Indiana Supreme Court
Division of State Court Administration
30 S. Meridian Street, Ste. 500
Indianapolis, IN  46204

Mike Commons
Staff Attorney
Pho: 317.233.1579
michael.commons@courts.in.gov

Leslie Rogers Dunn
GAL/CASA Director
Pho: 317.233.0224
leslie.dunn@courts.in.gov

Family Court Project > Project Reports and Evaluations Project Reports and Evaluations

VISION AND EVALUATION: THE INDIANA FAMILY COURT PROJECT

By The Honorable Frances G. Hill,
Monroe Circuit Court, Bloomington, Indiana

& Loretta A. Oleksy,
Family Court Project Manager, Indiana Supreme Court,
Division of State Court Administration, Indianapolis, IN

I. Introduction

In the fall of 1999, Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard hosted a breakfast for Indiana judges interested in creating model family courts. The Chief Justice had been urging the legislature for several years to create courts to deal with the entire family in a single courtroom regardless of the case type. Justice Frank Sullivan, Jr. had recently returned from the ABA Summit on Unified Family Courts, enthused to create pilot family court projects. As a result, the Indiana Family Court Project was initiated as a cooperative effort between the General Assembly and the Indiana Supreme Court.

The purpose of the Project is to develop common sense models to better serve children and families in our courts. The initial emphasis of the Family Court Project was to create models to coordinate families who have multiple cases pending before multiple judges and to share information. While all projects are still required to include some aspect of multiple case coordination and information sharing, the scope of the project has broadened somewhat to include various types of family-friendly programming.

II. Historical Perspective

Beginning in 2000, three pilot counties – Johnson, Monroe, and Porter – developed family court models under the direction of the Indiana Supreme Court, Division of State Court Administration, with guidance from a statewide Family Court Task Force, led by The Honorable Margret G. Robb of the Indiana Court of Appeals. A private family court consultant assisted the pilot counties.

Every two years new counties have been added to the family court project: six in 2002; eight in 2004; six in 2006; and two in 2008. Most of the family court projects involve only one county, but at this time two projects include multiple counties. Currently there are twenty-three family court counties. Each family court project develops model processes and programs tailored to its needs and resources. The original counties remain actively involved in the statewide project and continue to share ideas and mentor new pilot counties.

The Indiana Family Court Project has evolved in significant ways. The Indiana Supreme Court developed specialized Family Court Rules to address confidentiality, judicial notice, and other due process issues. Programming expanded to include more non-adversarial dispute resolution options and some coordination services for high-risk, low-income, and/or pro se families. In 2007, the private family court consultant position was transitioned to a full-time position within the Division of State Court Administration.

III. Family Court Vision

Indiana’s family court is not just about models of court structure and programming. Family court is a concept that is based on the significance of family in our culture and our legal system and that helps to coordinate and improve services to children and families in the court system. It recognizes the unique stressors and safety issues in family litigation, the role of the family in affecting individual behavior, and the particularized need for timeliness and consistency in judicial rulings involving children. Family court acknowledges the need to involve the whole family in addressing delinquency, child endangerment, and other safety issues.

Case coordination is encouraged to avoid uninformed, inconsistent, or delayed rulings for families with multiple cases in the court system. Parties and attorneys are urged to fully disclose information about the family’s legal cases in order to obtain a complete and long-lasting resolution to the family’s situation. The family court promotes cooperation between the courts in referring, coordinating, sharing information, and/or providing services to indigent, pro se, and at-risk families. It emphasizes a holistic and non-adversarial approach to problem solving and involves an open, common sense, and problem-solving approach to the resolution of legal issues affecting children and families, within the parameters of due process of the law.

IV. Programming Options

The core component of the Family Court Project is judicial information sharing and coordination of multiple cases involving the same family. This coordination and information sharing avoids inconsistent orders for families and promotes more informed decision-making. Models for multiple-case coordination have included:

  • One Judge-One Family: All of a family’s related cases are bundled together and heard by the same judge.
  • Information Sharing between Multiple Courts: Each case is retained in the original court, but the courts devise a system to share information in order to avoid inconsistent or redundant orders.

