By Mark Hernandez
The Nevada Independent
Family courts in Nevada’s two largest counties have overcrowded facilities, higher workloads than similarly sized jurisdictions and a need for more domestic violence training, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
The report from the center, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, served as a “health screening” of sorts for the family divisions, which deal with matters such as divorce, custody, and adoption. It explored whether the divisions are meeting legislative goals and identified problems and potential solutions.
“Twenty-five years after the Nevada Legislature implemented the family division legislation, there is continued support among judicial officers and stakeholders to continue the model,” said Hunter Hurst, III, project director at the National Center for Juvenile Justice. “Both jurisdictions can present many specific examples for how they operate under these goals, even if under workload pressure and strain, but generally with a high level of commitment to service to the community and families in court.”
The study was conducted by comparing Nevada to other jurisdictions of similar size and examining the rate at which family-related cases came back to court. Authors compiled the report from responses to three digital surveys and in-person interviews with representatives of both Clark and Washoe courts.
Some of the strengths highlighted in the report include judicial leadership in both jurisdictions, being able to manage extremely heavy caseloads and the use of technology to meet operating goals. Authors noted that Nevada’s system for judicial records was ranked near the bottom in the country in 1999 and is now sixth from the top in rankings from the National Center for State Courts.
For the past 25 years, the state has operated under a “coordinated family court” model, which means it tries to deal with all a family’s legal issues using the same judge and by connecting them to social services. That’s opposed to having one judge deal with a family’s divorce case and another judge address that family’s custody issues, for example — a scenario that could lead to conflicting court orders.
“This report provides a snapshot of how our coordinated family courts in Washoe and Clark counties are doing, how we compare to other jurisdictions, and provides recommendations for improvement,” said Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty.
The main issues that are limiting both jurisdictions include a growing population — Clark County has grown 147 percent and Washoe County has grown 67 percent since the model was implemented — and the need for expanded facilities. Another is the lack of a forum for those that experienced family court to provide their feedback.
“The stakes for children and families in court are high and the decisions judicial officers make are life-altering,” report authors said. “Both courts lack ongoing forums for children and families to provide feedback on their experiences in court.”
The NCJJ’s 74-page report, which took about eight months to complete, proposed seven recommendations to the Nevada Supreme Court and both family divisions. They include:
- Sustain the Family Division Operating Model.
“There is strong support among judicial officers and stakeholders to continue the model,” report authors said. “The family divisions in Washoe and Clark counties are also informing each other in a collaborative manner and are pioneering and sharing solutions that may eventually be replicated.”
- Support Careful Planning for Future Court Facility Expansions
The report notes that overcrowded facilities are making it more difficult to manage the “volatile dynamics” of people involved in contentious family matters, such as custody and abuse cases.
“In both jurisdictions, courtroom operations and ancillary family division services that were once co-located are now fragmenting to other locations,” report authors wrote. “The separation is affecting family division morale and may contribute to an erosion of public trust, particularly for self-represented litigants that are incurring a greater level of stress in navigating separate locations.”
- Conduct Weights Workload Study for the Family Divisions.
“Caseload pressure has impacted their ability to meet high internal standards and those of ongoing state and local court improvement commissions and task forces,” report authors said, adding that their comparisons to courts elsewhere show Nevada family courts “are operating at a deficit of judicial officer resources in comparison to similar jurisdictions.”
- Create a Hearing Master Study Commission or Task Force.
Hearing masters are appointed officials who hold hearings on certain kinds of family law proceedings, and supplement the work of elected judges. The report says one challenge is ensuring hearing masters receive consistent training and stay current on best practices.
“How to best deploy and support hearing masters is a stress point in the current Nevada family division model that the [Administrative Office of the Courts] should help to resolve by elevating the discussion of how to best support the hearing master resource and the possible need for statute or court rule reforms,” report authors said.
- Establish an Office of Family Division Services within the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC).
A specialized office would focus more attention on improving family courts, such as offering training in “nonadversarial dispute resolution,” implementing case management tailored to each case type and promoting the “progressive use of technology.”
“The purpose of this office is to help preserve and advance key family division operating goals in [Nevada law],” report authors said.
- Support Specialized, Ongoing, Domestic Training.
Specific training keeps those working with domestic violence attune to the complex issues and methods needed to solve these issues.
“More than half of domestic violence incidents will not have been disclosed. Thus any court staff or court-related professionals interacting directly with litigants must be trained.”
- Consider Expanding the District Court, Family Division’s Assessment Data to Public Forums and to Judicial Officers and Stakeholders Working in Rural Jurisdictions.
This will help people affected by family issues to reach out and be heard, especially those who live in rural areas in Nevada.
“Two of the most important topics for further data collection are measuring public opinion about the family division model and addressing the model as it is applied in rural areas of the state,” report authors said.
Hurst, the project director, said the recommendations reflect what survey and interview responses suggest are the biggest challenges to achieving the state’s vision for family courts.
“The Supreme Court wanted to conduct a qualitative assessment (think of it like a health screening) to determine where investments in more intensive, time-consuming and thus costly research is warranted,” he said in an email.
The report also showed how Clark and Washoe County have above-average caseloads compared to courts across the country.
Washoe County saw a 24 percent increase in new filings of adult cases from the fiscal year 2014 to 2018 but reopened cases decreased by 49 percent over that time period. The total number of cases in Washoe County in 2018 was 9,160.
Clark County saw a 10 percent increase in new filings of adult cases over that same period. In 2018, there were 42,545 filings.
The number of cases heard compared to the number of judicial officers able to hear family and juvenile filings for Washoe County was 10,544 cases to 10 judicial officers or more than 1,000 cases per judge. That is a higher rate than the one in similarly sized Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse, New York; the ratio there is 8,584 cases to 15 judicial officers.
The number of cases in Clark County compared to the number of judicial officers who hear family and juvenile filings was 48,591 cases to 30 judicial officers. That ratio was higher than in the family court for the similarly sized Queens borough in New York City, where there were 44,074 cases to 55 judicial officers.
The courts that are assigned as family division courts are the Second Judicial District Court in Washoe County and the Eighth Judicial District Court in Clark County. In Nevada’s 15 other counties, traditional courts oversee any family-related issues.