Over three months of observing Family Court around the city and speaking to scores of the lawyers, judges, parents and advocates who populate it, City Limits learned that an already near impossible task has, in recent years, become even harder to perform.
Judges are severely overburdened, but judicial seats go unfilled. Family Court dockets “exceed the capacity of a limited corps of judges and staff,” according to a 2008 report by the New York State Senate’s Judiciary Committee. Loaner judges serve on the Family Court bench with mixed enthusiasm—and with steep learning curves. Delays between hearings can stretch for a month or more, as judges and lawyers juggle dockets and obligations in other courts. Child abuse, neglect, custody and support cases can take years to complete.
Recent budget cuts have gutted programs that lightened some of the judges’ burden. The same cuts have also eliminated procedural structures designed to expedite cases and to help rebuild or restore families to relative health. Meanwhile, the number of dockets and dispositions is rising. In Family Court, otherwise positive social changes, like legal recognition of same-sex couples, merely add to the volume.
“Everyone says, ‘We care about children. Children are our top priority,’ ” the top Family Court official, Administrative Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson, told City Limits in an interview. “But if the resources aren’t there to provide services, what do you do?”
Yet money is not the root of all Family Court’s problems. Backlogs arise from a voluminous flow of paper proceedings. Different Family Court jurists hear each strand of a single family’s case, but the judges don’t communicate directly about cases they share. Parents use the court’s bureaucratic maze as a cover for personal legal warfare. Lawyers, hard-pressed to serve myriad clients, cause delays—whether inadvertently or deliberately as a tactic—while children age in limbo. Services for strained families disappear amid fiscal austerity.
Nascent efforts at juvenile justice reform—like Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent approval of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s bid to keep New York City children closer to home when they’re sent by a juvenile court to a detention facility—strive to untangle part of the Gordian knot, and some seem to be paying dividends.
But 96 percent of Family Court cases involve children in abuse, custody, or child support or visitation cases, not juvenile justice proceedings— and there is substantial evidence those children are facing a more difficult path through Family Court. The wait for adoption is increasing; New York ranks 50th among the states in time required for permanent adoption. Despite forceful pressures on the city’s child welfare agency (the Administration for Children’s Services) and judges to resolve cases quickly, the city’s children are staying in foster care longer.
Complexity stymies reform
All this exists beyond public attention, which tends to arrive only after a child has been abused and dies. It is a grim probability that another child’s death will occur sometime. When it does, elected officials will heap more blame and more business on Family Court. But if past experience is a guide, few reforms will actually succeed in fixing it.
Maybe there’s a reason for that. The daily workings of this crucial institution are not easy to comprehend. The functions of the court are divided into specialties, conducted in a unique lingo and governed by rules unique among court systems. The stories here are not simple: Amid widespread logjams and procedural delays, there is no single villain seeking to undermine the work of the court. The opposite is true; veritable legions of well-intentioned people work hard every day in courtrooms stacked like beehives in an apiary. The work is grueling and takes a high toll, in burnout and cynicism, on lawyers, caseworkers and their clients.
“Even if you fully resource us, you will still have children who die,” Richardson- Mendelson, who has been involved with Family Court as a lawyer, judge or supervisor since 1989, says. “Children I’ve released have been killed, cases where everyone consented and agreed that this would be the best outcome. Children die. That’s difficult work.”
A half-century after the legislative creation of Family Courts in New York State, it’s an open question whether the system—despite its many flaws—is working. It might be an unanswerable one. But it’s what lawyers and judges, caseworkers and families, and—of course—kids wrestle with every day in the halls and chambers of a court that is meant to protect, not punish, but often does a little bit of both.