ACTION Center, Winner of a 2007 Ralph N. Kleps Award
ACTION Center: Improving Access to Justice and Quality of Service
Spanish Self-Help Model Program: Centro de Recursos Legales and Interpreter Development; Winner of a 2003 Ralph N. Kleps Award
The self-represented Spanish litigant is confronted with a lack of understanding of court procedures, as well as the inability to communicate effectively with court staff. Of these obstacles, language barrier is the most dominant hindrance to justice.
In a report published by Scott Houser, Ph.D., research associate at the Institute for Research on Poverty and a consultant to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, it indicated that Fresno had undergone tremendous population growth in terms of the Hispanic population between 1990 and 2000, which now comprise 44 percent of the total population in the County. What is extraordinary is the rate at which the Hispanic population grew, a significant 48.6 percent, while non-Hispanic whites declined for the same period. Even more significant is the ethnicity breakdown in the rural communities within Fresno County where, depending on the city, 65 to 98 percent of the population are Hispanic. Consistent with these figures is data from Dr. Houser’s report that shows 75 percent of 18-64 year olds who speak a language other than English, speak Spanish in the home.
These statistics clearly demonstrated there was a large Spanish population whose access to the Court system was hindered by a language barrier. Therefore, the Court proposed a model that would break through the barrier by offering:
- Educational information and language assistance to the Spanish pro per litigant by means of developing simple self-help instructions (translated into Spanish) for most commonly used court forms. The challenge of completing court documents is daunting enough for an English-speaking litigant and is even further complicated when one has limited English proficiency. Simple self-help instructions were not available in English, let alone in Spanish. A common complaint by all pro per litigants is that court forms are cumbersome, difficult to understand, and are not user friendly. This component addressed the language needs of the Spanish pro per litigant by developing clear and simple written self-help instructions (translated into Spanish) for commonly used Family Law, Unlawful Detainer, Civil Harassment and Guardianship court forms.
- Collaboration with Community organizations to form a Spanish Community Volunteer Interpreter Bureau that would provide Spanish pro per litigants with interpreters in civil cases. Providing clear and simple self-help instructions in Spanish is a start, but it is not enough. This project went further in breaking down the language barrier by providing the Spanish pro per litigant with language assistance through a Spanish Community Volunteer Interpreter Bureau. Formulating a team of qualified volunteer interpreters was key to the success of this project. The Community Resource Manager’s primary responsibility was to coordinate with locally based organizations to form a network of Spanish speaking volunteers to provide language assistance. The process entailed forming a Community Advisory Committee made up of ten community leaders involved in the Hispanic community, two Judges, Court Executive Officer and five court staff. Input from the committee guided the staff, which led to recruitment and training of volunteers to serve either at the Center or in court. Volunteer Interpreters become a part of our Interpreter Development program wherein they are first tested to place them according to their skill level. Next, they are mentored by certified court interpreters, which include shadowing certified interpreters at court hearings. This gives the volunteers a leg up in the real world of court interpreting. Obviously it has been effective as 6 of 9 participants in the courts first Interpreter Mentor Program passed the written State Certification Examination for Court Interpreters. Most of the volunteers are working to become certified court interpreters and their ability to assist as a volunteer enables them to strengthen their skills in preparation for the State exam and as the recent success rate indicates, it is proving to do just that.
- Location and Services provided at Centro de Recursos Legales
The centerpiece of this project is a self-help center named, Centro de Recursos Legales, designed specifically for the under-served Spanish population in Fresno County. The Center provides pro per litigants with education, user satisfaction, and access to the court in an efficient and effective manner by offering information in Family Law, Unlawful Detainer, Civil Harassment, and Guardianship areas of law.
The Center is located at 255 N. Fulton, adjacent to the Family Law Facilitator Office, and provides pro per litigants with education and access to the Court in an efficient and effective manner by offering the following services:
- Daily access to Spanish language self-help instructions.
