In many different ways, the court system in Texas, particularly in Tarrant County, Texas, is moving away from the traditional adversary process in family law matters. The new Tarrant County Family Law Center in Fort Worth could almost be called the new “conference center” because there are over twice as many conference rooms as there are courtrooms in the courthouse. For years, Tarrant County family law attorneys have spent more time negotiating than having hearings, and that's generally a good thing.
Aside from the facilities, the court system in Tarrant County (and many other counties) emphasizes other processes which can lead to peaceful resolution of family law issues. Judges routinely instruct attorneys and parties to go outside the courtroom and talk to try to settle the issues without having a hearing. Judges also commonly order the parties to attend parenting or co-parenting classes. Those classes teach skills that enable the parties to work together in ways that were impossible earlier. And in almost every case, the court will order the parties to attend mediation before they can take up the court's time in trial. That is an important step because about 90-95% of cases settle in mediation, and the judges know that.
One of the newest approaches is called Access Facilitation. It is a process in which the parties, usually without their attorneys, meet with a neutral social worker from the Tarrant County Domestic Relations Office to try to work out conflicts about custody, times and amounts of access (what we used to call visitation) and other parenting issues. The social workers are experienced in dealing with parents going through divorce and are trained is resolving disputes. They are not permitted to make binding decisions about how the matters should be settled, but they provide a safe and managed environment for the parties to more calmly discuss the problems and create solutions. There can be multiple sessions, if needed. The meetings take place at the courthouse, so they are convenient when the parties are in court. One of the best features is that Access Facilitation is free.
Prior to attending a session of Access Facilitation, it is helpful for the attorney to work with the parent to help her or him clarify what their goals are for their relationship with the child or children. It also helps to do a little brainstorming and have several different options to propose and discuss. Spending time trying to understand the other parent's goals and motivations can also be very valuable. Both parents need to go into the sessions with open minds, a willingness to try something new and the ability to compromise. Finally, each parent should be aware of, and keep in mind, the costs and uncertainties of litigation.
Access Facilitation is an inexpensive, low-risk alternative to litigation that is available in virtually any case involving access or possession of children in Tarrant County. It is much less stressful than having a court hearing and can lead to some creative, customized solutions to conflicts over children. Having a neutral, experienced social worker lead the meetings can provide a safe and effective process to settle some very emotional issues. It won't always work, but it has an impressive record. Even if it doesn't lead to an immediate solution, it can eventually result in a settlement. And It's Free!