Most Indiana courts maintain their dockets using a computer program called a “case management system” or “CMS.” But there are at least four major problems with existing case management systems:

  • Lack of consistency: existing CMS products differ from court to court;
  • Outdated technology;
  • Inability to manage information: while the existing CMS products store information, many do not manage it—for example, they do not automatically send out notices, set hearing schedules, or create reports.
  • Current CMS products exist only for the courts: they are not connected to law enforcement agencies; state agencies like the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV); courts in other counties (or cities, towns, and townships); lawyers or the public.

These problems with the current case management systems have hindered the ability of family courts to effectively manage families with multiple cases. In December 2007, two Indiana counties began piloting the use of Indiana’s new case management system, Odyssey. A significant upgrade to Odyssey is scheduled to be released in 2008, adding even more features to help Indiana courts and court clerks. Statewide rollout will follow over the next several years. It is anticipated that the Odyssey case management system will greatly increase the ability of Indiana’s family courts to identify families with multiple cases and to effectively manage these cases and provide needed services to the families.

In addition to judicial coordination of multiple cases, family court programming may include a broad range of services developed by the existing family court projects. The most common program types are:

  • Affordable alternative dispute resolution programming for indigent and pro se litigants in custody and juvenile matters
  • Family-focused service referral for high-risk families
  • Limited case management services for high-risk families
  • Pro se clinics
  • Family focused probation and drug court programming
  • Parenting coordination and/or counseling for high-conflict litigants with children

V. How Do the Family Courts Work?

Application for family court grants. Applications for family court status and grants are offered every two years to all Indiana counties. Judicial officers complete the application by identifying a plan to better serve families in the court system. The application includes information about the county’s current judicial system, and a request for a family court grant in the amount of $10,000 to $40,000 per year, for a two-year period. When feasible, smaller counties are encouraged to form multiple-county projects to share resources and avoid reinventing the wheel. Judges review the grant terms to determine their ability to comply with grant requirements. Applications are filed with the Division of State Court Administration, and the Indiana Supreme Court selects the counties that will serve as pilot family court projects. New counties were admitted to the family court project in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008.

Implementing Programming and Family Court Personnel. When a county is selected as a pilot family court project multiple judges in the county meet regularly to finalize the program design and determine necessary personnel. All of the judges in the county must be agreeable to the family court project, but judges with jurisdiction in juvenile, family law, and domestic violence issues are most involved in program development. To date, all of the family court projects have hired (or contracted for) at least one new personnel position to coordinate their family court projects. Multiple-county projects have hired the same personnel to deliver services to all of the counties. The counties additionally rely on pre-existing personnel positions that are partially reallocated to the family court project. Several juvenile court coordinator positions have been expanded to include family court management responsibilities. Court reporter and court administrator positions have also been partially reallocated to provide services to family court projects.

Local Advisory Boards. The Judges select local attorneys, service providers, child advocates, school personnel, and/or other appropriate community representatives to serve on a local Family Court Advisory Board. The Advisory Board meets two or more times a year to provide community input on the family court project. The Advisory Board members also help to educate others in the community about the project. Each family court is a collaborative effort between the court and the local community.

Family Court Data, Reports, and Meetings. New family court projects file an Implementation Report in the summer following their selection, including a finalized budget, progress toward personnel hiring or resource reallocation, and time frames for program implementation. Each family court maintains statistics on the families served, including data on the number of multiple case families served, social factors in families served, and the types of services provided to families. Counties submit written reports containing data and program updates. Judges and family court personnel from each county attend statewide Family Court Meetings to share program information and hear local or national speakers on innovations to better serve families in the court system.

