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Judge handles difficult, sensitive cases

May 2, 2013 | Alumni

As a domestic relations and juvenile judge in Henry County, Ohio, Denise Herman McColley ’81 is more than just an observer in her courtroom. Often, she is put into the role of an advocate for children and advisor to couples in turmoil.

McColley sees numerous cases every day ranging from standard divorce to child abuse, but the hardest are cases in which children are badly affected physically, mentally, or both.

“In general, the most difficult cases are those alleging abuse, neglect, or dependency and, of course, divorce cases in which parents are being really awful to one another – it’s very hard to see how that affects the children,” she said.

In some cases, the actions of a parent can contribute to the abuse, neglect, or dependency of a child. Many of these cases involve parents and couples who have never been married or people that become parents and don’t sustain relationships for long periods of time.

“Some parents choose to have partners moving in and out of their house frequently, subjecting their children to a lot of changes and circumstances that may not be appropriate for the children,” she said. “In many instances, children who have been subjected to this sort of lifestyle result in children who have a lot of issues, ranging from mental health problems to delinquency charges, and, in some instances, it results in children being subjected to abuse or harm in some fashion.”

In cases in which the allocation of parental rights and responsibilities are being determined, upon request of either parent or on her own motion, it becomes McColley’s job to interview the children to decide which parent would be a better placement for the child.

Her background in early childhood education has helped with the psychological aspect of working with families and children on a daily basis and keeping an objective eye. But with certain cases, it becomes hard for McColley to keep her emotional distance.

“When we see a child who has been sexually molested or seriously harmed physically or emotionally, it can be challenging to work with the family to change family members’ behaviors in an effort to return the child to a parent,” she said.

In addition to child and family psychology, McColley needs to understand a variety of issues, including laws regarding bankruptcy, tax laws, and business, especially when dealing with divorce cases.

“It’s remarkable how many times in family law you deal with areas of the law you would not expect,” she said. “Bankruptcy, real estate, tax, business associations, estates, and almost any other legal issue you can imagine come up frequently in divorce cases.”

Financial matters may become a major issue when couples do not meet with lawyers before filing for divorce. Many pro se divorce filers forget about pensions, retirement funds, or other assets and are unable to determine an equitable division of their property.

“People don’t understand how important it is to have a lawyer,” she said.

It is very time-consuming for the judge or court personnel to correct misinformation that was on the couple’s original paperwork.

“There are a lot of very serious issues that can affect them for the rest of their lives if they don’t get it right,” she said.

McColley said she thinks society’s “do-it-yourself mentality” is the reason couples think they can file for divorce pro se.

“If a couple got married last month, has no children, and just the wedding presents to divide – they could probably do that themselves,” she said, “but once you bring in real estate, pensions, debt, and children, it becomes much more complicated.”

Throughout all of the difficult situations, McColley is pleased that many cases do work out for all parties without arguments that damage those involved, especially children.

“In particular, when you see an abuse case works out successfully so that the situation as improved to the point that the children are able to be with the parent, it is truly rewarding,” she said.

The article was written by T.K. Brady.