User Friendly Court administrator sees value in change

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

A number of people who deal with any county Friend of the Court in Michigan would probably argue that the department is anything but friendly.

After all, the office is responsible for enforcing child support, parenting time, and custody orders in domestic relations cases, matters that can give rise to strong emotions and intense feelings.

But John Battles, the administrator of the Genesee County Friend of the Court, has been on a mission to make this office a little more user friendly, and efficient. And as a attorney who dealt with many of these types of cases for years, Battles comes into this "battle" armed with a background forged from years of experience.

"We've made a lot of changes over the years," Battles said during a recent interview.

But he knows that the office functions primarily to assist children, and that is his primary focus.

"You deal with people and the kids, and that remains one of the most basic values we all have."

Battles, 52, has always been an attorney who is a great advocate for his clients, but has not allowed whatever position he held to create an ego that consumes him. That personality is evident upon meeting him.

"Everybody calls me Jack," he said.

Born in Flint, Battles grew up in Burton and attended Atherton High School, graduating in 1975. He played football in high school, and gained honorable mention on the all-county squad, playing linebacker and fullback, and decided to pursue the sport when he attended Western Michigan University. But after finding out the time commitments football would demand, Battles decided to concentrate on his studies instead.

"It just was not the idea of a college experience I had wanted, so I decided to focus on academics," he said.

He graduated from WMU in 1979 with a bachelor of business administration degree, majoring in industrial marketing. But while there, a business law professor "impressed me," and he decided to pursue a law degree after graduation.

"I had been interested in law, but the real urge to attend law school came while I was at Western," Battles said.

And knowing that attorneys do a lot of public speaking did not bother him, because Battles performed in a number of plays in high school and had overcome that fear early on.

Battles attended St. Louis University School of Law because it was a Jesuit institution, and he said he enjoyed the influence of those professors. Also, the school offered a more personal touch than other law schools might have.

"They were very interested in how you were doing," said Battles, who earned his law degree in 1982.

He returned to Michigan and landed a job with General Motors Service Parts Operation. Because of his business background, Battles believed he would land a job in business law, but instead ended up in labor relations in Pontiac after a stint in Flint.

Between his time in Flint and Pontiac, Battles married a woman he knew in high school. He and his future wife, Jean, had known each other but did not start dating until later and married in 1983. They now have two children - Jessica, 23, and Jarred, 19.

While at GM in Pontiac, Battles said he helped negotiate local collective bargaining agreements, but held on to a desire to practice law. That opportunity came when GM offered a salaried buy-out program in 1987 "and I took advantage of it."

"I came to Flint and hung up a shingle," Battles said, and started practicing law.

He said he received a lot of help from the Genesee County Bar Association, and landed on the public defender's list.

"I got into court a great deal," Battles said, handling criminal cases. "I really enjoyed the criminal defense aspect of law."

Battles also began "getting a ton" of juvenile neglect and delinquency cases, and became involved with establishing the Family Drug Court and the Felony Drug Court programs.

"It was a great experience," he said.

He said his time in private practice practicing in different areas of the law and learning domestic areas of law was very rewarding.

"I liked working for myself, the one-on-one contact with clients and helping others," he said. "It allowed me to do what I've always wanted."

Battles said he enjoyed the criminal defense work, but noted that juvenile neglect cases brought him more satisfaction. And as he grew as an attorney and gained more experience, he found himself gravitating towards the domestic relations side of the law.

"I've always rooted for the underdog, and found that juvenile neglect cases were the most rewarding," he said.

And when Jennie Barkey, the Friend of the Court administrator, was selected as Probate Judge in 2006, Battles decided to apply for the job. "I still enjoyed what I was doing, but I was ready for a change, and this seemed like a very interesting opportunity for me," he said.

Even though dozens of people applied for the Friend of the Court position, Battles gained the appointment.

"I was very happy to be selected," Battles said, but looking back, he said he was "pretty naïve" about the job and the responsibilities.

"I had a simplistic view. I thought it was all about parenting time and collecting money," Battles said.

He said Barkey, who held the office for years, had gained a reputation for being relentless in collecting child support money, organizing the office and setting almost a national model in how friend of the court offices could be operated.

"It was good to have her experience as we instituted new procedures and policies," Battles said of Barkey and the transition.

But many factors had come in to play in recent years. The GM presence was sliced when autoworkers were laid off and plants closed, and the general economy was starting to tank.

"My wake-up call came when we found out there were $600-plus million in uncollected arrearages in Genesee County, and $9 billion across the state," Battles said.

Battles said much of those arrearages were due to people having no money to pay child support, and from people leaving the area to seek work elsewhere.

"Jenny Barkey did an exceptional job, but the demographics had changed," Battles said.

Some also had left the state, "and we had to go find these people," Battles said.

Battles said Barkey has been involved and has taken over judicial functions of the office.

"She's been great to work with," he said.

In trying to put his own signature on the office, Battles said he's instituted several programs to accomplish that, such as stepping up enforcement of civil bench warrants for non-payment, and an outreach program where deputies go out and talk to people who are delinquent, urging them to pay before their cases reach a critical stage.

Battles, who said his office has a $10 million budget, said he's been able to make a dent in those arrearages. He is reviewing child support cases that may need to be modified because of lower pay or other factors that could affect the child support amount.

He has also been involved with other county officials on a document management system to go paperless and computerize records. He said it has allowed the office to become more efficient and streamline the process, and he said about one million documents have been purged so far.

"We were drowning in this paper" before, he said. "It's allowed us to re-organize the files we had to where now, it's right at our fingertips."

Battles also has a dedicated a team of caseworkers to concentrate on the most difficult cases and locating people who do not want to be found. And he's extended the hours for clients to visit the office, and the hours the cashier's window remains open. He's also imposed a 48-hour callback time for those who use a telephone to conduct business with his office.

Battles said he is helped in all those efforts by a great staff.

"I've never seen government employees work as hard as those we have in the Friend of the Court," he said. "It's very satisfying, and we have a great bunch of people who get behind the program and work with it."

Battles has also instituted an amnesty program for those behind in payments, which is followed up by sweep of the worst cases as he and deputies try to find those who ignored the chance to come clean. Battles said he's run into some humorous stories during those sweeps, such as seeing a man roar out of a garage on a dirt bike and drive across a neighbor's lawn to avoid paying what he owes.

"A lot of people get so far behind that they feel desperate," Battles said. "But I believe most people want to do the right thing, while about 10 percent - the inexplicably irresponsible - will do anything to avoid paying."

Battles said he misses the challenges of the courtroom and trials, and the quick decisions that have to be made there when he was practicing law. But he has no immediate plans to return to the courtroom, for now.

"I want to finish up some of the things we've started here," he said. "The problems we face now are much more complex, so it requires us to be more innovative than we have in the past."

Published: Thu, May 27, 2010