Family court looks a lot brighter at night than during the day at the Barron County Justice Center.
People who attend the county’s once-a-month night court hours for child support cases seem to appreciate the flexibility the later hours offer, said John Muench, corporation counsel for Barron County and director of the county’s child support agency.
“We’ve got plenty of time, and it seems to be a little more relaxed atmosphere,” he said. “And everybody shows up.”
Sharon Millermon, circuit court clerk agreed, saying, “It seems like we’ve had almost perfect attendance.”
She’s also noticed the attitude adjustment, which Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald described as a marked departure from the usual tension in family court.
“It’s one of the reasons we agreed to provide security for night court,” said Fitzgerald, who posts at least one deputy, or a jailer if a deputy is unavailable, to night court each month.
So far, there hasn’t been anything for deputies to diffuse.
“It’s been safe and it’s been effective,” Fitzgerald said of the night court, which Barron County began offering in June 2012.
“Most of the people are in there because they owe money,” he said. “To keep them working is great, because if they’re working they can pay their support and they don’t end up in jail. And any time we have fewer people in jail, that’s a good thing.”
Barron County is the only court in Wisconsin that offers night hours to hear child-support cases. It is patterned after a similar court in Inyo County, Calif.
When Barron County Circuit Judge James Babler heard of the Inyo County court, which hears a third of its child support cases at night, he was intrigued, he said.
“We thought, ‘Boy this is an idea we can bring back here,’” Babler said. “We’ve gotten lots of requests in the past, ‘Can you do child support court at some other time than 8 o’clock [a.m.] on Thursdays?’ And, really, any time during the day can be bad – 10 a.m., 1 p.m. People are working.”
The idea is to give people who need to pay child support a way to attend court hearings without missing work and, in many cases, losing wages, Babler said.
“Sometimes we have people taking days off or vacation days or losing pay or paying a babysitter,” he said. “And those people are frustrated.
“This is one of the ways we can deal with that. Something we can do to make it a little easier.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge of starting a night court for child support in Barron County was overcoming the idea that it would be difficult.
“We thought it was going to be a challenge,” Muench said, “because we had to have the child support office, the judges, the clerks, the public defender’s office, the sheriff’s department. Just common sense things, like making sure the building is open and the automatic lights are on and just educating people.
“I think people were positive, but it was new, so they were a little hesitant.”
Planning began in October 2011, and the first night court session was June 28, 2012.
Since then, Babler and the county’s two other judges have taken turns presiding over monthly sessions of night court, which start at 6 p.m., usually on the third Thursday of each month. Each session lasts about two hours, and the docket can accommodate six to 12 cases, depending on whether there are contested hearings.
There is no extra cost to the county, other than maybe heating or cooling one courtroom a bit more than another. All the staff members involved either are salaried or take comp time, leaving early or starting late another day.
And it’s not just the public that is enjoying the flexibility the night court offers, organizers are benefitting as well.
Parties can get before a judge more quickly at night, rather than waiting for a specific judge’s next family court rotation, since night court gives people the option of having any judge hear the case. Court officials also can focus on the collections, modifications and other money-related child support issues they see without watching the clock.
“It has really helped take the pressure off the morning session,” Muench said, “because we were overloaded and bumping up against other cases.”
And child support collections are up about 2 percent from last year, he said.
“I don’t know whether to attribute that to the economy improving or the night court,” Muench said, “but I’m sure it’s a factor.”
The court has been such a success that organizers have considered expanding it to other areas of the docket.
“It has great potential for expansion,” said Ryan Raymond, assistant public defender for Barron County, who handles contempt cases for the night court.
Night court sessions probably won’t be added any time soon, however, unless demand dramatically increases. Additional nights could create staffing and resource issues the court has yet to face, Millermon said.
“If it was weekly, it might be more challenging,” she said. “Right now, I think it meets the need.”