5 Things You Ought to Know about the Family Court System

In this podcast episode, Brian Schuette, Jim Jones and Ashlea Shepherd Porter discuss the Kentucky Family Court system.

#1 – What is Family Court?

Family Court is the specific court division that deals with families.  In 2002 there was a Constitutional Amendment in Kentucky that provided for family courts in all Kentucky Counties.

What sorts of cases are in Family Court?  Divorce, child custody, child support, visitation and time sharing, paternity, adoptions, domestic violence, dependency/neglect/abuse cases, termination of parental rights cases, and status offenses in which the child is in trouble for offenses because of their age such as running away and truancy.

#2 –  Who are the people involved in Family Court cases?

Judicial staff including judges, clerks, court staff

Attorneys- Guardian ad litem appointed for child

Attorneys appointed for parents- provided statutorily, they are entitled to counsel just as in a criminal case.

County Attorney- may be involved in child support cases or may be the prosecutor in dependency/neglect/abuse cases

Attorneys for Commonwealth through the Cabinet for Health and Family Services


Social Workers-may be involved in any cases, but primarily the dependency/neglect/abuse and domestic violence cases.

Parties to the case

#3 – How would you describe the goals of the Family Court system?

We are meeting people in crisis.  The Family Court system is an attempt to bring people through the crisis as peacefully as possible, and to minimize and reduce the harm to the children.  The court and law has in mind the idea that it is to always act in the best interest of the child.

One Family/One Court- This is the practice in which any time someone in a family comes before the court that family will have the same judge as long as that judge is on the bench.  This allows the family to always deal with the same people and it allows the court to have a historical memory so they don’t have to relearn the facts of the case every time they are before the court.

#4 – What are some misconceptions about family court?

Dependency/neglect/abuse cases- There is a running joke that social services wants to remove children from their homes and that social workers get a bonus for removing children: essentially that they are trying to tear families apart. That could not be further from the truth.  No one goes into this line of work who wants discourse.  We are always about doing what is best for the children.  It may not seem that way to a layperson, but we have to work within the law to protect the constitutional rights of everyone involved including the parents and children.  Sometimes this requires that the children are temporarily or permanently removed from their parents.  When this is done, it is not taken lightly.  Ultimately, everyone is just trying to make sure the child is safe.

*Do you think CHFS is too quick to remove children and cause harm to the family structure?  No.  In my experience, in most cases social workers have prevention plans in place with many families in Kentucky that never see court involvement.  They provide services and training for parents to help them better take care of their children.  If they respond appropriately, they never see court involvement.  We become involved as a last resort.

* Do women have an advantage in the family court system?  In my experience the court does not favor either.  The judges I work with analyze the facts presented to them and try to act in the best interest of the child.  Traditionally, women have been the ones who care for the children, but as time goes on more women are entering the work force and more men are taking on child-caring roles.  Past decisions of the courts were a reflection of the times and those decisions are changing to reflect the changing of parenting roles now.

July 1, 2017 a new bill was passed in Kentucky for temporary orders for time-sharing in child custody cases.  The presumption now is equal time-sharing.  It is now up to one party to show why there should not be equal time-sharing.  The burden of proof is on the party to show why the other parent is not fit.

Lawyers in the system don’t care about anything but getting paid. In court appointed case we get $500.  That is a flat rate fee whether there is one hearing or it goes to the Supreme Court.  We do not get expenses or travel allowance.  That is it.  If you think that your privately retained attorney is prolonging the case to make money, you should get another attorney.  We are not getting rich on these cases.  We are in this to try to help people.

These cases are emotionally draining.  There is a lot of emotional baggage that is put on us every day.  We see children who are physically/sexually abused and we listen to their stories.  We sit with them while they cry and we cry with them.  We do not leave that at the office.  Those involved in the family court system have a special heart for this work.  They do it because they want to help people, not to make money.

Nobody understands what I am going through. Family Court cases are done in secrecy/behind closed doors.  These cases are not open to the public.  These issues involve intimate family issues and we are not allowed to see what others are going through.  Because of this, you may feel like you are the only one going through these things.  You may hear about one case that made the news, but you don’t know about the 20-30 other cases we heard that week that weren’t on the news.  In Warren County this year there have been more than 900 cases so far of new children that have been involved in the Family Court system in some way.  Those are new cases in addition to all of the repeat cases that are in the system already.  There are 2 Family Court judges that deal with all of those cases.

Every day the people who work in Family Court see hundreds of families every year.  They spend all day without a break hearing case after case after case.  They are tasked with resolving often unresolvable, very personal, intimate issues.  The attorney has to work with the court and advocate for our client, but ultimately we are all working toward the same goal:  to get the family through this situation.  These people understand what you are going through because they see it every day.  They hear the most intimate/private stories and do their best to bring about the best result.

#5 – What are some helpful tips for navigating the Family Court system?

You need to seek advice of an attorney early on in the case. Things you do or say early in court may severely and adversely affect you throughout the case.

There are several different agencies who provide legal services including Kentucky Legal Aid if you are financially incapable of seeking help with a private attorney. There are options.  We are concerned with making sure your constitutional right to counsel is protected.  The clerk’s office has forms available to help you get assistance in hiring an attorney if you cannot provide one for yourself.

Less is more. Don’t say anything until you have sought an attorney’s advice.  Typically you will want to say more than you should.  Before seeking counsel, we have seen people who have said and done things in court that they later regret.  Once you set a course in court it is hard to turn back.  First impressions really are important.

Nobody wins in Family Court. At the end of the day, both parties lose something.  Mediation is a very good avenue in Family Court cases.  This is where a neutral third party sits down with both parties to try to come to an agreement on the issues.  They have to put their pride and desires aside and look at the best interests of the children involved.  But this is a way to have some involvement in the process.  There is some control over what happens and it is not all left in the hands of the judge.  In these cases everyone loses something and hopefully everyone wins something.  Victory is often hollow in these cases.  A victory is when everyone feels that their interests were well protected.  It is hard to get there, but in the end it is worth the effort if a resolution is achieved.

It is important to understand that you have brought us something that is broken into many pieces.  It is never going to function as well as it would have if it had never been broken.  Our job is to mitigate the harm.  Getting back to how it was before is not possible.