SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s court system has proper protocols in place to protect children during their parents’ divorces, but many divorces with custody disputes take longer than necessary, auditors found.
From 2014 to 2018, Utah saw 65,786 divorce cases. Of those, 323 cases included child welfare concerns, according to a new report released Tuesday by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General for Utah.
After reviewing 10 cases, along with Utah State Court rules and Utah Code, auditors determined that proper protections are already in place. However, improvements can be made to speed up the court process in cases where there are child welfare concerns, according to the report.
“We found that the presence of child disputes in divorce proceedings drastically increases the time to disposition,” auditors wrote.
The average divorce in the state takes six months from filing to disposition. But one involving a custody evaluation increases the time to an average of 16 months. A case when a guardian ad litem is appointed to represent minors — such as when allegations of abuse or neglect are present, or when there are custody disputes — can take an average of 22 months to resolve.
When both a custody evaluation and a guardian ad litem are involved, a case lasts an average of 26 months, the report states.
Auditors said custody evaluations are ordered too often when not needed, and recommended limiting custody evaluations and expanding “the practice of triaging” cases statewide. They described triaging in the court system as “more efficiently and effectively processing cases by assigning each case to the appropriate track based on its unique characteristics.”
The cases should be placed on certain tracks depending on factors such as length of marriage or separation, marital property and debt, and age of children, the report states. Under such a system, cases with straightforward issues would be fast-tracked directly to trial.
Some courts in the state are already using or piloting triage programs. Auditors recommended expanding the programs to other districts if triaging proves effective.
Auditors also saw potential gaps in the training and vetting of child welfare experts.
Most court personnel — including judges, guardians ad litem, and commissioners — receive adequate training to handle cases involving child welfare, the report states.
“In contrast, it was difficult for us to evaluate if child welfare experts who are added to cases when conflict between parents escalates, such as custody evaluators, parent coordinators, and special masters, are meeting their annual training requirements,” auditors wrote.
Those experts can include custody evaluators, parenting coordinators, visitation supervisors and special masters. Special masters are experts who can be appointed by the court to help resolve conflicts between parents.
Auditors said that those child welfare experts, who are overseen by the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, should also be overseen by the courts as “their opinions are factored into judicial decisions.” They are not part of a vetted roster maintained by the courts, but should be, auditors said. Creating such a roster of those child welfare experts can help the courts track their participation in cases and qualifications.
Additionally, the use of special masters isn’t uniform or clear across the court system. As a result, judges might not be “fully utilizing special masters as a resource in time of rising district court caseloads and more self-represented parties.” Auditors recommended state courts follow American Bar Association guidelines to vet special masters and use them to speed up case time.
“We credit the courts for responding to the changing needs of divorcing families with innovative practices and anticipate that they will continue to enhance child protections and improve court operations through additional efficiencies, as recommended in this audit,” auditors wrote.
Judge Mary T. Noonan, interim state court administrator, responded to the audit in a letter and said the findings were “consistent with actions the Utah courts are already in the process of implementing.”
But some of the recommendations would require additional resources. Expanding pilot triage programs would require hiring dedicated clerks, and maintaining a roster of child welfare experts would also require additional staff, Noonan wrote.