Widely regarded as a national leader in child and family law, the Schiller DuCanto & Fleck Family Law Center at DePaul University College of Law is collaborating with Cook County courts to create innovative means to address persistent child support and custody issues. Specifically, the Center is applying the restorative justice techniques typically used in juvenile justice and criminal settings to circumstances surrounding unpaid child support.
The first of its kind in the nation, the DePaul project works with disputing parties and well-trained counselors using restorative methods to change the paradigm in several important ways:
1) It shifts the dispute resolution responsibility from the court to the parents and communities;
2) It focuses the parties on building problem-solving techniques that can be applied in both present and future instances; and
3) It applies restorative justice principles for the first time in the child support context.
Statistics indicate that defaults in child support are common across all socio-economic classes in America and adversely impact the health and well-being of nearly 3.5 million children and adolescents. Although no single approach can completely resolve all the problems associated with child support, custody and visitation, trial studies of the restorative process have been impressively successful. Not a single participant among the four couples who have completed the restorative justice circle process has returned to the court for enforcement since the project began in 2008.
One father who completed the process last year called the experience “magical,” noting that more than one year later he continues to be able communicate with the mother of his child. He claimed the process, “saved my relationship with my daughter.” This dad, who is a Chicago firefighter, was so enthusiastic that he brought the process back to the firehouse, calling on the other firefighters to form a circle and “get a rock and talk!”
How the Restorative Justice Process Works
The process begins by recognizing that current methods of child support enforcement do not reach the underlying causes of non-payment, and that the judicial and child welfare systems do nothing to work with the ever-increasing number of non-custodial parents who are financially unable to pay support or who are recalcitrant.
The philosophy of restorative justice holds that even the most emotional and complicated disputes can be resolved by improving communication and building a shared concern for a principle, such as the well-being of the child(ren). In rejecting the traditional adversarial approach of confrontational proceedings—where one side wins, one loses, and penalties are imposed—restorative justice brings the disputing parties together as participants in small groups called circles, which
1) Create a constructive framework for airing grievances;
2) Allow all sides to articulate conflicting needs; and
3) Identify solutions that allow everyone involved to accomplish positive outcomes.
Currently, unpaid child support is collected through a system of seizures and penalties, sometimes including jail time. In this area of law enforcement, the adversarial process not only reinforces the conflict that drives these disputes, it is costly. Often, modest available resources are siphoned off in attorneys’ fees, court costs, and fines. In contrast, the restorative circle process enables the family members and their supporters to discuss and explore their concern for their children’s needs in a constructive, thoughtful and respectful manner.
The pilot project currently focuses on never-married parents struggling with unpaid support obligations. Many of these disputes also involve custody and visitation issues. The goal is to use restorative justice circles to establish lines of communication so the parents can resolve the ongoing issues on their own in the future. Each parent invites a family member or friend to the circle process as a source of support. The selected supporters know the family members, have a relationship with the children, and agree to be respectful of all the members of the circle. The circle is led by two experienced facilitators who carefully interview all participants in advance. During the circle process each participant has an opportunity to speak without interruption. Seating in the circle is strategically arranged so that the parents never speak directly after each other. While the supporters and facilitators comment, the parents have time to process the issues and hear the concerns of the other parent. This mechanism allows the parents to get the community support they need to focus their energy on the child’s well-being.
The circle process also provides a model for ongoing communication beyond the supervised setting. The family members and friends involved in the circle process can continue to support the parents and help them maintain shared values and restorative processes that focus on the children. The circle process empowers parents to communicate and collaborate for more effective co-parenting. The current multi-year study will measure the success of the restorative justice circle pilot project over both the short and the long term.
At the present time, families who participate in the program during the study participate and receive valuable counseling services at no cost. If the multi-year study demonstrates the effectiveness of the restorative approach, the next goal is to have an institutionalized program available for amenable families throughout Cook County, charging a fee determined on a sliding scale.
The project has earned the commendation and enthusiastic support of many judges and attorneys who are anxious for any improvement in child support, custody and visitation. The current collaborative project team includes several judges, a clinical social worker, a law professor, and two experienced attorney-facilitators. The participants are:
• Jane Rutherford, Professor and Founder of the Schiller DuCanto & Fleck Family Law Center, DePaul University College of Law firstname.lastname@example.org 312-362-5269
• Barbara Hausman, Executive Director of the Schiller DuCanto & Fleck Family Law Center, DePaul University College of Law email@example.com 312-362-8117
• The Hon. Martha Mills, Presiding Judge of the Cook County Expedited Child Support Court
• Elizabeth Vastine, Attorney, Mediator, Consultant, and Trainer with the Stone Vastine Group
• Peter Newman, JD, LLM - Program Administrator for the Juvenile Justice and Child Protection Resource Section, Circuit Court of Cook County
• DePaul University College of Law is seeking funding for the study from several foundations and other sources, and invites inquiries, indications of support and interest from members of the ISBA Standing Commission on Women and the Law. A goal of the project, upon a favorable conclusion of the study, will be to expand the process throughout Cook County, one of the largest county court systems in the country. The depth and breadth of the study will provide compelling results that the collaborative group will share with the national legal and academic communities through published journals and in meetings of national and international mediators, family lawyers, law professors, social workers, and judges.
Applying restorative principles to child support collection will not solve all the problems associated with unpaid child support and related child poverty, but as concerned lawyers and women in the law, we hope it will make a substantial improvement.
The restorative justice project reflects the Center’s commitment to public service, law reform, and education in child and family law. ■