A brief history of Family Court

Tags: Family Court, Family Law

By Kristi Carter

Published Aug 11, 2022

In the United States, family courts hear cases involving marriage and civil unions, divorce, child custody, child support, spousal support and alimony, adoption, domestic abuse, and other family law topics. They were established to ease the burden on criminal courts that were becoming clogged with familial matters and to provide more specialized attention to the needs of minors.

These courts are governed by state and local law, so how family courts operate varies from state to state. Family court can compromise several different kinds of smaller courts that handle narrow family issues, like orphans’ and children’s courts.

Child Protective Legislation

Before establishing family courts, throughout the 19th century, there were no child protective laws. The principle of nonintervention, which dictates that courts should not intervene in certain circumstances, was applied heavily throughout the 19th century to issues involving children and families. Parental discretion was considered supreme, making legal action for severe neglect and child abuse very difficult to achieve. It was also challenging for courts to resolve matters of juvenile misconduct, as the burden of proof for “the infancy principle” (the concept that only children who clearly understood the distinction between right and wrong could be criminally prosecuted) was high.

Following the Civil War, the post-war era resulted in massive social repercussions, particularly in New York. The atmosphere of swift industrialization and rapid immigration (including that of indigent immigrant children) brought a popular sense that children needed to be “rescued” or protected. This new societal attitude influenced a “child savers” movement that lobbied heavily for expanding children’s legislation. This lobbying movement led the legislature to enact child protective laws like the Disorderly Child Act in 1865, which was intended to help children in need of supervision, and, later, the Act for Protecting Children, New York’s first child neglect law, in 1877. Under the provisions of the latter act, children could be placed in childcare agencies upon finding parental malfeasance, and the first adoption and compulsory education laws emerged during this time.

Until this point, the enactment of child-saving legislation fell under the auspices of the criminal courts. Child protective legislation was refined and codified in the 1881 Penal Code. The late 19th Century saw an era of child protective legislation and a shift to a more child-sensitive society. The major causes of action involving children were enacted and enforced, and the legislature began establishing childcare agencies to assist children in need.

In 1899, the city of Chicago established the first juvenile court in America, which focused specifically on issues for minors. This court was created by a group of Progressive Era women who wanted to address the issues brought on by increased immigration and industrialization. Children were being jailed and incarcerated with adult criminals for committing minor infractions, and reformers wanted children to have additional protections. Meanwhile, the New York legislature segregated juvenile cases. By 1925, every state except Maine and Wyoming had established some kind of juvenile court system, though many were still not unified. (A unified or consolidated court system is one in which separately run courts are consolidated into one, centrally managed court.)

“…The growing child must not be treated by those rigid rules of criminal procedure which confessedly fail to prevent offenses on the part of adults or cure adult offenders.”

Julia Lathrop, one of the creators of the first juvenile court, located in Illinois.

Early Children’s Courts

Family courts were first established in an early form in the late 1910s, under the designation of “domestic relations courts.” The concept was borrowed from England, where the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes was first created in the 19th century to ease the burden of familial cases on the overworked ecclesiastical courts.

One of the earliest family courts was established in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1911. In 1912, the New Jersey legislature enacted vested county juvenile courts with jurisdiction over all domestic relations disputes. Similarly, Ohio enacted a court consolidation in 1914 through a bill that created a Division of Domestic Relations in Hamilton County (home of Cincinnati), with authority to hear cases related to divorce, alimony, delinquency, and support issues. The Cincinnati court is often credited with being the first successful family court consolidation.

Originally, partly because of the issues brought on by the nonintervention principle and partly due to a lack of specialized family tribunals, these rudimentary domestic relations courts were conceived as criminal courts with the intention of achieving rehabilitative treatment for family-related conflicts like juvenile delinquency and criminal nonsupport.

Later, costs and stigma associated with criminal law influenced legislators to relabel family courts and support enforcement as more than simply criminal. Further, increased social sciences research and development on behalf of child welfare institutions led to a new cognizance regarding the problems inherent in mixing children’s court proceedings with criminal court proceedings. It became apparent there was the need for a specialized family court.

