A Legacy of Innovation and Collaboration

The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) took root in California in the spring of 1963 with the creation of the California Conciliation Courts Quarterly, the first publication to promote the interchange of ideas between California’s conciliation courts. Judge Roger Alton Pfaff, presiding judge of the Superior Court of Los Angeles, wrote:

California has become a model for conciliation services as a part of the judicial function for other states to emulate and each year we find jurisdictions creating such services. It may well be that in the not too distant future this little publication may have a wider dissemination with similar courts in other states.

Judge Pfaff’s words proved truly prophetic.  The publication, which now goes by the name Family Court Review, is presently read by thousands of subscribers around the world in countries including Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  Meanwhile, AFCC has grown from a handful of California counselors and judges to an international association of judges, lawyers, mediators, custody evaluators, parenting coordinators, parent educators, court administrators, counselors, researchers, academics, and other professionals dedicated to the resolution of family conflict.

In the nearly five decades since its inception, AFCC has changed dramatically in size, scope, geography and membership.  AFCC members have led the way in developing new processes and programs to meet the needs of families in conflict.  Members of the association have conducted research and written books that have served as the impetus for reform in family courts and public policy arenas throughout the world.  Indeed, the changes in family court systems and within AFCC over the years have been remarkable. What has not changed, however, are the ideas that inspired AFCC’s founders: that an organization facilitating an interdisciplinary exchange of ideas and information can serve as an agent of change and a catalyst for the needs of families, and especially children, in conflict.

In the Beginning: AFCC in the 1960s

The first AFCC conference was held on Saturday, September 7, 1963, in Los Angeles. Conciliation counselors and judges from six counties in California gathered to talk shop well into the evening.  Among those participating in the first inaugural event were two Los Angeles Conciliation Court counselors who would lead AFCC in the future.  Meyer Elkin, who would serve as AFCC President in 1977 and as editor of theReview from 1963 to 1986, and Stanley Cohen, AFCC Executive Director from 1983 to 1988 and co-editor of the Review from 1986 to 1991. 

Interest in court-connected services spread beyond California as courts in Hawaii, Idaho, Ohio, Oregon, Michigan, Arizona, Montana and several Canadian provinces began establishing court services.  By 1964, the AFCC conference had grown to a two-day event with 90 participants coming from several states outside of California.  In May of 1967, AFCC held its conference outside of California for the first time in Phoenix, Arizona.

AFCC’s founding members had a different focus from those working in family courts and court services today.  The job title for many court service staff members was “marriage counselor.”   The work of the counselors focused on reconciliation between husbands and wives. Conference programs and Review articles emphasized the role of the court as a provider of short-term marriage counseling services and the use of husband-wife agreements to resolve marital disputes to promote reconciliation.  The use of trial separation agreements as a way to effect reconciliation was discussed as a novel, albeit controversial, technique. AFCC went on record encouraging then California Governor Ronald Reagan to continue the Blue Ribbon Commission on the Family and “to begin a concerted assault on the high incidence of divorce in our society and its tragic consequences.”  Blueprint for a Successful Marriage, a brochure developed by the Los Angeles Conciliation Court, was made available to other courts through AFCC.

By 1965, AFCC had adopted bylaws and a constitution, and “California” was dropped from the organization’s title.  The name was changed to the Conference of Conciliation Courts, recognizing that the appeal of the organization had spread beyond California.  By the end of the decade AFCC committees were established to focus on legislation, professional standards, publications and membership.

As the 1960s drew to a close, worldwide social and political changes did not escape AFCC.  A 1968 survey of all 50 states and the District of Columbia found that 19 states had some form of court-connected counseling services.  No fault divorce became law in California.  The December 1969 issue of the Conciliation Courts Review introduced a new concept to the movement with an editorial by Meyer Elkin titled, “A Conciliation Court Is More Than a Reconciliation Court.”  Other articles focused on the role of the attorney in divorce and the development of visitation guidelines.  Former AFCC President, and prominent judge, Hon. Byron Lindsey of San Diego, wrote an article questioning whether we were expecting too much of marriage

The 1970s: From Reconciliation to Divorce with Dignity

By the early 1970s, AFCC’s conferences had traveled some distance from their original California home.  Annual conferences had been hosted by court personnel in Honolulu, Phoenix, Detroit and Chicago.  Family court services were beginning to turn their attention to helping couples end their marriages with a greater sense of dignity and self-worth and with less trauma to themselves and the children.