- Interpreter assistance provided through a Spanish Community Volunteer Interpreter Bureau.
- Review of court documents by a Court Examiner.
- Access to clinics with rotating “how-to” lectures in Spanish on Guardianship, Unlawful Detainer, Civil Harassment and Family Law.
Impact on the Court and the Public
The Center is located away from the main courthouse, in a separate facility to allow for more personalized service. It opened to the public in the last week of January 2003 where we assisted 28 litigants. However, as news of the Center spread throughout the community the number of litigants served started to increase significantly over the next few months. During the month of February we assisted 124, March 197, and in April 169. These statistics clearly validate the need for the court to provide services to the under-served Spanish pro per litigant. The Center serves on average 163 Spanish speaking pro per litigants each month.
Enhancing Judicial Efficiency and Effectiveness
Centro de Recursos Legales enhances judicial efficiency and effectiveness through several components. By making available to Spanish speaking litigants simple self-help instructions, they in turn are able to provide the necessary information required on court forms. Also, we have provided the Facilitators office, which is next door to the Center, with these instructions. If however, a Spanish client needs further assistance, they are referred to the Center. Furthermore, having the paperwork reviewed by a court examiner ensures accuracy when the papers are filed, thus reducing the number of errors that often occur in pro per cases. Lastly, judicial efficiency is furthered through the use of volunteer interpreters who assist at the Center and in court allowing the court process to take place with little interruption and/or continuance.
For additional information contact: Michelle Jorgensen, Facilitator at (559) 457-2103.
Keep Kids In School (KKIS)
Winner of a 2001 ralph N. Kleps Award
Fresno County’s Keep Kids In School program, also known as KKIS, is an aggressive early intervention program that targets truant youth who, by definition, are more likely to drop out of school. Truancy has become a strong indicator of youth tendencies toward drug use and violent behavior. When kids start missing school, they are sending a strong message to the community that they are in trouble and need help if they are to prosper and succeed in life. Proacting to truancy is one of the first ways a community can reach out quickly to a family in trouble. Since the problem of chronic truancy is not just a school issue or a court issue, but a community issue, the program leverages the expertise and support of: the Fresno County Superior Court, Fresno County Volunteer Bureau, the District Attorney’s Office, the Probation Department, attorneys willing to provide pro bono services, Boys & Girls Clubs, Comprehensive Youth Services, Target Stores, and St. Agnes Medical Center’s Footsteps program. This, combined with enforcement and accountability, has made KKIS a unique and powerful program for combating school truancy and keeping schools safer.
The Keep Kids in School Program (KKIS) is a multi-agency approach designed to deal more effectively with the truancy problem in Fresno County. The primary goal of the program is to improve the school and academic performance of children at both the elementary and middle school level. Poor school attendance frequently is a symptom of a dysfunctional family structure. Accordingly, the program seeks to identify these at-risk families and provide appropriate intervention to address parental ineffectiveness and/or neglect thereby increasing school attendance. The program is designed to reduce the risk the child will become involved in the criminal justice system by improving school attendance.
KKIS has two primary components: the first involves intervention at the elementary school level; the second involves intervention at the secondary school level with middle school students ages 12-14. The program weaves together the following themes: parental involvement, accountability, and responsibility; community involvement and support; enforcement of laws regarding school attendance; and self-empowerment. An array of support services is provided to at-risk families. If the child’s school attendance fails to improve despite the provision of appropriate services, charges may be filed against the parent and where appropriate, the child. Consequences to the parent include not only a fine, but also the possibility of incarceration.
The KKIS program is designed to reduce the risk that the child will become involved in the criminal justice system by improving school attendance. KKIS has also been instrumental in demonstrating the powerful impact of the Court in a proactive role. KKIS has been the vehicle to hold both child and parent accountable for behavior by leveraging both the legal code as well as the education code. The visibility of the courts in the KKIS program anchored to California’s fourth largest school district has been the primary catalyst for intensive interagency collaboration. As a result of the Court’s leadership, KKIS is a self-sustaining program. Financial gains achieved through improved average daily attendance are reinvested back into the program, thus contributing to the efficiency and effectiveness of the program.
