Thursday, March 28, 2019

Women’s History: Early Female Friend of the Court Director

By Amy Lindholm, SCAO-FOCB Management Analyst and Pundit editor

Maria Peel
Women have a played an important role in Michigan’s child support program from its very early days.

Michigan’s child support program began in 1918, when the 3rd Circuit Court in Wayne County appointed an attorney to the friend of the court role to assist the court in domestic relations cases. State legislation passed in 1919, instituting friend of the court in every county.

By 1931, friends of the court from 42 different circuits worked together to form the Friend of the Court Association (FOCA). Maria Peel represented Washtenaw County at the first FOCA meeting at the Hotel Olds in Lansing, one of only two women at that first meeting of 15 friends of the court. She was appointed secretary-treasurer of FOCA.

Closing of meeting minutes from the first FOCA meeting in 1931, with Maria Peel's signature.
While it is not clear at this time if Maria Peel was the first female friend of the court director in the state, she was certainly an impressive woman in many regards, including in her friend of the court role.

In 1910, at age 48, Maria Peel was beginning to fight for women’s rights as a suffragist. She was a widow and working as an insurance agent. Within a few years, she had become Ann Arbor’s first policewoman. She was also the county’s first female truant officer, juvenile probation officer, and friend of the court. Mrs. Peel also volunteered with the Ann Arbor Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, Ann Arbor Woman’s Club, and Ann Arbor League of Women Voters.

A 1936 article titled “The Friend of the Divorce Court” published in American Judicature Society highlights Maria Peel’s friend of the court and juvenile probation accomplishments from the preceding year:
Total receipts climbed from $33,421.93 to $46,166.48 in the 12 month period. Mrs. Peel also reported that she had been called into 31 criminal cases, interviewed 3,520 persons on various matters and sent out 1,807 letters. Children who are wards of the circuit court number 703, while 36 are in her custody. In her capacity as juvenile probation officer, Mrs. Peel handled 147 cases. Eighty-one of these were delinquents, 53 neglect cases and three wayward minors. Only 10 boys and four girls were kept in detention homes during the year, fewer than ever before.
Maria Peel was recently featured in an Ann Arbor exhibit titled, “Liberty Awakes in Washtenaw County: When Women Won the Vote.” The exhibit curators pointed out that women like Maria Peel achieved great accomplishments for their gender in a time before affirmative action, Title IX, and gender equity as a social priority or legal imperative.

Today, 56 percent of Michigan’s 63 friend of the court directors are women.