The Review began to establish itself as a significant publication, having grown in size and scope and served as a harbinger of things to come for family courts worldwide.  The September 1970 issue featured an article titled, “The Modern Family Rescue Team—Judge, Lawyer and Behavioral Scientist,” by Andrew S. Watson, M.D.  The article called for an interdisciplinary approach to court services, an increased numbers of counselors and thorough education of the bench and bar.  In that same issue, Jack Bradford and Jean Brindley, marriage counselors from the Third Judicial Circuit in Detroit, wrote about group orientation and group intake processes, a precursor to the parent education programs that would proliferate so dramatically two decades later.

In 1975, Review Editor Meyer Elkin editorialized on the language of family law:

Why do we continue to use the language of criminal law in family law? Is it primarily tradition that causes us to continue to use the old words in family law? Or is it something else? Is it a reflection of the prevailing ambivalence of this society which, on the one hand, tells people that divorce is okay, but by its actions, or lack of it, shows that many still do not accept the idea of divorce in a pair-oriented society? We need to develop new words that will alleviate stress on the divorcing family rather than add to stresses already present….Family law is entering a new period. There is now present an opportunity for introducing new practices and procedures—and words that will represent the combined expertise of both law and the behavioral sciences who, after all, are equally concerned and have similar goals regarding the strengthening of the family. Lets us now start the search for the words.

AFCC members and courts continued to lead the way in developing new services throughout the 1970s.  In 1973, the Los Angeles Conciliation Court began a pilot program to mediate custody and visitation disputes.  Divorce education workshops for parents began to emerge in several AFCC member courts.

Ten years after its inception, the Conference of Conciliation Courts had members in 15 states and several Canadian provinces, and 34 members on its Board of Directors. The 1973 Annual Conference was held in Chicago.  The theme was, “Alternatives to Divorce.”  Regional conferences were also being added to AFCC’s list of professional offerings, bringing the organization closer to its members and tailoring conferences that addressed issues germane to the region.

Throughout the 1970s, the Conference of Conciliation Courts became increasingly interdisciplinary and international.  Conferences featured presenters from Canada, England, New Zealand and Australia, andReview articles featured contributions from judges, lawyers, academics, clergy and behavioral scientists.  In 1976, the Conference of Conciliation Courts changed its name to Association of Family Conciliation Courts. 

In 1978, AFCC held its first annual conference outside of the United States in Vancouver, British Columbia, and concepts such as family self-determination and mediation were the subject of discussion.  Gender issues were emerging.  The Divorce Experience, a didactic orientation program for divorcing parents and their children, was introduced.

The late 1970s marked the beginning of a new organizational trend. AFCC members in California came together to form the first AFCC chapter.  In the years to follow, the AFCC California Chapter would be joined by chapters in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ontario and Texas. 

By the end of the 1970s, AFCC membership had grown to 900 members, and the Board of Directors had expanded to 50 members.  Professional networking opportunities were highly valued by conference attendees, as was the opportunity for camaraderie between the association’s members who participated in pre- and post-conference trips to Alaska, New Zealand, Australia, England and Sweden. 

The association was also becoming a business.  AFCC’s first executive director was California Counselor Frank Bailey, whose main job was to keep a current list of the members and put out the AFCC newsletter, keeping members apprised of association activities. The AFCC office moved to Portland, Oregon, when Professor Jay Folberg became executive director (1975-1980). 

The 1980s: The Mediation Explosion

In 1981, AFCC offices moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, when Nova Law School Professor Laurence Hyde was named executive director (1981-1983).  In 1983, the National Center of State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia, was contracted to serve as secretariat of the organization, and Stanley Cohen, sociology professor at the University of Oregon Health Sciences and a founding member of AFCC, was named executive director, serving in that role until 1988.  AFCC’s headquarters moved back to Portland, Oregon, in 1984 when the university and Dr. Cohen assumed the administration of the association.

Publications and pamphlets such as Parents Are Forever and Guide for Stepparents were being developed and offered for sale.  Through Dr. Cohen’s efforts, the association secured a grant to produce an award-winning film, “A Family Affair,” narrated by actor Edward Asner, on family violence.  The Children’s Bureau of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare awarded AFCC a research grant to study the effects of mediation on custody and visitation disputes in courts in Connecticut, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. 

