At Probate Court, Probation Staff Aims to Make Disagreeable World More Agreeable

At Probate Court, Probation staff aims to make disagreeable world more agreeable

As colored pictures made by the hands of children waiting on their parents to discuss complex domestic issues hang above, Boston resident Charles Purnell fills out paperwork for one of the Probate Probation Department’s more successful programs – the job readiness program. However, in most other cases, the innocence of a child’s colored picture is lost in the dysfunction of many modern childbearing relationships. In the Department, pictured here, officers are charged with unraveling those issues with hopes of finding common ground.

It’s no secret family life all over the country, and quite notably here in the cities and towns of Suffolk County, has gotten increasingly more complex, chaotic and dysfunctional.

It is a new era where family and parenting can mean just about anything one wants.

There is more and more familial dirty laundry being generated, and more and more of that dirty laundry tends to be aired out in a very public way.

The official forum for that public airing is quite often the Probate and Family Court in Boston’s Edward Brooke Courthouse, and the officials charged with finding agreement in these disputes are a specialized group of Probate Probation Officers, headed up by Chief Officer Margo Riley.

Riley describes her staff – which has been whittled down from 15 to 5 officers – as “rock stars” who work against all odds every day to make an increasingly disagreeable world a bit more agreeable one family at a time. The visible and tangible breakdown of the family structure in the county is on parade at the court, and Riley said her officers try to put together solutions that will keep people from having to come back.

Officially, the group most often tries to work out agreements between two parties who are supposed to go before a judge on the day they come to court. The officers most often perform a court-ordered ‘dispute interventions’ with the parties to try and head off problems before they hit the courtroom.

About 50 percent of the cases are able to find an agreement or a partial agreement, and Riley said that number is up. However, the wrinkles and problems in the cases haven’t gotten any easier since she started at the department in the 1980s.

Most all of the cases involve children and the issues commonly addressed center on custody, child support payments, guardianship agreements, and visitation rights.


Frequently, the cases are now complicated by illegal immigration issues, language barriers, criminal histories, mental health issues, drug problems and even dueling restraining orders that don’t allow the parties to negotiate in the same room (making officers have to shuttle back and forth between separate rooms to try and barter some consensus).

“I believe the cases have gotten decidedly more complex since I started,” Riley said. “I think there is more disclosure about domestic violence. People are more educated about that. People disclose more about substance abuse and mental health issues in particular. People aren’t shy about saying they have a mental health issue…It’s a rare occasion when you have two people come in who work and have two kids and want to divide their assets and move on. There are more restraining orders, domestic violence and [Department of Children and Families] involvement. The cases just seem to be more complicated. We did have these cases all along, but now it seems like that’s every case. It was a lot of cases then and now it’s every case.”

The simple reality for many people in Eastie, Revere and Chelsea is that parenting, marriage, co-habitating and simply meeting the needs of children are conducted in courtrooms after hours of waiting in line.

What routinely gets lost in the shuffle are the children themselves.

While children sit in institutional-looking waiting areas coloring pictures of Patrick Squarepants and Cowboy John and his Pinto Pony, their parents – most of whom have never been married – try to hash out major differences while in a highly emotional state. It is up to the Probation Officers to find Solomon’s middle ground.

“A lot of the people here want to get at each other because they’re focused on each other,” said Officer Patrice O’Brien. “We try to diffuse that, and we are always focused on the kids and what’s best for the kids, first and foremost.”

Added Riley, “I don’t want it to look like everyone is unreasonable. Some people are very reasonable in this process. There are also those who are not. There are definitely people who use the court to antagonize the other person…We see the whole gamut and try to help people before they go before a judge.”


More often than not, however, the situations can be unbelievably complex – such as a case emanating from Revere last Thursday at the court where an international custodial kidnapping was alleged, with one parent making serious claims through the Hague Convention. Though names were provided as a matter of public record, they were withheld to protect the identity of the child.

Officer O’Brien sat down with her morning coffee last Thursday and picked up the case file on the matter – giving it another quick review before going into the intervention.

The mother of the 9-year-old Revere child had flown into Boston from Bogota, Colombia armed with official documents in Spanish and official claims of international parental kidnapping under the Hague Convention.

Kind of heavy stuff for first thing in the morning.

Kind of heavy stuff for a county courthouse as well.

The child had apparently been born in Revere and then moved to Colombia with her mother at age 3. However, she frequently visited her father and stepmother in Revere. Earlier this summer, she came for a visit and requested that she wanted to stay – that she had been abused in Colombia.

The father kept her in Revere and enrolled her in the schools, concerned over her claims.

The mother had since filed charged with the Colombian government, with the top officials there also filing claims based on international rights spelled out by the Hague Convention. It was an appeal that went straight to the U.S. Department of State.

A great deal was at stake in the case for the child and parents, and it was the kind of thing that could easily mushroom into an international conflict.

O’Brien was charged with heading it off before it got to a judge, hopefully getting both parents to come to some sort of quiet agreement in the situation.

She spent all morning trying to get that to happen.

Unfortunately, it did not.

“There is the unfortunate reality that if you’re not getting anywhere, then you’re services might be used better with someone else – to move on and take the next case and look at the bigger picture,” said Riley.

Later in the day, a Probate Court Judge heard the situation.

There was no easy solution, and in fact, the judge had been contacted by the State Department and told to hold off on any permanent decisions.

“I think what we have to do at this point is find out the status of the application to the international Hague Convention,” said the judge. “It appears this is in bigger hands than mine at this point.”


Riley said that even when things aren’t worked out before court, the effort is worthwhile. Sometimes, just a small agreement on one issue can lead to a quicker and smoother resolution in court.

Many times, the cases deal with generational problems – kids whose parents fought over them and who are now doing the same with their own children. Riley said the courts try to take a reading of the person’s entire history so that some understanding can be applied to the situation.

“There really is a good sociological case study that could be done here,” said Riley. “Our staff works through those things. Nothing is black and white, cut and dry, here. You have to wear a lot of hats. That’s why the staff is so good; because they have to be intuitive in this process and they all understand that.”


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