Making Family Court calm, not scary


May, 16 2019

Making Family Court calm, not scary

By Judge Amy Searcy
Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas, Domestic Relations Division

For several years I have observed parents walk into my courtroom and look at their surroundings with apprehension, as if they are entering a battlefield. Their facial expressions and body language showed their anger, fear, sadness, devastation, confusion and regret. My job is to help them and their attorneys navigate the legal process as easily and painlessly as possible, with the goal of producing effective and positive outcomes for their children. Not an easy task! Sometimes the parents can only resolve their differences by having a trial. More often than not, however, families work through their parenting issues in a cooperative manner. That process is heartening and satisfying to witness.

Hamilton County Domestic Relations Court offers many services to assist parents, as they navigate the process of resolving their disputes, including mediation, early neutral evaluation and parenting investigations. Now, there is another way we assist Hamilton County families to solve their issues in court with the focus being to reduce stress, anger and tension by promoting a more calm and temperate environment. I have altered my courtroom to better meet the needs of the families that come here. Domestic Relations Courtroom 2-25 is now a place where natural sunlight streams in through the windows, the walls are covered with large canvasses of serene park landscapes and the attorneys’ trial tables have been replaced with one oversized conference room table and comfortable chairs. There has also been carefully placed upon the wall, facing the parents, the words “In the best interests of the CHILD”, reminding all in the courtroom the motto and statutory mandate of this court.

Beginning from the time I took the bench four years ago, I have dreamed of creating a less stressful and anger-filled courtroom. I engaged in research on the impact of design and environment on people, and I carefully considered how I want the courtroom space to impact the families of Hamilton County. My goal is to encourage the parties to be inspired to work together, rather than against each other. To that end, over the past 12 months, I have worked with others on this project. The fruits of our labor are now revealed. The message to those who enter my courtroom is this: “Welcome. Let’s sit down together and calmly discuss the issues your family is facing. We are here to help you.”

Neuroscience and Conflict Resolution

Before deciding to make a change in my courtroom, I spent one year researching and reflecting on the impact of interior design in the courtroom environment. Attorney Stephanie West Allen and Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz collaborated to research neuroscience and conflict resolution. They learned that being in the city is “exhausting for the brain and people who walk in nature are better able to perform cognitive tasks than those who took an urban stroll.” (“Brains on Purpose”, Allen and Schwartz, 2008) Environment impacts a person’s ability to think clearly and calmly. Allen and Schwartz also found that “looking at a picture of nature has cognitive benefits.” 

Attention Restoration Theory and the cognitive benefits of nature reveal to us that people react in a highly positive manner to physically being in nature as well as being exposed to photographs of nature and bucolic scenes. There is much conflict between litigants, counsel and witnesses in the domestic relations courtroom. Sometimes the tension in my courtroom is nearly palpable. How can that tension be relieved? I learned that nature is an effective answer.

First, we removed the heavy curtains and allowed the natural sunlight to stream in from the large courtroom windows. Secondly we decided to remove the existing pictures from the walls and replace those pictures with large canvasses of enlarged photographs of scenes from nature. Scenes from nature assist in reducing “brain fatigue.”  People’s hearts and minds are strengthened by their environment if it is a positive and nourishing place. In effect, we brought nature indoors!

I am a volunteer with the Great Parks of Hamilton County. My family and I truly love all of our parks in Hamilton County. I personally retreat to the parks to restore my own peace and tranquility on a regular basis. It was a natural decision to turn to Great Parks to ask their assistance in identifying photographs appropriate for our courtroom. Data shows that the colors blue and green evoke feelings of tranquility and safety. With enlarged photos placed on the walls, the courtroom is filled with the bright and glorious shades of blue of the sky and the green of the trees, and the flowers and grasses of the parks.

 Hamilton County Great Parks and Chief Executive Officer Jack Sutton immediately embraced my idea and was of invaluable service in helping me to bring my dream to fruition. Jack and some of his staff visited my courtroom and spoke with me at length about the plans to transform our space. They then shared photos with me from Great Parks, including Miami-Whitewater, Fernbank, Sharon Woods and Withrow Nature Preserve and other locations. They provided the photography as a courtesy. I wish to express my full appreciation and gratitude to Jack Sutton, Jennifer Sivak and Lindsey Combs of Great Parks for their generous commitment to this project! I had the photos enlarged and professionally hung on the walls. I felt so strongly about the importance of these photos that I chose to pay for these photos myself.

Since installation, my entire staff has witnessed the reaction to the new courtroom environment. The response has already exceeded my expectations! Litigants are noticeably happy when they look around the room at the pictures. They interact with the photos, sometimes walking up to a picture and commenting that they are familiar with a particular park or that they like a certain photograph.

Courtrooms do not need to be loud, intimidating and scary to be effective. The loudest voice is often not the most respected voice. A family court courtroom should be a place where respectful language and calm voices set the tone. Marriages, children, family finances and a “family plan” for the future are the concerns and focus in family court. There is no room here for inflated egos or bravado.

In courtroom 2-25, the judge and court staff, who conduct themselves in a professional and respectful manner, set the rules and expect the families and legal professionals involved in each case to behave respectfully so that everyone in the courtroom can work together to promote the right outcome for the family. Critical to the proper order and functioning of the court is the proper adherence to the laws of the State of Ohio. My intent is that the courtroom environment encourages everyone involved with the court to maintain a tone and mood appropriate for family court.

Hamilton County Domestic Relations Court is very fortunate to have an outstanding DR bar. Let me repeat that—an outstanding DR bar. The attorneys who practice here regularly are highly competent, dedicated to their craft and their clients. The local Domestic Relations bar is also dedicated to their roles as zealous advocates for their clients and strongly committed to meeting the best interests of the children of their clients. The families who need the services of our court are extremely well-served by the selection of local attorneys who practice in this court. These attorneys have reacted very positively to the new surroundings in my courtroom.

 The families involved, who often “mirror and reflect” the tone set by the courtroom atmosphere, have been markedly more relaxed and cooperative in court since we have made these changes. In my “old” courtroom the divorcing couple sat far across the room from one another at separate tables. Now, they sit next to one another at the large central conference room table. A few weeks ago I observed a couple while their lawyers discussed a controversial aspect of their shared parenting plan. As they sat next to one another at the table, one parent turned to the other parent and I heard the first parent say, “I understand your position. I can accept what you are asking for”. The simple placement of the parties in a position where they can communicate more freely allowed for the settlement of a contested term of their divorce. The attorneys then talked and were able to assist their clients to include the new compromised agreement in their parenting plan.

My goal is to convey a message to everyone who walks into my courtroom: “Welcome. This is a place where we will help your family heal from the pains of divorce. We care very much for the well-being of your children and your family matters to us”.

Divorced parents are just divorced from one another. That is all. They are still and always will be FAMILY to their children.