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Family Court: Where Children And Families Come First

In December the board of the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives,
which publishes Kentucky Living, endorsed a constitutional amendment creating
a state Family Court system. The board believes the amendment reflects well on
the mission of Kentucky’s electric cooperatives to provide our members a better
quality of life. To explain the importance of the amendment, which will be on
the ballot in this fall’s elections, we turned to one of the most vocal advocates
for creating a Family Court, Joseph E. Lambert, chief justice of the Supreme Court
of Kentucky.

Children and families are Kentucky’s most important
resource. When they have legal problems and must come to court, they deserve our
highest priority.

In 1991, a group of thoughtful and caring people began
a Family Court Pilot Project in Jefferson County. Their goal was to create a court
that was family-friendly and devoted exclusively to family law cases. They believed
that the same judge should consider all legal matters relating to a family, whether
juvenile, domestic, violence, custody, or divorce, and that the judge should be
able to use counseling, mediation, and divorce education to reduce the distress
of families in crisis. The Jefferson County Family Court was so successful that
the Family Court Pilot Project was expanded in 1998 to 18 other counties across
Kentucky. Today there are Family Courts in Jefferson, Gallatin, Boone, Franklin,
McCracken, Christian, Warren, Clark, Madison, Pulaski, Lincoln, Rockcastle, Magoffin,
Knot, Floyd, Pike, Oldham, Henry, and Trimble counties. One million Kentucky citizens
in 19 counties are now served by Family Courts, but three million Kentuckians
in 101 counties do not have access to these specialized family-friendly courts.

Why We Need Family Courts

Family Court is based on the idea that all judicial
proceedings involving children and families should be collected and resolved
in a single court. By having one judge preside over all the legal problems facing
a family, unique family circumstances can be better understood. While a Family
Court is a court of law, it is also a link to services in the community. Family
Court judges understand that distressed families with children often need more
than a legal resolution of their problems. Sometimes they need assistance to
restore family stability and help deal with serious problems such as alcohol
and drug abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, and divorce. Family Courts can
make specific referrals to outside agencies and order specific treatment to
meet the individual needs of children and families.

Family law cases are the only priority of Family
Courts. When parents are in the middle of a bitter dispute, children suffer.
If the process is drawn out or if the case is heard over and over again by different
commissioners or judges, solutions may be delayed, inconsistent, or contradictory.
While it’s impossible to completely protect children from the difficulties of
life such as divorce and family discord, Family Courts can help nurture children
and families through these difficult times. Where court intervention is inevitable,
courts should do more than merely decide who wins and who loses. With dedicated
judges, competent and well-trained support staff, and helping professionals,
Family Courts are able to make an otherwise dreadful ordeal a survivable experience.
While all cases are important, none is more important than those involving children
and families. They should not have to wait in line behind criminal cases and
other civil cases.

The Constitutional Amendment

There is no doubt that Family Courts have been
successful. However, our state constitution does not specifically provide for
Family Courts. Believing that Family Courts are vitally important, and that
they should be available to all Kentucky citizens, the 2001 Kentucky General
Assembly passed a Family Court Amendment and put it on the November 2002 General
Election ballot. The people of Kentucky will have the final say on Family Courts.

Although there is no apparent opposition to Family
Courts, passage of a constitutional amendment is always a daunting task. Kentucky
voters are properly reluctant to amend their constitution, and when they don’t
understand a proposed amendment, they usually vote no. We cannot take for granted
that everyone knows about Family Courts and will vote yes to approve the constitutional
amendment. That’s why I’ve written this article and why I’m speaking throughout
Kentucky in support of the Family Court Constitutional Amendment. That’s also
why the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives, the Kentucky Education
Association, Kentucky Farm Bureau, the Kentucky Burley Tobacco Growers Association,
the Kentucky Association of Retired Teachers, and the Kentucky Circuit and District
Judges associations, among others, have endorsed the constitutional amendment.

On November 5, 2002, the people of Kentucky will
vote yes or no on Family Courts. On the ballot, the question will be:

Are you in favor of Family Courts in Kentucky
by amending the Kentucky Constitution to allow the Supreme Court to designate
a division of circuit court as a Family Court?

I urge every Kentuckian to vote "yes"
so that we may bring the services, compassion, and commitment of Family Courts
to all Kentucky children and families who need their help.

I recently received a letter from a thoughtful fifth-grade
teacher who summed up her view of Family Courts. She said:

"I have had the opportunity to see the ‘fruits’
of Family Court. I believe in the concept and applaud the results that I have
personally witnessed in the lives of these children. With counselors, social
workers, Family Courts, and schools working together, I believe we can see restoration
in families and precious children’s lives. As an educator, I appreciate your
support and efforts for the expansion of Family Court. The concept is long overdue
in our society."

Those who have any doubt about Family Courts should
consider the views of this dedicated teacher.

For further information

Justice Lambert can be reached at:

Chief Justice Joseph Lambert

Kentucky Supreme Court

Capitol Building

Frankfort, KY 40601

(502) 564-4162

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