Clinton County's new Director, Friend of the Court speaks at Family Law Section Meeting

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By Roberta M. Gubbins

Legal News

I view this as an opportunity to develop a relationship with the family law practitioners in Ingham County," said Gary Haffey, Director, Clinton County Friend of the Court, to the Family Law Section of the Ingham County Bar Association at their luncheon meeting on February 25th.

Almost immediately after he came on board, he received a number of complaints that had little to do with the outcome of a case. "They fell into three categories," Haffey said. "First, that the staff was not treating people well, second that they were unresponsive to parties, attorneys and/or third parties, and lastly, that the office wasn't helpful."

In an effort to improve service, Haffey, who expected the staff to be helpful, arranged training sessions using Michigan Judicial Institute web-casts related to customer service for court staff employees. "It is a priority for me. It is more than changing the perception of the office, it has to do with being helpful. I now require the staff to be open for the lunch hour and for two staff people to be available. This makes it easier for people to come to make child support payments. We now accept cash. I'm looking at credit cards as an option."

Haffey plans to make the website more informative with downloads so that people don't have to come to the office for information. "The real thrust of this effort is internally within the office and how we deal with our customers."

"Our parenting time schedule is too complicated. I am making the development categories from birth to 2 years, two to five years old, five to fifteen years old and then fifteen on up. We are developing a proposed schedule within those categories. We are making the Smile program monthly and court ordered so that everyone in every file will be required to complete the program because I think that information is valuable," he said.

"We have three caseworkers in our office. I have reassigned the caseload on an alphabetical split basis with the father's last name. You will consistently have that caseworker to deal with custody and parenting time problems. There is also a corollary enforcement worker who will stay the same."

"With a new support order," he noted, "I want a letter going to the paying party telling them about the order and its contents and when payments are due. If we don't get a payment in thirty days, we will make contact; if ninety days goes by, we will set a hearing before the officer, not the court. I am trying to avoid" the accumulation of a large arrearage. "I want to get people to make payments. On cases where there is a history of non-payment, I want them before the court. We are also requiring people to complete a job verification form to show they are looking for work. I would like five of those every Friday for those that have a history of non-payment."

For folks that are laid off," they can contact the office to make an appointment to make a modification. I don't want to accumulate arrearages that I can never collect. The last group of cases are prison cases, Social Security Disability cases, medical leaves, etc. I have the caseworkers initiating petitions to hold support in abeyance and enter an order that will take effect if the payee doesn't object within 21 days. If they object, there will be a hearing in front of the judge."

"For the establishment of an order, if it is a DP or a DS file, it goes to the prosecutor's office an order is entered and comes to my office for enforcement. The rest are referred for conciliation, which deals with custody, parenting, division of expenses, and child support. At the conciliation, the parties enter into a stipulated order or the caseworker will generate a recommendation that will stand unless there is an objection which will be heard before the court.

"Attorneys, third parties and children are not allowed at the conciliation, however, there is an opt-out form that can be filed to opt out of the conciliation process. We will cancel the conciliation and schedule a referee hearing even for the initial establishment order. This is not available to in pro per people but is available if one party has an attorney."

"Once the initial order is entered, if a modification is needed, a motion is filed, the judge reviews it and enters an order to go to a referee hearing. The governor has signed several bills that affect the FOC. Some of them are:

* New payment plan statute that allows those with an order to file a petition to enter into a payment plan and have the balance of the arrearage discharged.

* Statute that requires the FOC to find proper cause to even consider a change of custody and the FOC can charge for necessary investigations. The costs will be established by the State Court Administrative Office and the Supreme Court.

* There is a broader definition of public assistance, which includes food stamps and foster care.

* There are new sanctions--if you are scheduled for a hearing and fail to appear, the court can issue additional penalties, if found in contempt can also have additional sanctions including booting your car.

"Lastly, if you have questions, comments and or problems, please contact me by phone (989-224-5136) or by email which is haffeyg@Clinton-County.org. If you are in court, please stop by to meet me."

In answer to questions:

We do recommendations on spousal support when there is an order from the judge. If it is a new case, the judge would have to specify that they want us to deal with spousal support in conciliation.

There is a problem with the date for conciliations being set within 14 days of filing of the complaint rather than from the proof service on the opposing party. The optout form must be filed within seven days of the hearing.

As to referee hearings, my goal is to give the parties a full and fair hearing. The hearings will be recorded. If there is an objection, a hearing will be before the judge and the proofs will be limited to the record of the referee hearing. If you want to introduce other evidence, you have to file a motion before the hearing advising the court that this is newly discovered evidence.

The FOC office will do the investigations.

Gary Haffey practiced domestic relations law for fifteen years before he started serving as Friend of the Court director in Gratiot County. He was appointed Director of the Clinton County Friend of the Court on September 1, 2009. His duties include responsibility for all the Clinton County Friend of the Court operations and will be conducting Referee hearings.

Published: Thu, Mar 11, 2010

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