KKIS is an early intervention program. The problem of chronic truancy is not just a school issue or a court issue, but a community issue. Therefore, the approach to dealing with truancy cannot be accomplished through a single agency or entity task. Such a limited approach will not solve the issues of which truancy is a symptom; and it will not prevent the delinquency of which truancy is an indicator. It also will not resolve the family dynamic issues we tend to find when we look further into the lives of truants. KKIS leverages the expertise and support of various agencies in the community who are instrumental in providing support and follow-up for targeted students. KKIS has also engaged local attorneys in the provision of pro bono services as a means of providing fair representation for the child as required under the law. This aspect of KKIS has strengthened the program by helping students understand their rights and the workings of the legal system. More importantly, members of the legal community including the judges have become important role models and, in some cases, mentors for youths involved in the program. This, combined with enforcement and accountability, has made KKIS a uniquely innovative and powerful program for combating school truancy and keeping schools safer.
For additional information contact: Patty Wallace, Associate Court Executive Office at (559) 457-2010.
Mediation Pilot Program Study
In the fall of 1999, Fresno Superior Court applied for a grant offered by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to test mediation. Four courts were chosen from around the State to participate. Two of the courts were to study the impact of mediation on cases that volunteered for the program and two were to study cases that were ordered to mediate. Fresno Superior Court was one of the courts chosen to develop and implement a Pilot Program for Mandatory Mediation.
To begin the Pilot Program the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Department recruited and trained approximately forty local attorneys, retired judges and non-attorney professional mediators. Eventually, this roster of mediators grew to include nearly one hundred individuals. Each of these mediators agreed to accept the court’s fee and payment in full for the first four hours of mediation. In the spring of 2000 the Court began to select cases and ordered them to participate in mediation. After each mediation, everyone involved; the attorneys, the parties, and the mediators were required to complete a questionnaire which address four areas of concern; the outcome of the mediation, the time and cost of the mediation, and their satisfaction with the process and the Court.
For the next three years mediations took place and data was gathered. The data was sent to the AOC on cases mediated statewide. This data was compared to data collected on cases not mediated. As a result of the mediations more than 500 hundred cases were settled prior to trial in Fresno alone. Further, the mediators gained valuable experience from the increased caseload and local disputants became increasingly knowledgeable about mediation. The ADR culture, which had been virtually non-existent, began to flourish as more and more attorneys and clients participated in the Pilot Program. These mediations, in conjunction with the restructuring of the Civil Department and implementation of a new case management system, directly contributed to the complete elimination of the backlog of Civil cases in Fresno Superior Court.
At the conclusion of the Pilot Program in 2003, the AOC completed their analysis of all the data and published a final report that may be found at www.courts.ca.gov/reference. The findings were highly favorable in every category and the rate at which cases settled prior to the trial did increase. Cases settled in less time and with fewer Court appearances, and at a significantly reduced cost. And most importantly, the satisfaction level of both attorneys and disputants with the Court and the process was tremendously favorable. The data showed overwhelmingly that the participants would opt for mediation in the future, regardless of whether settlement was reached in their first case.
Fresno County Superior Court has benefited in many ways from being a part of the Pilot Program for Mandatory Mediation. Most importantly, our participation in the study helped create a culture shift in our legal community and the court systems. Prior to the Pilot Program there were very few alternatives available through the court for parties to seek resolution of their case aside from the regular legal remedies. Now parties and attorneys are aware of alternative options available through the court to help resolve disputes, decrease costs, and have a greater outcome satisfaction.
For additional information, please contact Mari Henson, ADR Administrator at (559) 497-4194.