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Justice praises Unified Family Court program

Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Pariente applauded an east Pasco initiative Thursday as she made her first fact-finding trip to see how the new Unified Family Court program is working in the real world.

Pariente spoke to about 35 state, county and court officials after spending nearly two hours in Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper's courtroom, watching the judge combine a variety of family court needs into one, all-inclusive hearing.

"I use Judge Tepper as my poster child judge," Pariente said. "She was doing this before it was the thing to do. I'd like to be able to clone Judge Tepper and bring her around the state."

Pariente joined a lunch meeting of officials who deal with family court issues, including juvenile justice workers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, Department of Children and Families workers and others.

"We have these ideas and we promote these ideas, but we understand that these visions only become reality if the counties understand these visions and carry them on," Pariente said.

The program began last summer with pilot efforts in Broward and the Pasco-Pinellas circuits, including Tepper's courtroom. The goal is to find families caught up in an assortment of legal troubles and present the entire case load to a single judge. A judge familiar with the family can spot and address underlying problems.

In the courtroom Thursday, Tepper dealt with a variety of cases, sometimes with several issues affecting a single family. There was an adoption case, a case of domestic violence, a woman who was sent to parenting classes while her husband was directed to a violence program. Tepper appointed an attorney, insisted a mother find day care and a rent a permanent home for her children and directed another family to mediation.

As she worked, Tepper alternated her attention from case workers to attorneys and to children, fielding questions and doling out assignments.

Pariente told the lunch group afterward that she was looking for ways to make the system better as it grows.

Some suggestions were simple: Sunrise Domestic Violence Center legal advocate Jody Bixler said the thin paper that domestic violence injunctions are printed on makes it difficult for sheriff's deputies to read the instructions when a violation is reported.

Other suggestions will take more work, such as getting the School Board more involved in the process.

Pasco sheriff's Sgt. James Law said the program keeps troubled parents from giving up when they have to deal with several judges, conflicting orders and make several appearances. The pilot effort, he said, needs to expand to the west side of the county.

Pariente said she expects the program to grow statewide.

"Our end goal is to leave families in a better condition than when they came into court," she said. "It's really a rethinking of some basic assumptions."

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