Interest in court-connected reconciliation counseling was diminishing, and joint custody, mediation, domestic violence and stepfamilies were becoming central issues.  The legislation boom had begun, and it was moving in a strong wave from California across the United States. Mandatory mediation and joint custody were hot topics.

AFCC’s Mediation Committee hosted three national symposia on mediation standards between 1982 and 1984.  Representatives of more than thirty organizations participated in developing the first set of Model Standards of Practice for Family and Divorce Mediation.  By the late 1980s, mediation of custody and visitation disputes was mandatory in jurisdictions in more than 33 states.

Separated and divorcing parents were becoming a new constituency. Fathers were organizing groups to advocate for their parenting interests, and mothers were drawing attention to the economics of divorce and child support arrearages.  AFCC’s conferences featured children and parents recounting their divorce and custody disputes and the resolution of these disputes through mediation and joint custody.

Meyer Elkin’s eloquent editorials in the Review continued to capture the spirit and commitment of AFCC members.  In the 20th Anniversary issue, he noted the ripple effect that the association had on the field of divorce:

Cast a Pebble in the Pond

Let all of us, in our own unique way, recommit ourselves to the search for the pebbles of change that can be cast into the social pond. Let us create a divorce process that recycles divorce pain into new patterns of personal and familial growth, which, in turn, will also strengthen our entire society. Let us protect our children from the unnecessary hazards of the divorce experience so that they, like their parents, can be strengthened by divorce rather than defeated by it. And let us never forget that if the lights go out in our children's eyes, be they children of divorce or any other children, we will all live in darkness.

Immediately preceding AFCC’s 20th Anniversary, AFCC changed its name again. Although the term “conciliation court” was unfamiliar to many members, it was also a part of AFCC’s heritage. In an effort to bridge these interests, the new name of the organization became the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. 

In 1983, AFCC elected its first Canadian president, Hon. John VanDuzer from Hamilton, Ontario, and the association’s conference was held in Toronto.  AFCC conferences had become major events by this time, demanding hundreds of hours of volunteer members’ time and effort. Conferences had grown to five days including pre-conference institutes, committee meetings, and board meetings in addition to plenary sessions and multiple workshops.  The number of pamphlets and publications produced by AFCC was also growing, and AFCC began to offer videotapes on custody resolution counseling and divorce. 

By the mid-1980s, family court service programs were feeling the strains of the economy, and AFCC membership leveled off.  The use of custody evaluations, overshadowed by the advent of mediation, was reemerging as custody disputes were becoming more complex and high-conflict families were challenging the capacity of the court system.

1988—AFCC’s 25th Anniversary

The 25-year mark in AFCC’s history was significant.  AFCC returned to its roots in Los Angeles for its annual conference.  The conference theme, “Helping Children and Families—The Best of AFCC,” set the stage for the children and family member participants from the conference ten years earlier to return to provide a retrospective look at divorce and its impact.

AFCC conferences had developed a loyal following as members planned their vacations around conferences and spouses and children became like extended family.  The friendships and kinships between members continued to grow as members kept in touch between conferences, corresponded, traveled together, shared family events, and laughed and grieved together.

As AFCC completed its first quarter century, some significant changes took place.  Meyer Elkin retired as editor of the Review and turned over the journal to co-editors Stanley Cohen and Hugh McIsaac, Los Angeles, CA.  It seemed significant that two were chosen to replace one.  TheReview Editorial Board had grown from eight members to 38 members from around the world and individual issues of the Review were now more than 80 pages in length.  Putting out a journal of this size had become more than a cottage industry, and in 1990 Sage Publications took over publishing and marketing responsibilities for the Review.  In 1988, Stanley Cohen retired as executive director, and Ann Milne, a long-standing AFCC member, became executive director in 1989.  The administrative office moved to its present home in Madison, Wisconsin. At the end of the decade, AFCC membership was approaching 1,200.

The 1990s: Complex Family Issues

AFCC entered the 1990s and its growing membership was being professionally challenged by increasingly difficult family issues.  TheReview and conferences served as a forum to explore the many controversies emerging in the field.  The 1989 Annual Conference in Chicago featured a pre-conference symposium on mediation and domestic abuse, and in 1992 AFCC received a $200,000 grant from the State Justice Institute to collaborate with The Urban Institute in Washington, DC to study the impact of mediation on custody disputes involving allegations of domestic violence. 

