Circuit Court Family Division honored by Supreme Court


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The Michigan Supreme Court has given one of its recently-established Robert E. Weiss awards to the 17th Circuit Court Family Division for something the court has been doing for 30 years.

The Kent County Interagency Adoption Resource Committee (IARC) began meeting three decades ago at the behest of then-judge John P. Steketee, and has met continuously since then.

Representatives of the court, the Kent County Department of Human Services (DHS), and the various adoption agencies in the county meet monthly to address issues that may be preventing adoptions.

The 17th Circuit Court Family Division’s Presiding Judge Patricia Gardner and a crew of adoption agency and DHS personnel, as well as the court’s Adoption Specialist/Referee Sandra Recker, traveled to Jackson’s Commonwealth Commerce Center on Sept. 27 to receive the award from the Supreme Court.

Though Recker, who wrote the nomination application, has nothing but praise for Judge Gardner, she says, “I feel that it’s a testament to Judge Steketee, who had the desire that we all communicate better.”

In 2008, the State Court Administrative Office Child Welfare Services Division, along with Michigan DHS hosted Adoption and Permanency Forums across Michigan to “discuss innovative ways to expedite permanency for children in foster care.” Those forums met with great success as Michigan achieved 3,030 adoptions of foster children in 2009, the highest number ever.

The SCAO subsequently created the Robert E. Weiss awards — named after a Genesee County judge who was a tireless advocate for children until his death in 2009 — to recognize “the positive improvements and the important accomplishments” of the now-74 county teams.

The Kent County IARC predates that forum process, which is all the more to its credit.

Though the particular award given to the Kent County court was for Excellence in Court Improvement, that award is not statistics-based but rather in recognition of “implementing innovative solutions to reduce delays in court process and procedure.”

And it is innovative to have concerned parties sitting at the table with each other month after month, year after year, establishing relationships that smooth the way for permanent adoptions of vulnerable children.

Judge Gardner, who was appointed to the bench in 1997 and is running for re-election this year, explains, “The gist of it is to bring the court planning together with DHS and private agencies to look at children in drift and ways to get them adopted. The focus is on not saying ‘we can’t’ but on how can we get them adopted permanently and quickly. I think we received the award because the current collection of people is very energetic and successful in collaborating with each other.”

Judge Gardner’s private practice included work with adoptions. Recker observes, “Even before she became a judge, she had a heart for this.”
Recker, whose job it is to oversee the legal aspects of every adoption in Kent County, comments further, “The IARC is about making sure we keep the lines of communication open.”

As the application stated, “Anyone that has worked in child welfare, even for a short time, will know that things are always changing... Forms change, basic procedures change, and the needs of families and children can change on a daily basis. Even positive changes can take time to understand and implement. Staff members from the court, DHS and private agencies use the IARC meetings to help each other sort through those changes.”

Kent County has long followed the practice of allowing private agencies to handle adoptions. Recker stresses that in “a huge percentage of cases,” it is clear who will adopt a child in advance of starting the proceedings.

In addition to facilitating “the feeling that we can and really have a  right to call each other up and say, we have this issue, let’s figure out how to make it better,” Recker says that IARC participation has enabled agreements for expediting  paperwork so information gets to databases more quickly, for example. Perhaps its greatest contribution has been person-to-person interaction on individual cases.

“The IARC helps each of us realize that it’s not about me, it’s about the children, and they really need us to focus,” says Recker.