VI. Family Court Rules

The Supreme Court issued four Family Court Rules in July 2001 for the exclusive use of the family courts. The Rules focus on coordination and information sharing for multiple cases involving the same family members and related issues. The Rules address jurisdiction, concurrent hearings, judicial notice, change of judge, and confidentiality. Each court selected for the family court project is authorized to designate, by a written Local Rule, that they adopt the Family Court Project Rules as a whole. The Indiana Family Court Rules can be found on the Family Court web site.

VII. Funding

Legislature and Court Improvement Program (CIP). The Family Court Project began in 1999 with an annual appropriation of $200,000 per year from the Indiana General Assembly. This appropriation was later expanded. The legislative funding level for the two-year biennium of July 2007-June 2009 for Phase IV of the Family Court Project is $600,000. Additionally, the Family Court Project has at various times received federal Court Improvement Program grants for pilot family court counties with family focused programming for child abuse and neglect cases.

The bulk of the family court funding is distributed each year to the new pilot counties as seed grants for a two-year period. All of the family court counties have received transition grants in the years following their seed grants to help them transition to permanent local resources. From the inception of the Family Court Project through the end of 2008, $1,825,638 will have been distributed directly to family court counties. The remainder of the family court funding covers the cost of the Family Court Project Manager and statewide meetings.

Local funding. It has always been the intention of the Family Court Project that pilot counties would transition within a reasonable time from seed funding to local funding. Family Court counties are directed to create local funding sources and/or reallocate existing court resources and positions. The three original pilot projects have fully transitioned to local funding sources, and the Phase II counties, which were added to the project in 2002, have progressed to the point where their state grants are only a small portion of their overall budget.

A significant source of revenue for family courts is community funding and collaborative grants. Some family courts entered into collaborative grants or resource sharing agreements with local mental health providers, local offices of the Department of Child Services, and youth service bureaus. Many counties have obtained local government funding through court or probation budgets for ongoing program maintenance. During 2007 the pilot counties raised $650,260 in local funds through community and alternative funding sources.

VIII. Evaluation and Accountability

Indiana has always been committed to the concept of evaluation. The sections below outline the purpose, development, and current strategies for evaluation.

The purposes of Indiana’s evaluation strategy are as follows:

  • To continually assess whether the project is meeting its articulated values and outcomes, and to make necessary adjustments given limited resources.
  • To be transparent in advising the public on the number and type of services being provided by the family court projects, and to thereby increase awareness and utilization of available services.
  • To be accountable to the public for dollars spent.
  • To develop best practices to be utilized throughout the state.

An evaluation strategy was developed and implemented at the beginning of the Indiana Family Court Project through the assistance of an independent family court consultant, Jeffrey Kuhn. The following activities were conducted under Mr. Kuhn’s direction:

Site Visits with Pilot Family Courts. The Indiana family court consultant and Mr. Kuhn conducted two, day-long site visits to each of the family court pilot counties to educate on the existing family court strategies from around the country and to review and consult on the goals and plans of the fledgling family court projects.

Statewide Needs Assessment. Mr. Kuhn wrote the Indiana Family Justice Needs Assessment Survey that was distributed to one hundred Judicial Officers and two hundred attorneys from around the state focusing on the following areas of concern: the incidence of multiple case families; proactive interest in case coordination; technology and other intake services for more effective case management; availability and affordability of alternative dispute resolution; and unmet needs and available community practices to help families within the court system.

Statewide Focus Groups. Three interdisciplinary focus groups were convened in downtown Indianapolis to identify issues in family and juvenile practice. As with the statewide survey, the focus groups were intended to collect information from a cross section of the entire state. The groups consisted of judges, attorneys, and representatives from law enforcement, schools, mental health, and other service providers. The focus groups addressed needs assessments, barriers to change, and values identification.

