Over the last five years, Chicago Appleseed has been working closely with Grace Dickler, the Presiding Judge of the Cook County Domestic Relations Division. Together, we have collaborated to remake the domestic relations courts into a single, modern court that not only serves the needs families using it but also operates effectively and uses its resources in the best way possible. A major component of this effort was the unification of the divorce court docket with the child support docket for cases concerning children of never-married parents.
The Chicago Tribune has praised the consolidation, noting that it improves the fairness of the courts for all families. Unwed parents who were previously sent through the parentage court were disproportionately poor people of color, and received fewer resources per case. The article notes the impact of our 2013 constitutionality analysis—which concluded that the court was vulnerable to a finding of unconstitutionality—on the drive to consolidate the courts. We’re glad to see this joint effort getting the recognition it deserves.
There remains room to further improve the new court. The consolidation effort includes an expansion of the hearing officer program to the branch courts, along with a broader scope of authority to work with parents on agreed orders of parenting time and other parental responsibilities. This reduces the burden that repeat court visits place on working parents while helping the court concentrate its limited judicial resources on more complex or contentious cases. There is still more work necessary to bring this hearing officer program into full partnership with the court and widen its impact.
Chicago Appleseed, with help of our pro bono partners at Latham & Watkins and Skadden Arps, is also looking at ways to improve the process for unrepresented parents. We are currently examining the efficacy of alternative child support enforcement systems in Cook County.
We are proud of our contributions to the efforts to reform the Cook County Domestic Relations Division and appreciate this acknowledgement. We’re hard at work on the next steps.