The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) advocates for family law reform through its Honoring Families Initiative. One practical implementation of this initiative’s philosophy included the September 2013 opening of the University of Denver’s Resource Center for Separating & Divorcing Families. The Center has enjoyed remarkable success after only its first full year in operation.
The Center fills a gap in family law practice by providing a range of multi-disciplinary assistance from University of Denver graduate students in law, psychology, and social work in a collaborative setting.
Families seem to be selecting this collaborative option through the Center for various reasons, including anxiety about the court system, the inability to afford litigation, or simply because they prefer a collaborative paradigm for resolving disputes over an adversarial one. Because it offers services on sliding scale rates between $20 and $95 per hour, the Center tends to serve middle- and lower- income divorcing clients. However, there is no income restriction on eligibility.
Once a family applies to the Center, a screening process eliminates those who are unwilling to cooperate, as well as those with serious substance abuse history, serious criminal history, or history of domestic violence. Ineligible cases are referred to the traditional process. Families that are accepted will benefit from a multidisciplinary approach that blends psychology, social work, financial counseling, and legal aid led by a team of University of Denver students and licensed-professional supervisors to facilitate a healthy separation for the family.
Graduate students in psychology and social work provide individual, family, or child counseling services. Families may be referred to a financial counselor, if needed. Law students gain clinical experience assisting the parties with preparing divorce pleadings, completing financial disclosures and providing mediation services to the parties. Judge Robert Hyatt—sitting by designation for all metro-area counties for this purpose—personally travels to the Center to preside over final orders hearings so that the families never even have to enter a courthouse.
The Center’s founding team initially considered that it could better serve families in a convenient location such as a shopping center. While the future remains open as to location, the Center’s current university setting boasts some distinct advantages. For one, it facilitates a hands-on, clinical education for graduate students in law, psychology, and social work. The Center also serves as a research project for IAALS’s Honoring Families Initiative. Observations from the Center’s early operations will drive innovation in family court procedures, collaborative divorce models, and will even provide valuable guidance to mental health professionals working in family systems.
Before any of my family law colleagues see the Center as competition, it should be noted that “the Resource Center does not preclude attorney representation,” says Natalie Anne Knowlton, Director of the Honoring Families Initiative for IAALS.
Attorneys are always welcome to participate in the process; however, the Center often serves potential litigants who prefer collaboration over litigation and those who cannot afford attorneys.
The Center’s role does not displace the attorney’s role as an advocate. The Center provides mediation services in a collaborative environment, but it does not represent any of the parties. As for the future of the Center and private attorneys, retired Colorado Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janice Davidson serves as a senior advisor to IAALS and is exploring how the two might find symbiosis. Judge Davidson researches how the trend toward unbundled legal services may open this more collaborative and economically modest potential client base to law firms. Ultimately, the Center aims to be a valuable resource and colleague of private family law attorneys instead of their competitor.
After the first year, the results are astounding. “The first year of operations has far surpassed my hopes and expectations,” says Melinda Taylor, Executive Director of the Center. Taylor reports overwhelmingly positive feedback from the program’s nearly one hundred participants since its opening. Taylor says parents have shared that they feel they are treated like a family by the Center, not merely as faceless case numbers. Others have reported a more positive understanding of the role of the law in their lives. The Center is educating and empowering the parties to collaboratively design their own post-marital lives instead of relying on a judicial fiat following a contentious trial.
The future looks bright for the Center and its Executive Director. Taylor has embarked on fundraising efforts to extend the Center’s future and capacity to serve. Initial funding for a three-year demonstration project was generously donated by the Gates Family Frontier Fund, but Taylor is hard at work generating funds for continued operations beyond its initial demonstration. Undoubtedly, Taylor is aided in her fundraising task by the Center’s early success and the support of the Denver Bar Association.
For more information about the Resource Center for Separating & Divorcing Families please visit www.du.edu/rcsdf. For more information about IAALS Honoring Families Initiative please visit iaals.du.edu/initiatives/honoring-families-initiative.
The author, Keith Lewis, is an attorney at Borenstein & Associates in Centennial. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.