 12:30 p.m.

A resolution to extend the deadline for the task force’s recommendations to Tuesday, April 15 has been approved by the Senate and awaits a vote in the House.  “It should not be an issue,” said Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Middle Run Valley, of the extension.

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