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Ironing Out The Kinks In The System

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(LAST OF A SERIES) Most of the problemi in'theFnend"#Tlie Court's office can't be resolved on a crisis basis says Richard S. Benedek, Washtenaw County Friend of the Court. "In some instances we're not as helpful as we would like to be. In a sense," he says, "some of the problems we deal with areverydifficult. "Take visitation problems, for example. If someone is bent on being uncooperative, they can make he situation very difficult. They can't prevent visitation but they can make visitation a very discouraging affair. Or take support payments. If the father isn't working to capacity to support his youngsters as he could, we can't haul him into court to ask, 'Why aren't youadvancingfaster?' ' A minority of the complaints about the Friend of the Court that County Commissioner Elizabeth Taylor (D-Ann Arbor) hears concern social workers not checking on what's going on in the custodial home. But that's a tricky question, she says, because if the social worker goes out to check on the kids to make sure the living situation is all right they're told, "Don't send those people in my house!" Some of the complaints, Ms. Taylor says, "may be 'off the wall' but most seem legitímate to me. N "The real question is who's hired to deal with the unbelievably high caseload. It shouldn't be a question of how old they are but how much maturity they've got," she says. "Clearly, there needs to be some screening. How people are getting along with their clients as people is certainly an important factor. "Perhaps they should have clients evalúate their caseworkers and the caseworkers, in turn, evalúate their supervisors. I'm not talking about a popularity contest," Ms. Taylor points out, "but a systematic basis where complaints coujd be separated out and you could get a better picture of how the office operates. "It's interesting," she says, "that no one from the Friend of the Court's office was present at the public hearing. Who do they feel they should pay attention to? If they feel that the clients being served aren't going to make constructive criticisms, then they're not considering the contexts of these people's lives." "But complaints aren't always realistic, Circuit Court Judge Ross W. Campbell says. "Many times, the husband hasn't supported the family all through the marriage. Now, at the time of the divorce, the woman suddenly expects the Friend of the Court to make miracles in enforcing child support paymentsTl It's like trying to get blood out of a turnip." Regarding the competency of his staff, Benedek says, "to bel as effective as we've been, we've hired very carefully. It's notj easy to find people who have the educa tion, training, interest! and skills we're looking for in this area. We don't want É one who's just looking for a job. And the same applies to ouri attorneys - few lawyers are really interested in family lawg and interested in the progressive programs here. So in that sense, we've hadsome problems finding qualified people." There are 25 employés in the office. About their hiring practices, Benedek says, "If someone had I qualifications as a social worker, the f act that he was divorced I would by no means preclude his being hired - unless the 1 son himself would think it would." On the other hand, if the divorce was being handled through I the Washtenaw County Friend'of the Court's office, there would I be another factor involved, that of public confidence in the 1 fice, Benedek says. "It's hard to describe my reluctance to I hire someone like that," he says, "because of the image - not I his ability to do the job. Part of our effectiveness is in people I realizing no special considerations are being given to some. It could present problems in the sense that anything you did on that person's case could be awkward for that person and for I the others in the office." How accessible are the Friend of the Court and the Circuit I judges to those with complaints? Presiding Circuit Judge William F. Ager Jr. says he and I Judge Campbell have considered having an evening session ■ when people with problems "could stop in to see us and talk over suggestions about what we could do to help them more. Of I course, they can cali or write to us now about their problems. j We try to answer each case individually. But you can't discuss personal problems with 50 or 60 people looking on," he comments in referring to the "public hearing" held in November. Assistant to the Friend of the Court, Michael P. Malley I points out that evening hours would be beneficial for those who Ij work during the daytime hours. ! "Certainly," says Benedek, "we've thought along those lines. V But one of the problems is that obviously I'm not personally j miliar with all the cases that come through this office. That's Ij why I have a staff. So one of the biggest problems would be ! wrestling with one-sided information that may not be entirely ■ fair to both parties. I "The person might walk out happy, but the decisión would j be very arbitrary. f "I have sympathy for the problems people have in these J ; a ■■■■■■ r i ■@è Ann Dimensions cases. Rut too rriany naïvéïy see divoree as solving all tneir j problems; now a whole new set of problems besets them. "My concern is, what good would it do? I'd need records, the I whole story. "I kind of like the idea-but if I did it, I'd have to live with I myself to see if it were very productive. It would be a I able extravagance of time and staff. In good conscience," he f says, "time is scarce, and it would have to accomplish I thing to justify it as time well spent." How open is the Friend of the Court to granting custody of children to those with unusual lifestyles? Some critics charge that unless you have a "normal" living situation, you won't be successful in receiving custody of your children. This is a problem in these person's eyes because, until they were divorced, it didn't make any difference how they lived their lives. Answering this criticism, Benedek says, "We consider all factors. No one item is taken out of perspective. The factors we consider are how the living arrangement will affect the kid's growth so that he is a healthy, stable child. "We don't want to punish anyone for his lifestyle - there could be nothing further from the truth. But if you belive there is a connection between childhood and adulthood, you have to consider all the elements and to some degree, you have to go along with the levël of what the behavioral scientists have to say. The odds are that we'll recommend the place where the child is healthier and happier. We'll piek the parent whose cusstodial setting gives the best chance for the child's success as an adult; that's what child custody is all about. "It's a mistake to sink or swim on lifestyle. You cah't get away with things that are wrong by calling it a 'lifestyle,' he points out, "just as you can't abuse your child and get away with it by calling it a 'cult'." "We weigh alternatives," Malley says. "We're not putting up people as being the 'ideal parent.' And I've never seen the case where, excepting lifestyle, everything else was equal - apart from lifestyle." Benedek adds, "We're not going to give a child to a asexual parent just to prove that we're not against omosexuality if that child would feel better off elsewhere. "We can't engage in social experiments at the expense of children. "But I have to add," Benedek says, "that a person who does have an alternative lifestyle will feel much more comfortable ning into the Washtenaw County Friend of the Court asking for custody of his children than he would any where else in the 'state. We are open to different life situations."