Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
2018 Annual Summer Conference for Probate, Domestic Relations, and Juvenile Judges
June 6, 2018

(Remarks prepared for delivery on Wednesday, June 6, 2018, at the Cleveland Metro Parks Zoo.)

Good evening. 

Thank you (Cuyahoga County Probate Court Court) Judge (Laura Gallagher) for that introduction.

Thanks as well to Cuyahoga County for hosting this annual summer conference.

I also want to thank those judges who have taken a leadership role in the probate, domestic relations, and juvenile judge associations.

I want start my remarks by highlighting a few Courts and judges who are working harder and smarter in courtrooms every day to solve the seemingly intractable problems facing Ohioans.

As you know all too well, today’s societal problems profoundly impact the lives of countless citizens.

Those problems are complex and often interconnected.  And many of those problems come knocking at your door as a last resort.

Let’s start right here at home.

The Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court was selected as one of fourteen courts nationwide to receive the Office on Violence against Women Award.  The U.S. Department of Justice designated it as a domestic violence mentor court.

Here is an excellent example of a court answering the need for creativity. The Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court has demonstrated incredible leadership through its Domestic Violence Mentor Court.

It’s the only court of its type in Ohio.

The first cohort of six Domestic Violence Mentor Courts was recognized in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Justice.  Last year, through the DOJ’s Office on Violence Against Women, a second round of applications was accepted and announced last fall – and that group included Cuyahoga County.

The DOJ’s plan is to place these mentor dockets in well-established specialized courts. The idea to enable these pilot programs to guide other courts in significantly improving judicial responses to domestic violence cases.

This means ensuring victim safety and offender accountability.

The Center for Court Innovation (CCI) in New York is the designated technical assistance provider for this DOJ mentor courts program, linking teams of judges, court personnel, and other criminal and civil justice and domestic violence stakeholders.

So far, the Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court demonstrated leadership by establishing a Domestic Violence Department, which assists litigants through the procedural process when seeking a Domestic Violence Civil Protection Order.

Also located in the Domestic Violence Department are advocates from a community-based domestic violence services program and child advocacy center. Advocates provide emotional support and safety to petitioners.

Another stand-out is the Franklin County Domestic and Juvenile Court. That Court hosted a human trafficking training in its ongoing effort to create a juvenile human trafficking specialized docket. The court successfully drew a multi-disciplinary group of professionals to engage in meaningful discussions about how the court could deepen its understanding and enhance its response to trafficked youths.

Two other courts that have demonstrated judicial leadership are Medina and Fairfield County Domestic Relations Courts. 

Judges Mary Kovack and Lauren Smith received more than $500,000 from a highly competitive “Justice for Families” grant, administered by the Office on Violence against Women.

The money goes to improve the community’s response to domestic violence.

In Fairfield County, the money goes to provide a safe environment where parents can drop off and pick their children, or visit in a supervised environment.

In Ashtabula County, Juvenile Court Judge Anthony Camplese has opened a new resource center in the community where children and teens are screened, assessed, and provided with a mental health evaluation and services -- instead of being brought to the now-closed juvenile detention center. The new program provides intervention instead of incarceration for non-violent, low-risk juvenile offenders while continuing to provide public safety and reduction in recidivism.

When it comes to improving the lives of children, there are three Ohio courts, Fairfield, Coshocton, and Trumbull that are part of the National Quality Improvement Center for Collaborative Community Court Teams. 

If you don’t know, this is a new initiative paid for by the Children’s Bureau, organized under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to help infants and families affected by drug abuse. These Ohio courts collaborate with local child welfare agencies, medical providers, and substance abuse experts to help children and families improve their lives.

Coshocton County Juvenile Judge Van Blanchard, Fairfield County Juvenile Judge Terre Vandervoort, and Trumbull County Judge Pamela Rintala should be congratulated.

And in the juvenile courts, we have two TV stars. Lucas County and Judge Denise Navarre Cubbon were recently featured in an episode of the HBO series “Raised in the System.”

This hard-hitting documentary highlights the Lucas County Juvenile Community Treatment Center as an effective alternative to detention.

Stark County Probate Court Judge Dixie Park is providing leadership at an Adult Protective Services workshop next week to help stop elderly abuse and neglect.

And in Mahoning County, Probate Judge Rusu started what’s called “the Fresh Start Court” in May to assist those with serious mental illnesses.

Its purpose is to divert people with mental illnesses from jails to treatment. Currently there are 16 similar programs in Ohio, including Summit, Lorain, and right here in Cuyahoga County.

Thank you all for your work to dispense justice fairly and impartially all across the state despite the challenges. Through innovation and collaboration, your efforts make a difference in lives of countless Ohioans.

When Courts innovate, take advantage of new money and new programs and most importantly collaborate with colleagues, it’s a win-win for all.

It goes without saying that most of our customers really don’t want to be involved with the courts. I can think of few exceptions, such as adoptions and maybe marriage licenses.  But most don’t. It is our responsibility to make interaction with the courts as efficient, effective and painless as possible.

It is our responsibility to listen to all parties, even pro se litigants, with respect and understanding.

