TO Bob Shepherd Jr., ``It's no accident that the Bible uses a child-custody case as the supreme test of King Solomon's judicial wisdom.'' Professor Shepherd, who teaches courses in family law and juvenile justice at the University of Richmond (Va.) Law School, observes that a uniquely weighty burden rests on judges who make decisions affecting society's youngest and most vulnerable members.
Shepherd, like a growing number of legal scholars, judges, and child-welfare professionals, believes that the judicial system can be improved for children and families through the establishment of ``unified family courts'' in states where family-law issues are currently adjudicated in as many as three or four different forums, sometimes simultaneously.
Critics of such fragmented judicial systems, which exist in most states, say these systems often are costly to litigants, are inefficient in the use of judicial resources, and can result in the issuance of diverse or even conflicting court orders affecting a single family.
In Massachusetts, for instance, most divorce, custody, paternity, and other domestic-relations disputes are adjudicated in family and probate courts; delinquency charges are prosecuted in the juvenile courts; while child-abuse and neglect emergencies and certain child-support cases are handled within the state's district courts.
Not infrequently, though, families can have problems in more than one area, such as when child-abuse claims are part of a divorce fight.
``You can waste time running from court to court,'' says Boston lawyer Mary Schmidt. ``And sometimes cases get delayed because records are slow getting from one court to another.''
In all or part of 13 states, however, exclusive jurisdiction over family and children's issues has been granted to a single court system, says Jeffrey Kuhn, director of the Family Court Resource Center, part of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) in Reno, Nev. The NCJFCJ has long been the leading proponent of unified family courts.
Rhode Island established the first unified family court in 1961, and Hawaii instituted what is probably the most comprehensive family-court system in 1965. Other states with broad family courts include Delaware, New Jersey, and Vermont.
In recent years, Florida, Virginia, and two other states have implemented pilot family-court projects, Mr. Kuhn says, and about 20 states are examining unified-family-court proposals.
Last month the governing body of the American Bar Association, which has supported ``unified children and family courts'' since 1980, adopted a resolution that reconfirmed the ABA's commitment, elaborated its vision of such courts, and pledged to promote their implementation.
Michael Town, the incoming chief judge of Hawaii's family court, says the role of unified courts should be to administer ``therapeutic justice for families and children.'' He says that, in the breadth of legal services offered and the motivating spirit of the staff, a family court should be like a children's hospital.
While the details in various unified-family-court systems and proposals differ, most have similar core elements:
* The unified family court should have jurisdiction over virtually all legal matters affecting children and family units, so that family problems can be treated holistically.
* Case-management and docketing practices should contribute to effective coordination of a family's various legal needs; for example, under ``one family, one judge'' proposals, all legal matters affecting the members of a family are handled, or overseen, by a single judge.
In addition to promoting efficiency and consistency in the disposition of cases, such procedures enable judges to become more familiar with a family and all of its problems.
* Case-management procedures should facilitate closer relations between family courts and social-services and child-welfare agencies.
Judges, social workers, alcohol and drug-treatment counselors, foster-care administrators, and other service providers should, through information sharing and better monitoring of cases, develop a team approach to treating families.
* Through wider use of mediation and other forms of ``alternative dispute resolution,'' many family legal matters can be resolved outside of court, conserving judges' time for matters requiring judicial expertise.
Resistance to unified family courts is still strong in many states. Where the creation of such courts would require significant restructuring of a state's judicial system, family-law judges and lawyers ``need to be educated about how a unified family court will improve their lives,'' says Catherine Ross, a professor at Boston College Law School and a leader of an ABA group that has studied families' unmet legal needs.
Also, many state legislators are reluctant to fund family-court reform, although research indicates that reform will save money in the long run, she says.
ADVOCATES of unified family courts acknowledge that they require a special breed of judge. ``A family-court judge has to be a combination of Solomon, Sigmund Freud, and [social worker] Jane Addams,'' Shepherd says.
``Many of the cases are very emotional and never seem to end,'' says Howard Lipsey, a longtime family-court judge in Rhode Island. ``We rotate our assignments to avoid burnout.''
Yet judges like Mr. Lipsey and Mr. Town in Hawaii also stress the deep satisfaction they experience in helping to administer ``therapeutic justice'' through unified family courts.