This initial evaluation identified several challenges facing the pilot projects. Lack of appropriate staffing levels for two of the three initial projects limited the ability to conduct comprehensive assessments and screenings that were necessary to determine the families’ needs and make timely referrals to community resources.1 The absence of an automated information system with basic case management functionality hampered the efforts of the pilot projects to ensure that family members and cases were located and linked in a timely fashion.2 Finally, all three of the pilot projects indicated a need for additional alternative dispute resolution services to assist in resolving family disputes in a less adversarial manner.3

The evaluation also identified several project innovations and best practices among the pilot projects. One county developed a brief family court handbook that explained the operation of the family court, identified key personnel, and provided sample forms for litigants.4 Each of the three pilot projects utilized a Party Appearance Form or a Family Information Form to gather information about the nature of the case, the issues requiring court attention, related cases, and in some cases, information concerning family history of domestic violence or substance abuse issues. This allowed the court to make an accurate assessment of each family’s most immediate needs and to make early referrals for appropriate services, and it also assisted the court in assessing the complexity of each case for purposes of managing court resources effectively.5 Another pilot project emphasized provision of more focused case management and social services to the court’s most challenging and high conflict families in an effort to resolve cases that might otherwise remain in litigation for several years.6 Yet another project dealt with the shortage of alternative dispute resolution services in the community by partnering with a nearby law school to provide student mediation services to pro se litigants as part of the university’s clinical program.7

The evaluation performed by Mr. Kuhn provided the Indiana Supreme Court with a road map for the continuation of the family court project. Over the past several years, much work has been done to address the challenges identified by the initial pilot projects while building on their innovations and best practices.

The Indiana Family Court Project currently utilizes several strategies for evaluation. These strategies are summarized below.

Annual Court Article. On an annual basis, each family court project writes a brief article summarizing its project. All the county articles are posted on the Indiana Family Court Web Site. The articles have a standardized format, including county demographics, basic contact information on judges and administrative staff, mission statement, program descriptions and eligibility factors, funding sources and amounts, and numbers of persons served. The annual editing of the article requires each family court to assess if the programming they have implemented is meeting the county’s needs and desired outcomes. The articles provide a simple and readily available information source for the public.

Annual Financial and Data Report. Each family court is required to collect data on the number of adults and children receiving services, the source of referrals, the at-risk social factors for families served, the number and types of programming provided and the average length of services provided, the frequency of settlement in mediation, the frequency of multiple case families, and the types of cases that occur most frequently in multiple-case families. Data is compiled for a standardized annual report that counties submit to the Division of State Court Administration. As part of this report each court is also required to document the amount of grant funds and other funds received, how the money was spent, the amount of money carried over to the coming year, and a proposed budget for the coming year. In 2007, projects were required for the first time to submit this information electronically so that the data could be easily imported into a program to perform statewide analysis. As electronic data is accumulated over the next few years, the project will begin to analyze trends over time.

Annual Site Visits. The Family Court Project manager and other staff members of the Division of State Court Administration perform site visits. They are designed as fairly structured visits to the counties to meet with specifically identified categories of persons, generally including the judges, lawyers and services providers, and local family court advisory boards. Site visits may include observation of specific family court services and hearings.

Annual Family Court Meetings. Counties are required to send at least one judicial officer and one family court administrator to the annual family court meeting. The purpose of the annual meeting is to share ideas, address common problems, identify best practices, and hear about innovative new practices.

Narrative Program Evaluation and Program Surveys. Every two years the counties complete a narrative self-evaluation that requires them to review and assess their projects in the context of the Family Court Values and Outcomes that are discussed below. Counties also utilize survey forms to obtain feedback on program successes and barriers or challenges.

Manuals of Forms and Procedures. Every two years, each family court project prepares a manual with an outline of policies, procedures, and forms. The manual is provided electronically to enable family courts to easily share their policies and procedures with new projects or with existing projects that wish to expand their programming.

Family Court Steering Committee. The Family Court Steering Committee is charged with overseeing the project at a statewide level, identifying trends, reviewing applications and reports, and making recommendations regarding the project to the Indiana Supreme Court. The Steering Committee is comprised of The Honorable Margret G. Robb, Indiana Court of Appeals; Lilia Judson, Executive Director of the Indiana Supreme Court, Division of State Court Administration; Leslie Dunn, Director of the State GAL/CASA Program; and Loretta Oleksy, Family Court Project Manager.