In 1922, New York established a standalone Children’s Court that segregated children’s issues (such as social, educational, and mental health concerns) from the criminal court world. Other states also began establishing children’s or juvenile courts around this time. For example, Connecticut’s first juvenile courts were established throughout several towns in 1921, and in 1922 the state enacted a statewide Juvenile Court.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, the criminal nature of family courts gave way to a more civil approach, particularly in New York, where a law was formed to treat nonsupport cases as a civil issue. This shift in New York influenced the rest of the country, and the addition of divorce jurisdiction on family court dockets caused family courts to shift to a more civil nature.  

Children’s Courts were popular in New York and other regions from 1922 through the early 1960s. As a result of being separate from other court proceedings, the courts developed unique attributes over time. For example, the courts used confidentiality principles and created their own nomenclature for certain legal terms.

Family Court Enactment

In the 1960s, New York issues with the Children’s Courts system abounded. The courts were limited and in need of an overhaul. In 1962, The Family Court Act was enacted, and there were significant changes in New York family court matters. For the first time, children received assigned counsel, and children’s rights, like the right to appeal, were enhanced and expanded.

States that had established rudimentary family court systems began unifying their systems into more modern iterations. For example, in Delaware, the courts first established in 1911 were eventually modified into a consolidated modern-day statewide Family Court system in 1971, established as a unification of separate, smaller family court systems into a single statewide court.

In the 1950s, with roots in the early courts of New Jersey and Ohio, the idea of consolidated family courts spread throughout the nation, particularly in urban districts like Des Moines, Iowa; St. Louis, Missouri; Portland, Oregon; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In 1959, three national organizations partnered together to draft proposed model family court legislation. The 1960s saw the establishment of the first state systems of family courts: Rhode Island in 1961, New York in 1962, and Hawaii in 1965. By 1980, thirteen states were operating or studying the feasibility of family court consolidation.

Throughout the country, the development of family law continued through the 20th Century, with many of the most significant events occurring within the last sixty to seventy years. Facing modern concerns like the ubiquity of divorce, the concepts of joint custody and equitable asset distribution, and complicated family relationships, legislatures have increased legislation around family issues—and the work burden on family courts has increased over time. Movements advocating for unified trial court systems pushed for family courts to avoid duplicative judicial processes. Family court was seen as a more efficient and higher-quality option for addressing familial judicial matters.

Some states took longer to fully enact family court programs. For instance, in Florida, it wasn’t until 1991 that the state saw its first family court initiative. The state decided to enact a comprehensive court program to focus on private family matters in a timely, cost-effective, and sensitive manner. The family court branch is comprised of a 23-panel of judges that receives its authority from an administrative order of the chief justice. One of the major focus areas of the branch is developing important resources relating to domestic violence.

By 1996, 35 states were operating or considering opening family court systems.

Family Court Today

Today, family courts are governed by state and local law. These courts various legal issues under the family law umbrella, such as alimony, annulment, child abuse, custody, divorce, paternity, property division, and support orders. Family courts have limited jurisdiction, meaning they can only hear cases involving family law issues. In family courts, it is not uncommon for social workers and community members to play a role in proceedings. Family courts strive to resolve differences and put children’s best interests first and foremost. Mediation is frequently used instead of litigation when possible.

While domestic violence typically falls under the criminal law umbrella, family courts sometimes deal with domestic violence issues because domestic violence can be a factor concerning child custody, parental rights, adoption, and other family law topics. 

Texas is the only state where individuals may elect for a jury trial at family court. In all other states, most issues are resolved via bench trials (trials conducted solely by the judge, who decides the facts of the case and applies the law to the situation).

For jurisdiction, family courts typically serve a state region, and the same family court system will serve not all counties within a state. Usually, family courts are a division of each state’s circuit court system.

Typically, juvenile court refers to courts that hear cases where minors have been accused of engaging in criminal behavior. These courts differ from adult criminal courts because they are under a civil, not criminal, umbrella. Family courts typically deal with the breakdown of familial relations as opposed to criminal behavior on behalf of juveniles, but some states combine family and juvenile courts into one family court system.