Letter From The President Of The New York County Lawyers' Association

2008-08-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

The Family Court Needs Help.

The Family Court, which deals with matters affecting children and families, needs help.The number of abuse and neglect filings by the Administration for Children's Services more than doubled between 2005 and 2006 alone. The Permanency Law of 2005 mandated permanency hearings with respect to children in foster care twice a year instead of once a year and, for the first time, required such hearings for children between the ages of 18 and 21. The Legislature recently passed a bill expanding the jurisdiction of the Family Court in domestic violence cases - a laudable and widely supported measure - but did not provide any additional resources to handle the predictable increased workload.

The Family Court is widely described as being overwhelmed by its mounting caseload. In January 2008, the New School's Center for New York City Affairs and the Center for an Urban Future issued "Against the Clock: The Struggle to Move Kids Into Permanent Homes." The summary stated, "New York City's Family Court is in crisis, with case backlogs growing and judges unable to hold many routine hearings in a timely manner."

The number of judges permanently assigned to the Family Court has been frozen at 47 since 1991. This year, Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye asked the Legislature to create 39 new Family Court judgeships, but the bill died.

The status of the Family Court has been a matter of concern for some time. In 2004, the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care recommended sweeping changes in family courts nationwide. The NYCLA Justice Center convened two conferences on the Family Court, which considered the full range of the New York Family Court's jurisdiction, and not just foster care and permanency proceedings. The report of the first conference was published in the Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, Vol. 40, No. 4, Summer 2007.

Conference participants noted that although we speak of "Family Court," in practice we mean the Family Court along with the plethora of agencies whose work is closely linked with Family Court cases, such as the Administration for Children's Services and The Legal Aid Society. Because the Family Court is embedded in such a complex matrix of governmental and quasi-governmental agencies, as well as the community itself, reform becomes a very difficult proposition.

The conference participants identified a broad range of issues, including:

• the need for accountability of the Family Court, including comprehensive data collection and analysis and better information systems to facilitate administration and disposition of cases;

• the need to divert cases that do not really need court involvement to appropriate treatment or service providers;

• the need for better coordination among the various stakeholders in Family Court proceedings;

• the need to give Family Court judges broader powers;

• the need to improve relations between the court and the community, and the court and its litigants; and

• the need for additional resources in the court itself and in the related agencies.

Last month, NYCLA established a Task Force on the Family Court, co-chaired by Hon. Howard Miller, Appellate Division, Second Department, and Professor Jane M. Spinak, Columbia Law School, to follow up on these conferences. The members of the Task Force include judges, parent advocates, government officials, court personnel, legal service providers, academics and concerned citizens.

NYCLA hopes that its Task Force will produce concrete proposals for improvements that can be implemented in the near future, at least as pilot projects. Although Family Court resources are scarce, the Task Force will strive to identify reforms that will increase productivity - either by increasing efficiency or by decreasing caseload by diverting matters that are not really appropriate Family Court cases.


Ann B. Lesk