IX. Values and Outcomes

The initial focus of the Indiana Family Court Project was to identify current judicial practices throughout the state and the need for change, to agree on values and desired outcomes, and to develop model programs to meet the desired outcomes. The key task was the development of values and outcomes.

The values and outcomes were drafted by the combined efforts of the Statewide Family Court Taskforce and the judges of the three pilot family courts. The results of statewide written surveys and focus groups were also considered.

The values and outcomes have been the source for subsequent evaluations of the family court projects. Since 2000, the values and outcomes have been slightly revised to reflect the current realities of the project counties. The current set of values and outcomes are listed below.

Value 1: JUDICIAL COORDINATION AND TIMELINESS

Outcome 1: Indiana Family Courts will avoid conflicting and redundant orders for families with multiple court cases.
Outcome 2: Indiana Family Courts will avoid re-litigation of the same issues in multiple courts.
Outcome 3: Indiana Family Courts will make informed and coordinated decisions for families with multiple cases pending in the court system through access to all court orders affecting the family.
Outcome 4: Indiana Family Courts will avoid unnecessary delays in the judicial process.

Value 2: INCREASED USE OF ALTERNATIVE DISPUTE RESOLUTION

Outcome 1: Indiana Family Courts will provide access to affordable mediation services, on a regional basis when appropriate.
Outcome 2: Indiana Family Courts will develop a culture of sharing information, mediating, and working cooperatively for long-term resolution of family law matters.

Value 3: COORDINATION OF COURT AND COMMUNITY SERVICES FOR CHILDREN AND FAMILIES

Outcome 1: Indiana Family Courts will coordinate with community service providers to provide access to affordable assessment and treatment services for high-needs families.
Outcome 2: Indiana Family Courts will monitor compliance with court ordered services by high-needs families, and will assist families to understand court orders and to utilize court ordered services.

Value 4: FAMILY FOCUS IN DELIVERY OF PROBATION AND PROBLEM SOLVING COURT SERVICES

Outcome 1: Indiana Family Courts will foster increased parental involvement and accountability in juvenile cases.
Outcome 2: Indiana Family Courts will use a holistic approach to probation and problem solving courts by offering/requiring services to the entire family.

Value 5: INCREASED EFFICIENCY AND EFFECTIVENESS FOR PRO SE FAMILIES

Outcome 1: Indiana Family Courts will promote increased legal accuracy and sufficiency in pro se family law filings through use of resources such as the Indiana Supreme Court’s Self-Service Legal Center and through the provision of pro se educational information and/or document preparation assistance.
Outcome 2: Indiana Family Courts will help Judges avoid the pitfalls of practicing law and social work for pro se parties by collaborating with community resources that can provide legal and other needed assistance.

X. Current progress toward fulfilling the Values and Outcomes

In December 2007, each of the projects submitted their narrative program evaluation covering the two-year phase from January 2006 through December 2007. The following is a summary of the progress the projects reported toward achieving the Family Court Values and Outcomes.

Value 1: Judicial Coordination and Timeliness. The majority of the current family court projects reported that they have made significant progress toward all four outcomes associated with Value 1. Only two projects reported that they had not made any progress and two stated they had made limited progress. The responses were overwhelmingly favorable in the areas of avoiding conflicting and redundant orders, avoiding re-litigation of the same issue in multiple courts, and making informed and coordinated decisions for families. Slightly fewer courts reported progress toward avoiding delays in the judicial process. Projects involving smaller counties with fewer courts and those who utilize the “One Judge-One Family” model were more likely to report that the project helped avoid judicial delays than were the projects serving larger, urban counties with many courts.

