Safe and Healthy Families Court—Nebraska’s First Child Welfare Problem-Solving Court Centered on Domestic Violence

The Bencher—July/August 2022

By Abby Osborn, Esquire

In 2020, Judge Elise White, a Master of the Bench of the Robert Van Pelt American Inn of Court, in Lincoln, Nebraska, was appointed to the Separate Juvenile Court of Lancaster County. After practicing as an attorney and guardian ad litem, she had a vision for what she wanted the “domestic violence (DV) track” she was taking over to look like. Since taking the bench amid the early days of the pandemic, the DV track has now been officially established as a problem-solving court, renamed the “Safe and Healthy Families Court.” It is the first such court in the state.

In addition, the court’s partnering organizations were awarded the Breakthrough Initiative Grant by the Woods Charitable Fund, providing $900,000 over three years to establish and fund the problem-solving court.

Attorneys accepting appointments in the Safe and Healthy Families Court, including prosecutors, must adhere to requirements that include completing monthly reflective practice sessions facilitated by trained practitioners, certifying they have reviewed the practice manual for the court, and agreeing to strive to adhere to the court’s mission statement: “Professionals will work as a team to enhance communication and build relationships that will engage families, provide individual support, and ultimately improve outcomes in domestic violence cases.”

The practice manual sets forth the evolution of the court from the informal domestic violence track to the established problem-solving court, as well as the vision, mission statement, goals, intended outcomes, and procedures for admission and treatment protocols. The practice manual also outlines the responsibilities for those involved in the Safe and Healthy Families Court, including the judge, various attorney roles, Department of Health and Human Services, treatment providers, and research team.  

The research team, through the Center on Children, Families, and the Law (CCFL) at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, provides program support, technical assistance, and evidence-based guidance. The team also oversees data collection and analysis to measure and assess the effectiveness of court process.

In addition to adjudication, disposition, monthly team meetings, and regular review hearings, monthly meetings among stakeholders also occur. These meetings are for attorneys, including prosecutors, parents’ attorneys, and guardians ad litem; Department of Health and Human Services representatives; advocates from domestic violence victim advocacy organizations; CCFL staff; and Judge White. A separate sub-committee of shareholders produces a monthly continuing legal education series related to child welfare cases, specifically issues related to trauma and domestic violence.

White agreed to an interview regarding the Safe and Healthy Families Court and the unique opportunity that it provides to the families of Lancaster County. Having practiced alongside, and now before, White in the DV track, I was eager to learn more about her design for the court, why it is working, and what she sees for the court’s future.

Why did you decide that the Safe and Healthy Families Court should be an officially sanctioned problem-solving court?

One of the struggles that we have had historically with child welfare cases where domestic violence is an adjudicated issue is ensuring for the children’s safety without revictimizing the survivor of the domestic abuse. Given the traditional adversarial approach to litigation for these cases, perpetrators of domestic violence were often able to use the legal system itself to further victimize the other parent and keep the focus off their own harmful behavior. As an approved problem-solving court, we are now ethically authorized to take a team approach to these cases, which means as a court team we will be better able to support the surviving parent and hold the perpetrator accountable through the use of incentives and sanctions.

How do you think your perspective of recently joining the bench after practicing in the “DV track” influenced your desire to apply to be a problem-solving court?

Prior to being appointed to the bench, I represented victim parents and perpetrator parents and served as guardian ad litem for the children on the DV Track, led by Judge Linda S. Porter. Having done this court from the attorney/guardian ad litem role really enlightened me to how my clients and the team viewed the approach on the track. This helped me gain a good understanding of the client’s perspective, as well as the team’s perspective to what was going well and what needed improvement when I took over handling this docket.

How has the grant by the Woods Charitable Fund enhanced the transition to an official problem-solving court?

The funding by Woods has been instrumental in providing domestic violence-informed training for our team, as well as allowing the various agencies working with the team and the families we serve to take a community-based approach to supporting the work done by the court team. It has really enhanced the quality and quantity of the collaboration between our community partners, which has been an asset to the children and families we have the pleasure of serving.

What has become the most noticeable difference between your problem-solving docket and your regular abuse/neglect docket?

The most striking difference I have seen has borne out in the data that we have collected so far [through the University of Nebraska, Lincoln Center for Children, Families, and the Law] and in my anecdotal observations, [and that] is the perception by the parents we work with that the court process is actually making things better. The research team working with our court has been conducting parent surveys for the problem-solving cases, as well as control group surveys with the non-problem-solving court families. The data have been quite resounding in that the parents in the problem-solving court overwhelmingly report (in significantly higher percentages than the control group) that they feel their voices are being heard, their needs are being met, and their family is doing better as a result of their involvement with the court.

What would you like to be able to do with the problem-solving court that you still are not able to do?

I think our biggest need right now is getting a problem-solving court coordinator to help manage the docket and be a point person for the court team. Given that we are a somewhat unusual problem-solving court in that we don’t work with Probation (which is under the judicial branch), but rather the case management is through the Department of Health and Human Services (which is under the executive branch), trying to figure out how that position is funded and where that person would be employed has been a bit of a challenge. I am grateful that we have had wonderful cooperation between the department and the courts to try to get to the point of having this court even be a possibility, so I am confident that we will be able to get this need filled through a collaborative effort as well.

Why do you think the monthly collaboration between stakeholders is so important to the success of the Safe and Healthy Families Court?

One of the things we have learned about domestic violence in the court system is that division and lack of communication among the professionals working with these families gives the perpetrator of the abuse the ability to keep the focus on the team’s internal conflict and not on their own dangerous behaviors. By having the monthly stakeholder meetings we have been able to create stronger connections between everyone working with these families and have been able to problem-solve and air our differences in a healthy constructive way, which I believe has led to a more cohesive court team. Having a strong team allows us as a court team to support the victim parent while holding the perpetrator accountable, which is the goal of this entire program.

The benefits of the formal establishment of the Safe and Healthy Families Court have been recognized throughout the Separate Juvenile Court of Lancaster County. The Family Drug Court program has now begun the application process for formal establishment as a problem-solving court as well. I believe the establishment of formal policies, procedures, and the continued integration of stakeholders in a collaborative format will continue to improve the services to the families served through our juvenile court system. The Safe and Healthy Families Court is a model for success within our jurisdiction and could be in yours as well.

Abby Osborn, Esquire, is an associate attorney at Shiffermiller Law Office, P.C., L.L.O. in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her practice focuses on juvenile court, criminal defense, and plaintiff’s side employment and civil rights litigation. She is a member of the Robert Van Pelt American Inn of Court.

© 2022 Abby Osborn, Esquire. This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.