Ramsey County judges testified to the County Board on Tuesday that the proposed elimination of domestic relations advisers in 2012 would leave them without critical information as they settle child custody fights.
At least 10 judges and one referee, a third of the Ramsey County bench, attended the public budget hearing. Each speaker was given a three-minute limit, including Ramsey County Judges Marybeth Dorn, who presides over the family court system, and William Leary III. Seven other judges sat in the front two rows for the testimony.
Carol Roberts, community corrections director, proposed eliminating the program, which provides a domestic relations staff member to investigate families involved in paternity, custody and divorce cases as well as orders for protection and divorce cases. After medical, educational and psychological evaluations, the domestic relations adviser provides a report to the judge on the case.
The judges said there is no alternative to the evaluations. "Judges will only be able to guess what is going to happen to the children of these relations," Leary said.
Dorn agreed, adding, "We want to serve the families of our community; this isn't about us."
The program costs about $440,000 a year, with 5 1/2 full-time equivalent employees. Two years ago, the county cut the program in half and made it available only to families earning less than $50,000. Others often pay for private consultants.
Corrections spokesman Chris Crutchfield said the agency will lose 40 full-time positions in the coming two years out of a staff of 540. The agency's major task is to supervise offenders who aren't in custody, some 30,000 people.
The agency will work with judges to provide domestic relations services but only when "absolutely necessary," Crutchfield said. The goal, he said, is for the private sector to pick up the slack as it has done in other counties.
Hennepin and Ramsey are the only remaining counties with wide-ranging domestic evaluation programs, and the income limit applies only in Ramsey. Judges in Hennepin County have the discretion to send any case for a domestic relations review. Anoka County has a very small program.
Leary estimated that about 150 Ramsey County cases are referred for evaluation each year.
In Hennepin County, Family Court Judge Kevin Burke said the courts need independent advice on child custody cases and any attempts to cut the program would receive "strong pushback" from the five dozen judges in the state's largest district.
Mark Thompson, Hennepin County courts administrator, said he views the domestic evaluations as "an intervention for prevention," meaning paying for help now will save money later.
"The bigger issue is what's the cost to the system and who else is going to do it?" Thompson said.
Rochelle Olson • 651-735-9749 Twitter: @rochelleolson