Understanding Court Related Services

by: Glenn
August, 2001
(Note: This article is written about the "Friend of the Court" System in the state of Michigan. Every state has a similar agency that works with the court system but may do so quite differently from what you read here. In many states your agency will be a "Child Support Enforcement" unit or Agency and may provide more services than what are desribed here, or fewer services than those described here.)

If you want to succeed in upholding the best interests of your child and defending your rights, you should take the time to learn how the Friend of the Court system works. You cannot afford to be unaware of the rules of the system.

The Friend of the Court is a division of the circuit court, and its job is to act as the "eyes and ears" of the circuit judge. In other words, the Friend of the Court does the "leg work" and provides assistance to the court by gathering information, meeting with clients, and investigating facts relevant to your case. Although the circuit court judge assigned to your case is the ultimate decision-maker, the Friend of the Court has a tremendous influence on your case because it provides the court with recommendations. In most cases, the judge accepts the recommendations, and they become a "court order".

The Friend of the Court (director) is appointed by the chief circuit court judge and is charged with the responsibility of making recommendations related to custody, parenting time, and child support. The Friend of the Court hires staff to perform the various functions involved in carrying out its duties. The job titles of Friend of the Court staff reflect their specific functions: custody investigator, visitation specialist, child support specialist, referee, mediator, and attorney.

Perhaps some of you have become frustrated with Friend of the Court staff. Keep in mind that the people who work at Friend of the Court have a difficult job. They are typically overworked and underpaid. Their caseload sizes are often unmanageable, and they often do not have the resources to handle the increasing number of clients coming through the system. Often, Friend of the Court employees are poorly trained and inadequately supervised. Frequent turnover of staff can be a big problem for many Friend of the Court offices. It is not uncommon for the entire staff - from director to receptionist - to change almost completely in the span of four or five years.

Friend of the Court handles some difficult clients and cases. Frequently, parents coming through their system have substance abuse, mental health, and unemployment problems. Even without such problems, more than a few parents are rude, hostile, and do not know how to handle themselves in an appropriate way. All too often, emotionally charged and hate-filled parents fight with each other about everything, totally ignoring the best interests of their child. Much of the fighting is about "who's going to get more" and "who's going to win".

There are times when people who work at Friend of the Court make mistakes and overlook information. After dealing with antagonistic, unreasonable parents all day long, they may make an unpleasant remark or respond in an unsympathetic tone. Please, for the sake of all of us, give them a break and cut them some slack. Treat them with respect, and keep your cool. Unfortunately, there are some single parents out there who are making things worse for the rest of us because of the nasty way that they treat Friend of the Court staff.

One common complaint about Friend of the Court is that they have little oversight. Prior to the reforms that were enacted in the 1980s and 1990s lack of accountability essentially allowed Friend of the Court to act inappropriately without any consequences. Gender bias was common, and some workers were blatantly incompetent.

Lack of oversight and accountability continue to be a problem today. The establishment of a grievance process and the creation of citizen's advisory committees are a step in the right direction. While the grievance process and advisory committee provide parents with a way to voice concerns, neither the grievance process nor the citizen's advisory committees can provide the level of oversight and accountability that are needed.

The chief circuit judge is responsible for oversight of Friend of the Court. He or she is responsible for the direction and supervision of the Friend of the Court and other personnel employed by the court. Because the welfare and safety of children and the basic rights of innocent people are at stake, it is one of the most important duties of the chief circuit court judge. Regrettably, chief judges often do not have the time, interest, or resources to oversee the Friend of the Court.