Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Story of George Trevino: A Lesson that the Holistic Approach Employed by Family Courts Requires a Concerted Effort by All


           This semester I have graciously served as a Student Fellow for the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center For Children, Families, and the Courts. Throughout my involvement with this program, I have had the pleasure of interacting with enthusiastic Baltimore City students, classmates that share a similar passion for family and the law, and multiple professors and professionals that challenge each of us to think independently and reach reasonable, well-grounded solutions. Though my experiences with this program have been exceptional, I find that the common perception regarding family law, for the most part, holds true: individuals that practice this area of law must be inherently stoic, for the challenges presented are mentally taxing. Few things, if any, have moved me like the story of George Trevino.[1]

George Trevino was presumably born to a family less fortunate, living in a van with his mother and two siblings until age six. At this time, George entered the child welfare system as a neglected child, resulting in separation from each family member. Despite the fact that George bounced from home to home, enduring years of foster care drift, he eventually thrived when given the chance to remain in a placement for one full year. In what became an axiomatic failure by the welfare system, the State removed George from this stable environment and assumed that his best interests were suited elsewhere. He was subsequently placed with his uncle and aunt, one a drug dealer, the other a substance abuser. George regressed and exhibited traits he never had before. His plummeting grades and truant behavior culminated in street gang involvement and eventually criminal behavior. As a result, his welfare case was terminated, and he was moved to the delinquency court system.  

Not only does the story of George Trevino represent a failure by the welfare system, but it is also a failure by legal personnel involved in the process, as well. His Juvenile Court Judge was never apprised of the fact that he had been raised in foster care, and apparently no one, not even his lawyer, the social worker, or the case manager, acknowledged the fact that when George was provided with a positive environment, he thrived. Because his situation was handled in such a horrid manner, George Trevino was deprived the privilege of life. In fact, he expressed this helpless feeling in a poem he wrote while incarcerated, with a passage that read, “there’s no way out, my screams have no voice no matter how loud I shout.” George Trevino could have been you or I. The sad truth is that there are presumably hundreds of George Trevinos, each falling victim to challenging life circumstances. And yet, as gut wrenching as his story is, it can be used as a learning tool to foster the holistic approach to family law cases that should be employed by judges, lawyers, social workers, and other figures in the family court system.  

Throughout the course of this semester, we have explored concepts that include therapeutic jurisprudence and preventive law, among others. Both theories share a relationship essential to the holistic approach. The concept of preventive law ensures that client contact with the court system, if at all, is minimal. The concept of therapeutic jurisprudence expresses the belief that the law ought to affect individuals in a beneficial manner. Essentially, preventive law can be thought of as the task, while therapeutic jurisprudence is the guiding hand. Yet, despite the promulgation of such theories, family related matters appear before the court system at alarming rates. Data suggest that these matters comprise more than half of the complaints filed in state trial courts. And although this figure is astronomically high, indicating that these cases need proper attention, family disputes are still perceived as the “stepchildren” of the justice system. In order to ensure that the story of George Trevino becomes less common, this perception must change.

Key figures have taken important steps to minimize this perception through the establishment and implementation of the unified family court system. These courts feature several crucial qualities that include, but are not limited to, a user-friendly atmosphere, a vast array of services, and specialized case management. The mere existence of these court systems, standing alone, however, does not guarantee that they will be effective. Each participant and component within this system, ranging from judges to various medical personnel, must challenge each other and strive for great results. We live in a society premised on the concept of family, and with every positive intervention, a life could be improved. It is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that the story of George Trevino could have been different had his case been handled in a unified family court system rather than the fragmented court system he endured. Had key issues been raised to the judge or had the individuals assigned to George’s case displayed a higher degree of care, his outcome could have, and likely would have, been different. The case of George Trevino suggests that in order for the unified family court system to avoid similar outcomes and rid itself of its “stepchild” stigma, all personnel must exercise their best judgment through a thoughtful, concerted effort, leaving no detail, no matter how slim, unnoticed.    

[1] Catherine J. Ross, The Failure of Fragmentation: The Promise of a System of Unified Family Courts, 52 Family Law Quarterly 3 (1998).

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