Attorney creates video to help judges interview children

Montgomery County lawyer Christine DeMatteo talks with Butler County Court President Judge Thomas V. Doerr about Family Court practices.
Montgomery County lawyer Christine DeMatteo talks with Butler County Court President Judge Thomas V. Doerr about Family Court practices. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 28, 2014

NORRISTOWN A decade later, lawyer Daniel J. Clifford still remembers watching a Family Court judge in the region awkwardly interviewing a child at the center of a custody dispute.

"It was probably the worst interview I've ever seen of anyone," said Clifford, who heads the Pennsylvania Bar Association's family law section. "Nothing was being accomplished except everyone feeling uncomfortable."

That scene fueled Clifford's crusade to teach Family Court judges how to put children at ease during interviews before custody decisions are made.

So Clifford, with financial support from the state Bar Association, is producing a how-to video of mock interviews and advice from jurists statewide who are known for their skills in talking to children.

It's not that all Family Court judges are bad at this. Clifford said he has seen numerous judges conduct excellent interviews. The problem is that many who sit on the Family Court bench have just become judges.

Often, Clifford said, newly elected judges go into Family Court "because no one wants to be on Family Court."

Montgomery County Court Judge Kelly C. Wall, the administrative judge of Family Court, has worked with children for years as a judge and a lawyer.

One day last week, Wall sat in Clifford's office across from a videographer and his camera, a bright studio light on a tall pole, and family law attorney Ann M. Funge, who served as the offscreen interviewer.

Wall moved her chair closer to the table where she had set down the stuffed animals and candy she brought as props. Why are those helpful items? Funge asked.

"I try to set up a very comfortable little haven for the children and make the child feel protected," the judge said.

Wall shared her best practices: She doesn't meet with children in her chambers, which can be intimidating, and the conversation is peppered with chitchat about hobbies, favorite musicians, or pets.

Soon, though, she tries to elicit relevant information about the child's life with each parent.

"There are certain things I will not ask point-blank," Wall told Funge, such as, " 'Who do you want to live with?' They'll feel sick about having to pick a parent. I don't ever want to put them in that position."

Wall gets at that information more circuitously, asking the children what they like and don't like about their households. Wall also has to figure out whether parents or lawyers have prepped youngsters for talking with the judge.

One approach, she told Funge, is to say, "Sometimes, moms and dads say there are things they want you to tell me."

After Wall's turn, Chester County Court Judge Katherine Platt staged a mock interview with 10-year-old aspiring actress Charlotte Gougher, who is not part of any actual Family Court case.

Charlotte was instructed that she would play the role of a child who was sad about her parents' divorce and confused about her mother's impending move to Washington.

"When you talk to me it's important you tell me the truth," Platt said. "If there's a question you really don't want to answer, tell me that, too."

Charlotte, in character, quivered her lip and nodded.

The judge asked her not which parent she would rather be with, but where she preferred to live.

"If I were to move away to Washington with my mother, I wouldn't see my friends," Charlotte said. She also said she wanted to be with her older sister.

Charlotte frowned as she contemplated whom she might end up living with and living without, and who could get hurt in the process. Platt picked up on those concerns.

"You're not going to make this decision about where you're going to live," Platt said. "I am. It's on my shoulders."

As of last week, six judges from around Pennsylvania were filmed for the video, and Clifford expects two more to participate. He anticipates releasing it in July at a statewide meeting of the Bar Association's family law section.

The video will be sent to every county court, he said, and likely will be posted online.

Clifford is determined to help children on that stress-filled day when their custody is decided.

"From my perspective," he said, "it's one of the important days in the life of a child."



comments powered by Disqus