Value 2: Increased Use of Alternative Dispute Resolution. Alternative Dispute Resolution is by far the most popular programming option among the family court projects. The vast majority of the pilot projects reported that alternative dispute resolution (ADR) services are readily available, accessible to all litigants, and widely used. They recounted that the increased use of ADR has resulted in fewer cases going before the courts, less strain on the families involved, and increased cooperation among attorneys. Most of the projects currently utilize ADR in domestic relations cases, and an increasing number are using ADR to resolve juvenile delinquency and Child in Need of Services actions.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this success in the domestic relations area is the effort Indiana has put forth to promote ADR in domestic relations cases. In 2003, the Indiana General Assembly enacted legislation adding Indiana Code 33-23-3, which allows counties to charge an additional $20.00 fee to parties filing a petition for legal separation, paternity or dissolution of marriage, to be placed into an alternative dispute resolution fee fund. The funds must be used to foster domestic relations alternative dispute resolution, including mediation, reconciliation, non-binding arbitration, and parental counseling. Money in the fund must primarily benefit litigants who have the least ability to pay. Litigants with current charges or a former conviction of certain crimes relating to domestic violence are excluded from participating. Counties wanting to participate in an ADR program must develop an ADR plan consistent with the statute. The Executive Director of the Indiana Supreme Court, Division of State Court Administration, must approve the plans. The family court pilot projects have been encouraged to develop ADR Plans as a long term funding source to provide alternative dispute resolution to the families they serve. Twenty of the twenty-three family court counties currently have an approved ADR plan in place.

Value 3: Coordination of Court and Community Services for Children and Families. All but three of the current projects reported overwhelming success in this area. Most of the projects have developed service referral programming that assists families in understanding what services they have been ordered to complete and locating service providers and scheduling appointments. Many of these programs also monitor compliance with services. The service referral programming that has been developed by the pilot projects is working to remove barriers that might prevent families from participating in needed services. The projects who reported little success in this area tended to be those who have focused primarily on providing alternative dispute resolution and have not had the resources to expand their programming into the service referral and monitoring area. One other barrier facing some of the projects is the lack of available and affordable mental health services in their area.

Value 4: Family Focus on Delivery of Probation and Problem Solving Court Services. Several of the pilot projects do not encompass juvenile, criminal, or problem solving court jurisdiction at this time, so the statewide success toward achieving this value is limited. However, those projects that do include these types of cases reported a vast increase in parental involvement and accountability in juvenile cases. They also reported a shift toward a more holistic approach.

Value 5: Increased Efficiency and Effectiveness for Pro Se Families. Providing some sort of assistance to pro se litigants has become an increasingly popular aspect of the Indiana Family Court Project. The majority of the projects provide some type of pro se programming, which ranges from provision of standardized forms or referral to local pro bono resources to assistance with document preparation. A few projects have developed legal clinics that operate during limited hours and provide access to forms and other resources, as well as assistance in preparing forms if necessary. One project has developed a video for pro se litigants that provides information on the legal process, courtroom decorum, and resources for obtaining legal information and/or assistance. As ever increasing numbers of unrepresented family law litigants present challenges for judges, court staff, and clerks, interest in pro se programming is growing, and those pilot projects who do not currently provide pro se assistance are exploring how they can better serve this population.

XI. Conclusion

Since its inception in 1999, the Indiana Family Court Project has undergone significant growth and development. While the project is not yet statewide, the current pilot projects now represent twenty-five percent of the state’s ninety-two counties. Two of the primary challenges identified by the 2001 independent evaluation, lack of a comprehensive case management system and shortage of alternative dispute resolution services, are being addressed at the state level. Furthermore, the responses provided in the 2007 Narrative Evaluation illustrate a high level of fidelity to the core values of the project and substantial progress toward the desired outcomes. As the project continues to evolve, the original vision, the values and outcomes, and the evaluation process that is in place will provide a strong framework, as well as a road map for the future.

Jeffrey A. Kuhn, FINAL REPORT: Independent Evaluation of the Indiana Family Court Initiative, 42-43 (Center for Children, Families and the Courts, University of Baltimore School of Law, 2001)
Id. at 43.
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