In the State of Washington approximately 15% of the Superior Court caseload is criminal cases. Often, however, it is only those cases which you read about in the media. Superior Courts in the State of Washington are the trial courts of general jurisdiction. Any case which may be heard in the courts of the State of Washington may be heard in Superior Court.
Unified Family Court
One of the most successful programs run by the Superior Court in Clallam County is our unified Family Court. Our Family Court began in Clallam County in 1991 and is the first of its kind in the State of Washington. It is what is called an integrated or unified Family Court. All matters which involve families are heard in one place and by one Judge or Court Commissioner. This includes dissolutions, custody disputes, visitation orders, child protective issues, truancy issues, family mental health issues, child in need of service issues and others.
Until 1996 Clallam County had the only unified Family Court in the State of Washington. We are a model upon which other counties in Washington State are now formulating their Family Court approaches.
In addition to the unified Family Court, Clallam County has adopted several other very innovative ideas for assisting families in crisis. Two of the more significant of these ideas are the concept of using mandatory settlement/mediation conferences in all domestic relations matters, and this county's active involvement in the Youth-at-Risk program.
Mandatory settlement conferences are required by Local Court Rule in Clallam County for all domestic relations matters. Approximately two weeks before trial a mandatory mediation is scheduled for all cases which have not yet settled. Mediation is a process where a neutral party acts as a facilitator to see if an agreement can be reached. In Clallam County the mediator may be one of our two superior Court Judges, or, more likely, our Family Court Commissioner. Various mediation techniques are used. This mediation technique has resulted in 90% of our domestic cases being settled without trial. In 1994 for example, 507 domestic cases were filed in Clallam County. Only 12 actually went to a full trial. Without successful mediation efforts the many domestic cases would overwhelm the court, delay resolution of the cases , likely result in the necessity to hire additional Judges, build new courtrooms and staff them at considerable expense to the county. Clallam County's success with our unique mandatory mediation conferences will help forestall future required increases in funding for the Superior Court. In addition to saving valuable court time and resources, the mandatory settlement conferences give the participants a significant experience in success in mutually resolving their disputes. This experience of successful negotiation often carries over to future disputes. Parties are able to communicate with one another or enlist the aid of a third party facilitator, in resolving future disputes relating to parenting, support and the like. In 1995 filings in Superior Court were dramatically increased in every area except for domestic filings which declined over the year before. It is our hope that this decline means that parties to domestic disputes are using mediation and negotiation rather than the court when post-divorce issues arise.
Youth at Risk
A second innovative approach in Clallam County is this county's strong emphasis on Youth-at-Risk (YAR) interventions. The Family Reconciliation Act of 1993 allowed courts to act on petitions filed for youth deemed to be at risk to themselves. An at-risk youth is defined by the Act as an individual under the chronological age of 18 years who:
"Is absent from home for more than 72 hours consecutive hours without consent of his or her parent, or
Is beyond the control of his or her parent such that the child's behavior substantially endangers the health, safety, or welfare of the child or any other person, or
Has a serious substance abuse problem for which there are no pending criminal charges relating to the substance abuse."
After a hearing and upon a proper showing the Court (Family Court) can enter appropriate preventative orders such as requiring conditions of supervision for the child, requiring the child to follow the reasonable rules of the home, requiring attendance at school on a regular basis, having both parents and child obtain appropriate counseling, or participate in a substance abuse treatment program or any other condition which the court deems an appropriate condition of supervision. Failure of the child to abide by such court ordered conditions is punishable as a contempt of court and can involve a short period of incarceration of the juvenile at the Juvenile Services Center.
In enacting the statute the legislature provided no funds for Youth-at-Risk programs. Many counties chose to ignore the Act altogether. In Clallam County, our Director of Juvenile Services, Pete Peterson, worked hard to find appropriate funds to help implement the program. Clallam County hired a YAR coordinator who assists families who request such assistance. In 1994, 71 such petitions were heard in Clallam County. Clallam County's number of petitions heard was second only to King County. The number of filings has steadily increased. Those families which have utilized this program are in almost universal praise of the program and the success that it achieves in helping to intervene with their children and to help them steer those young people away from serious future trouble.
It is one goal of this program to reduce future court needs. The young people helped by early intervention, it is hoped, won't have future felonies, failed marriages, paternity cases, consumer credit disputes, D.U.I.'s and the like. If their dangerous behaviors can be curbed early on with appropriate intervention the need for future court involvement will be lessened.
Children in the Middle
Superior Court also has a mandatory requirement that parents who have minor children and whose marriage is terminated, attend an approximately three hour program called "Children in the Middle."
The Children in the Middle program is facilitated by trained professionals and utilizes instructional video tapes and a discussion format. The goal of the program is to help parents understand the effects that their marital changes will have upon their children and to teach those parents practical skills and strategies for avoiding or minimizing the resulting impacts.
By making this program mandatory for all families, the court hopes to ensure that fewer children will have to suffer unnecessary adverse consequences as a result of the breakup of their parents' marriage. The program has been quite successful in this and other counties throughout the state. 96% of parents who have attended this program respond that it was beneficial to them.
Prepared by Judge Ken Williams