The challenges posed by high-conflict families were front-and-center issues for most courts, and AFCC members led the way in developing new processes and techniques for working with these challenging family members.  AFCC continued to serve as a catalyst for the dissemination of information through conferences, training programs, publications, and videotapes.  Parenting coordinators, domestic abuse, mediation-arbitration, collaborative law, supervised visitation, custody evaluation, and child protection and dependency mediation began to appear on conference programs as members searched for effective family dispute resolution processes.

1993—AFCC’s 30th Anniversary

AFCC celebrated its 30th Anniversary in New Orleans in May 1993.  The conference theme and opening night videotape, “The Economic Impact of Divorce,” provided an opportunity for more than 700 delegates to look at the big-picture impact of divorce and celebrate the largest conference attendance to date. 

In 1993, the association received a major grant from the Hewlett Foundation that enabled AFCC to add additional staff and absorb some of the work of AFCC’s many hard-working volunteer members.  In 1994, Peter Salem joined the AFCC staff to become AFCC’s associate director. Conference planning was centralized in the administrative office and AFCC began to offer additional training and consulting services.

Second World Congress on Family Law and the Rights of Children and Youth

In 1997, AFCC partnered with Australia’s World Congress, Inc. to host the Second World Congress on Family Law and the Rights of Children and Youth.  Chaired by AFCC’s first non-North American president, Hon. Alastair Nicholson, Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, the three-year planning effort involved hundreds of AFCC volunteers and culminated with more than 1,500 delegates from more than 50 countries participating in the five-day extravaganza.  The lengthy list of luminaries included First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who served as honorary chairperson; renowned pediatrician Dr. T. Barry Brazelton; San Francisco Mayor Hon. Willie Brown; Nobel Peace Prize Recipient Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta; and former U.S. Congresswoman Hon. Patricia Schroeder.

By 1998, mediation had established itself as a professional field of practice.  Concerns about training, certification and regulation were apparent, and AFCC reconvened the Symposium on Model Standards of Practice for Family and Divorce Mediation, which last met in 1984. Representatives of more than twenty organizations worked over the course of three years to create a revised set of model standards.  The Model Standards were subsequently adopted by AFCC, the American Bar Association, the Association for Conflict Resolution, and numerous state and local mediation organizations.

On a sad note, the 1990s saw the passing of several noteworthy AFCC leaders.  Meyer Elkin, a founding AFCC member and long-standing editor of the Review, passed away in 1994, and in 1995 former executive director Stanley Cohen died in a tractor accident on his Oregon farm.

The last decade of the 20th century featured continued growth for AFCC. The number of AFCC members increased to nearly 1,700 by during the 1990s and conference attendance also grew.  AFCC’s quarterly journal, now named, Family Court Review and edited by Professor Andrew Schepard, found a home and cosponsor at Hofstra Law School, accompanied by a student editorial staff.

The Turn of the Century

The twenty-first century would see unprecedented growth for AFCC, beginning with one of the largest conferences in AFCC history.  Nearly 750 delegates joined AFCC for its 37th Annual Conference in New Orleans in May 2000 as U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife, Sheila Wellstone, a well-known advocate against domestic violence, provided the keynote address.  AFCC members were saddened to learn later of the Wellstones’ tragic death in an airplane crash in 2002.

The New Orleans conference theme, “Alienation, Access, and Attachment,” provided the opportunity for members of the Northern California Task Force on the Alienated Child, led by Dr. Janet Johnston and Dr. Joan Kelly, to share their reformulation of Richard Gardner’s controversial Parental Alienation Syndrome.  The work of the task force was then published in what would become a landmark special issue of the Family Court Review.

AFCC received a second organizational development grant from the Hewlett Foundation in the late 1990s and used it to focus on the future, survey its members regarding their needs, develop a Web site, and take stock of AFCC’s organizational structure and its capacity to move forward.  AFCC initiated a revision of its bylaws and governance procedures, and the AFCC Board of Directors was downsized from 50 members to 19.

With AFCC staff and many members en route to New York for the 2001 Regional Conference, terrorists struck the World Trade Center on September 11.  The conference was cancelled, but the AFCC spirit was not to be daunted by these events.  With the support of AFCC New York members and Hofstra Law School, the conference was held five months later, and AFCC members worldwide contributed money and support to help the organization weather this challenge.

