Three years after our Constitutionality analysis of the child support courts in the Cook County Domestic Relations Division, Presiding Judge Grace Dickler has issued an operations plan for consolidating the division. We are excited to announce that beginning in January 2017, the Domestic Relations Division will operate as a consolidated court that handles all paternity, divorce, child support and parenting time cases—regardless of the prior or current marital status of the parties. It’s been a long process and we are committed to working with Presiding Judge Dickler, Supervising Judge Pam Loza, and their staff to ensure smooth implementation, to assess the function of the new court and to propose ways to bring supplemental services and court-based legal aid into the division.
On November 15th, the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed Amendment 16 to the Cook County budget which funds eight hearing officers for the Domestic Relations Division who will have the flexibility to help develop parenting plans and provide information about community resources, as well as set recommended child support orders. The hearing officers have long been a vital part of the parentage courts, and Chicago Appleseed helped the Court make the case for these county-funded hearing officers. We’ll continue working with the Court to implement and monitor this new approach to administrative hearing officers in the newly consolidation Division.
Funding hearing officers across the division helps give the child support system the ability to be more efficient while at the same time provide problem-solving capacity to a part of the Circuit Court that serves substantial numbers of pro se parties.
Hearing officers currently work with unmarried/never married parents to establish paternity through orders for DNA testing, create child support orders which can include agreed parenting time provisions, and connect families with community services to assist with housing, job placement and parenting. Under the Cook County Budget, hearing officers will work with all families in the Domestic Relations Division, expanding their role and impact within the division.
Hearing officers are the point of entry for many families and present an opportunity to educate the parties on the process, narrow the issues for judges to consider in a case and connect families with community resources and social services. The program offers an excellent base to develop court-based legal services and an alternative court process. Because the hearing officer process benefits families and the courts, Chicago Appleseed is thrilled to see the county support the program in the budget.
We are also proud to remain part of Presiding Judge Dickler’s implementation task force.