The decisions that we make profoundly affect lives, families, assets and liberty.  

There is no such thing as a routine case if you look at the case from the eyes of the parties.

We all must look for ways to improve the delivery of services:

Technology is one of the obvious.  E-filing, electronic notices, electronic docket with images are no longer cutting edge.  It’s what the public expects.

That is one of the reasons that I started the Technology grants project.  To date we have granted to local courts over 10 million dollars.  Apply and take advantage of this grant program.

Another simple improvement is to move the cases along.  Make progress and hold the parties and their counsel accountable to be prepared and ready to address the matter of the hearing.

Continuances should be given for cause and not routinely. 

And most importantly, remind your staff and yourself that we are all public servants.  Our job is to serve the public.  That means helping the parties to achieve an end to the case in a timely and efficient manner.

The judging of today is very much different than it was even 10 years ago.  Some would say that some days the job of a judge involves the skill of a social worker, the insight of a mental health counselor, and the compassion of a cleric.   This is especially true of the judges who preside over specialized dockets.

Those cases, because there is a treatment component as well as an accountability component take more time, for longer periods of time and more judicial interaction than other types of cases.  But ask any judge who is thus involved, the rewards are immeasurable.

Now, on to other topics.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the best resources any judge ever had…and that’s our judicial college.

Our Judicial College, has ramped up its online 2018 calendar so feel free to use this valuable resource.

Online courses save time and money for the judge and provide up to date information that can be accessed and used immediately.

We have grown our courses in just one year, from 20 to 44 online.

We also have a course dedicated to the opioid crisis, which is the second issue I’d like to address.

We are expecting to get new numbers out on how Ohio is in the epicenter of this crisis later this summer.

The recent numbers are scary.

Ohio’s fatality rate from drug overdose and poisoning deaths is running 39 percent ahead of the data from a year earlier.

These statistics measured a period from the middle of 2016 to the middle of 2017. The number of deaths was placed at 5,232, or about 14 Ohioans a day.

This is no surprise to anyone in this room. You are on the front lines.

I am proud that Ohio got the ball rolling to form the Regional Judicial Opioid Initiative almost two years ago.

This is the first-of-its-kind regional task force.

The Ohio team within the regional group met in February to identify state programs that target the crisis and gaps where more help may be needed.

Eight states — Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia —are working together, identifying the core problems, and splitting up the tasks.

Here are a few of the things that we have accomplished, just here in Ohio:

In Ohio, the last budget bill allowed specialized docket courts treating substance abusers to access PDMP data as a monitoring tool. We are currently working on a project that would add a flag to the PDMP system to alert prescribing doctors and dentists and health care providers that the patient is participating in a specialized docket program.

Another topic that is being discussed is mandating that every baby born in an Ohio hospital be tested for opioids. The opioid epidemic is a crisis that must be fought on many fronts, including on behalf of babies. In the Cincinnati area, a universal maternal drug-testing project was conducted by two doctors for 19 months.

Identifying pre-natal substance abuse prior to the delivery of a baby allows interventions to take place immediately upon birth.

These include many tried and true methods such as swaddling ... low-light stimulation ... skin-to-skin care, and others.
The issue here is that many infants born addicted to drugs show no signs of it until hours or even days after birth. Knowing beforehand about their addiction can aid their recovery immensely. In fact, it can determine what kind of life is ahead for them.

This project is exploring one step that can potentially turn around a life. Yet, it comes packaged with some legal, social and ethical tightropes.

In the Cincinnati project, explicit consent was obtained from mothers in labor and delivery. Very few refused to take part. Yet, we must be aware that some mothers-to-be could refuse needed OB care entirely if confronted with a potential test.

We must be aware of cultural bias. Currently, these kinds of tests are typically recommended at hospital OB clinics, which have a higher minority patient population than private office OB-GYN clinics, where the testing is not typically recommended.

Further, as of yet these tests aren’t endorsed in clinical practice and with any testing, there is a cost.

I would argue, what is the test cost when measured against the cost of rearing a child who suffered from NAS.  Immediate intervention can and should be done.

There are other studies being conducted in this field, including one at Yale New Haven Hospital, which is aimed at improving care for addicted infants and reducing their hospital stays.

For us, as judges, we need to keep an open mind about new practices ... We must remain mindful of the legal implications of new ideas…and we must employ the main technique of our regional and national opioid initiatives: Share information and work across the boundaries of government and organizations to seek the best solutions.

The eight-state regional judicial opioid initiative has covered a lot of ground and has become a model for a national program aiding states and multiple jurisdictions work together on the opioid crisis.

We also feel good about the work being done in our drug courts.

The number of drug courts in Ohio – 102 – gives you some perspective on the size of the crisis. Drug courts hold non-violent drug-addicted people in intensive substance abuse treatment in lieu of jail.

I don’t have to tell you that we’re a long way from solving this problem, but progress is being made.

In closing I want to thank you for allowing me to speak to you this evening.
Thank you as well for all you do to administer justice in Ohio’s probate, domestic relations, and juvenile courts.

You’ve got some of the hardest and heaviest lifting to do each and every day.

 It does not go unnoticed or unappreciated.


God bless.