Divorce litigation affects children, especially if they are living in a contentious atmosphere. In an effort to minimize the impact of the legal process on children, counties in Illinois have implemented programs and procedures to keep children out of the courtroom, and facilitate resolution of parenting issues in domestic relations cases. A handful of these programs are summarized here.
Counties in Illinois are required to offer mediation programs for divorcing parents. If parents are unable to reach an agreement regarding parenting time and the allocation of parental responsibilities, and so long as there are no extenuating circumstances (such as domestic violence), the court will send parents to mediation to try to resolve these issues outside the courtroom. Judges will often remind parties in a divorce that parents know their family situations and needs best. As parents, they should take advantage of the opportunity to reach a resolution that is in the best interests of the family, rather than delegating that decision a third party outsider.
The mediator does not represent either party and does not give legal advice. Rather, the mediator’s job is to facilitate conversation between the parties, and hopefully aid them in resolving the matters related to their children. The mediator will the issue a report stating whether the parties reached a full resolution, partial agreement, or were unable to reach an agreement.
Guardians Ad Litem
If mediation is unsuccessful and the parties are without an agreement with respect to their children, the court may appoint a guardian ad litem (“GAL”). The GAL will meet with the parties’ children, and any other relevant persons to fact-find, and will ultimately submit a report regarding his or her recommendation as to the best interests of the children. If a case proceeds to trial, the GAL may be called as a witness. In the event a case does proceed to trial and the GAL testifies as to his or her recommendations, the court is not required to follow the GAL’s recommendation in its ruling. However, the GAL’s recommendation is still a very vital aspect of the litigation process.
Illinois courts are also required to provide parenting education programs. Depending on the county, these programs can be completed by parents online or in person, and they are mandatory in cases involving minor children. The focus of parent education is to encourage parents to manage their divorce so that it does no harm to their children. These programs will emphasize parents to set aside their differences and communicate in a manner in which to avoid conflict.
Some counties take this a step further. For example, DuPage County offers a conflict management group called the PEACE program. The court may order high-conflict parents to attend this program together, where professionals will have them participate in various scenarios and role-playing to teach better communication and conflict management practices.
Intervention and Protection from Abuse
Unfortunately, sometimes children observe or suffer abuse in the home. Cook County has an Emergency Intervention program that involves the immediate referral of parents and the children to the Cook County Family Mediation Services mediator when the court “has reason to believe that a child may be in imminent danger.” This meeting is not confidential and not privileged, so any statements made may be communicated to the court and subject to further investigation. The investigator will report to the court with his or her recommendations as to the children. The purpose of this program is to provide the court with a clear picture about abuse in the home or other circumstances that seriously endanger a child’s mental, emotional or physical health.
Supervised Parenting Time
Sometimes, one parent may be ordered to have supervised parenting time with his or her children. Some counties have resources that facilitate this parenting time. For example, the DuPage County Family Center serves as a location for supervised parenting time as well as a neutral exchange site for parents. The residential parent will bring the children to the Family Center for parenting time with the other, and will pick them up at the conclusion. The Center can provide periodic reports to the court in an effort to monitor when a transition to unsupervised parenting time might be appropriate. A great benefit of the Family Center is that it is set up so that parents do not have to have face-to face contact with each other whatsoever, thus avoiding the potential for conflict completely.
In conclusion, Illinois has several resources in place for children involved in domestic relations cases. Although these resources vary in complexity and involvement, they all aim to serve children and to mitigate any affects litigation may have on them. If you have any questions or concerns about children in domestic relations cases or the resources described in this article, please contact us to speak with one of our attorneys.