Crisis in the Family Court

Article excerpt

Family courts nationwide are grappling with a caseload crisis that delays decisions on critical issues for parents and children involving abuse and neglect, custody, and visitation. Although especially problematic in major urban areas, New York as a whole has been struggling with this precarious situation. According to a report prepared by the New York State Senate Committee on the Judiciary, the 143 judges currently mandated by state law handled over 2.1 million appearances statewide in 2008. The report, entitled "Kids and Families Can't Wait-The Urgent Case for New Family Court Judgeships," predicted a 26 percent increase in appearances, to a staggering 2.6 million. The burden of current caseloads is already felt throughout the system. In New York City, for example, an average of 3.5 minutes is spent on a family court appearance.

New York State is far from alone in its family court crisis. Most major urban and larger jurisdictions have problems with heavy family court caseloads and would benefit from more judges, said Peter Salem, Executive Director of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) in Madison, Wis. "It's always a good thing when there are more judges to help families, and more judges dedicated to die family bench who have the opportunity to obtain training and an in-depth understanding of the dynamics of the families that appear before them," said Salem. "Not having enough judges and resources leads to delays. That's a problem. People are going through major life crises and children with often serious issues often have to be put on hold."

Putting more judges on the bench only begins to resolve some of the deep systemic problems in dealing with family issues. "I'm picking trial dates for die end of next summer and it's not because the judges are being irresponsible or lazy, it's just their calendar availability," said Theodor Liebmann, Clinical Professor of Law and Attorney-in-Charge of the Child Advocacy Clinic at Hofstra Law School. "There are families and agencies that will have to wait until next summer to get a finding on abuse or neglect cases. These months constitute substantial chunks of the impacted kids' lives."

For example, if a trial date is scheduled for summer 2010, there is still no guarantee diat the case will be heard on the scheduled day. "When a child is removed from their home, (he or she) is entided to a hearing in three days," noted Liebmann. "So to the judges who put on cases eight months ago, those newer cases take priority" - resulting, he added, in even more delay.

Staggering workloads

Family Court judges are working under exceedingly difficult and dire circumstances. "My workload has doubled," Judge W. Dennis Duggan, who has handled family court in Albany for 16 years, wrote in an email. "The work day has remained the same. No person can do twice as much work in the same amount of time and keep the same level of quality." Duggan, who is past president of die New York State Family Court Judges' Association, added that the workload has grown to "staggering" proportions in the years he has served on the bench. Among the consequences, he noted, are "seat of our pants" judgments. Duggan is also a board member of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ).

Elsewhere in the nation, family court judges argue that more resources as well as more judgeships are needed. "Judges are now casemanagers, not exclusively decision makers," said the AFCCs Salem. "(We need) interdisciplinary programs, dispute resolution programs, legal information, education programs and drug treatment programs."

According to Judge Karen Adam, a Superior Court Commissioner in Tucson, Arizona, and chair of the N CJ FCJ 's Juvenile and Family Law Advisory Committee, a wellinformed family court judge needs to have "more than a passing knowledge of child development, mental health issues, domestic violence and high conflict family systems. …