In 2002, Ann Milne retired and Peter Salem became the eighth executive director in the history of AFCC.  In 2003, AFCC celebrated its 40th Anniversary in Ottawa, Ontario, twenty years after AFCC’s first Canadian President, Hon. John VanDuzer organized the AFCC conference in Toronto.  Twenty years later, Justice VanDuzer was honored for his contribution at the Ottawa conference.

In 2004, the AFCC Board of Directors passed a strategic plan calling for the association on initiatives to influence the field of practice.  A series of special projects resulted, among them: 

  • AFCC was awarded a contract to develop and evaluate a researched-based screening instrument for the Connecticut Court Support Services Division.  The project was a finalist for the Kennedy School of Government Innovations in American Government Award.   
  • AFCC President Hon. George Czutrin appointed a Parenting Coordination Task Force in 2003 to take the lead in the development of this emerging new field.  The task force produced the first national set of Guidelines for Parenting Coordinators, adopted by the AFCC Board of Directors in May 2005. 
  • AFCC President Leslye Hunter appointed a task force in 2004 to revise the AFCC Model Standards for Child Custody Evaluation.  The Model Standards were adopted by the AFCC Board of Directors in May 2006. 
  • AFCC partnered with Hofstra Law School Center for Children, Families and the Law on the Family Law Education Reform Project (FLER), an effort to close the gap between the teaching and practice of family law.  FLER systematically included  hundreds of interdisciplinary family court professionals in the project The FLER Project hosted the first AFCC-sponsored conference at the Johnson Foundation’s prestigious Wingspread Conference Center. The FLER Report was endorsed by numerous national organizations and the October 2006 issue of Family Court Reviewis dedicated to the FLER project.  The project is ongoing and is currently developing a Web site to support skills based, interdisciplinary teaching of family law classes. 
  • AFCC partnered with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) to co-sponsor a think tank on Domestic Violence and Family Courts, AFCC’s second Wingspread Conference.  The think tank focused on issues of differentiation in domestic violence and participants included leading judges, legal and social science scholars, domestic violence advocates and interdisciplinary family court and family law practitioners.  Following the conference, participants from different professional backgrounds wrote and presented together to encourage greater collaboration between family court professional and domestic violence advocates.  The July 2008 issue of Family Court Reviewis dedicated to this project.

AFCC conferences remain a springboard for new initiatives, however they have faced some challenges in the first decade of this century, beginning with the cancellation of the New York Regional conference in September 2001.  The 2003 Annual Conference in Ottawa contended with the SARS outbreak in Ontario.   And the 2006 Annual Conference had to be relocated from New Orleans to Tampa, Florida following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.  However, AFCC and its members have been resilient.  Attendance records were shattered with more than 900 attending the 44th Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. in 2007, and more than 1,000 participating in the 45th Annual Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2008, including record-setting numbers of participants from Canada and overseas. 

AFCC continued to grow in the 21st century.  By mid-2008 AFCC’s membership had increased to more than 4,200 members from 19 countries.  The number of AFCC Chapters continued to expand, including AFCC’s first Canadian Chapter in Ontario.  AFCC signed on with Wiley-Blackwell to publish Family Court Review and Dr. Janet Johnston came aboard as Associate Editor.  Online capability exploded Family Court Review readership.  AFCC’s e-newsletter (the AFCC eNEWS) and parenting coordination listserv (the AFCC Parenting Coordination Network) further expanded the association’s reach.

The AFCC Legacy

AFCC members all share in an impressive legacy passed down from its founding members and the many others who have served AFCC with such fierce dedication.  From a small group of court counselors and judges, AFCC has grown to a robust association representing more than a dozen disciplines with members in 19 countries.  

In the future, AFCC members will continue to lead the field.  The agenda has changed from reconciliation in the 1960s, to divorce with dignity in the 1970s, to mediation in the 1980s, to working with high-conflict and violent families in the 1990s, reflecting the diversity and complexity of contemporary families. Unrepresented litigants, same-sex partnerships, never-married parents, dependency mediation, domestic abuse, parenting coordination, custody evaluations, non-residential parenting, relocation, alienated children and family preservation are among the present and future challenges for AFCC members. 

Looking back over nearly half a century, it is clear that the complexity and severity of issues facing families has changed dramatically. Although the issues may change, one thing remains constant: AFCC members continue to share an impressive commitment to families and children cultivated by the founders of the association and instilled in its members and leadership since 1963.  The vision has endured, and generations of families have benefited.