California Bar Journal
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Judge focuses on serving families
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Staff Writer
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Judge Donna Hitchens stands behind the teddy bears she hands out to young witnesses who testify in her courtroom.When a child has to testify or meet with a San Francisco family law judge in chambers, he or she receives a teddy bear to hold and to take home. Adolescents considered delinquents because of assaults on family members are served in a special youth domestic violence court. Parents involved in dependency proceedings are trained to act as mediators. Grant money will fund a case manager for the court to help families who experience violence to gain better access to services.

Each of these innovations, and literally dozens of others, are either the brainchild or the product of the energy of Judge Donna J. Hitchens, who presides over San Francisco's unified family court, one of only two such courts in the state.

In recognition of her untiring efforts to improve access to the courts for low and moderate income persons, Hitchens received the Benjamin Aranda III Access to Justice Award. The honor recognizes a judge who has demonstrated a long-term commitment to equal access to the judicial system and who has personally done significant work to improve that access.

A quick look at Hitchens' accomplishments in the decade since she joined the bench in 1991 demonstrates why she won the award:

She worked closely with the Child Trauma Research Project and the University of California San Francisco forensic psychiatry program to make available to families in the juvenile court reasonably priced neutral custody evaluations.

She worked with a local lawyer referral service to establish a mandatory training program for attorneys wishing to practice in juvenile court and a peer review procedure to ensure the competency of court-appointed attorneys.

She created a committee to coordinate the youth services offered by numerous agencies.

She established a separate adoption review calendar to ensure that children are adopted quickly.

She received a grant from the Administrative Office of the Courts for a project to evaluate how dependency cases could be handled more efficiently and how to eliminate undue delays in getting children to stable homes.

"Donna is all about the clients and the people she's serving," says Tanya Neiman, director of the volunteer legal services program of the Bar Association of San Francisco. "She cares about justice, she cares about fairness, she cares about enhancing pro bono participation."

The achievement of which she is proudest, says Hitchens, is the unification of the family court, which brings under one jurisdiction dependency, delinquency and domestic relations. "What I've really tried to do is change the focus from the traditional view as strictly adjudicatory to public service," she said. "We're really trying to help families and children instead of making decisions for them because they can't."

Hitchens began her stint in the juvenile court division in 1995 and two years later created the unified family court, which brought together the proceedings of three divisions. The court provides a holistic approach to families, with an eye to integrating the wide range of services available to parents and children as well as making those services more accessible.

Hitchens attributes her success to building collaborative relationships among the local bar, attorneys, community based organizations and service providers "to work together instead of against each other.

"It's a pretty unusual approach," she added, "and I think we've made enormous headway."

Hitchens has introduced numerous programs into the family court. One project produced a comprehensive manual on services available from public agencies. A collaborative law court encourages the use of a non-adversarial environment in family law, where specially trained attorneys focus on the needs of children and agree not to represent clients if normal litigation is required. "Family Matters" is a newsletter for professionals from all fields who interact with the family court. Petitioners can file domestic violence orders through the internet. Another project works to insure that the special education needs of foster children are met by the school district.

Hitchens practiced civil rights law before her election to the court in 1990, handling mostly employment discrimination and constitutional cases. She founded the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

With Nancy Davis, her partner of 25 years, she adopted two daughters, now 16 and 19, a move she describes as "the best decision I ever made in my life."