How bad has the pandemic been for the most vulnerable children in this city? A new report of the extreme dysfunction in the city’s family court system should appall our leaders and provoke public outrage.
Accordingly the study conducted by the New York City Bar Association and the Fund for Modern Courts, thousands of families have had to wait additional months, if not years, for decisions on child abuse determinations, visitation, adoption, domestic violence, foster care and termination of parental rights. Women with domestic violence complaints found they could not leave their abusive boyfriend because there was no court available to seek child support. Adopting a child took 15 months instead of three. A custodial father was prevented from seeing his two-year-old son for eight months after the mother refused to return the boy after a visit.
The report concludes, “At a time of crisis, when the vulnerable populations who routinely appear in family courts needed the most help, the courthouse doors have been largely closed.” As have the people who run our schools and our youth services , it seems clear that the family court system puts the comfort of adults ahead of the needs of children.
But, of course, the family courts crisis began long before COVID. The report found that before the pandemic, there were 56 family judges responsible for handling more than 200,000 cases a year. According to a 2013 report by the New York State Bar Association, more than 715,000 cases were filed in state family courts in 2011, and more than a quarter were pending as of 2012.
These cases seem never-ending, and they seem to run on adult timelines, not children. For example, a few years ago, during a visit to Queens Family Court, I witnessed an alleged hearing in a custody battle involving child abuse. As I wrote: “For approximately 15 minutes, the father, sister, their respective attorneys, the ACS case officer, the attorney representing ACS, the child’s attorney and the assisting judge waited for the mother to show up.
“When she finally arrived with her court-appointed solicitor, he announced that she had decided to hire her own solicitor – but the new solicitor would be on holiday for the next two weeks. The court’s attorney produced a letter to that effect and then apologized. So ten parties had gathered, taking half an hour of the lawyers’ time and the assistant judge’s time and the ACS worker’s time (on a public basis) and most of a day’s wages for the father (a construction worker) just for the Help the judge look at her calendar and the judge’s calendar and ask if everyone could come back – in two months.”
In her State of Justice address last month, Chief Justice Janet DiFiore said proposed sweeping changes in court, including increasing the number of judges and doubling the salaries of lawyers representing children and adults in need. They’re currently only being paid $75 an hour – a fee that doesn’t exactly attract the best and brightest our legal system has to offer. This is one of the reasons why many experts argue that the system is particularly unfair to poor parents who cannot afford their own representation.
DiFiore’s proposals have broad support. The website of a coalition of organizations that support them, including the Bronx Defenders and the Children’s Defense Fund, says that “the chronic case overload … is causing delays … and leading to multiple trials.”
The odd thing about these complaints, however, is that the same proponents are actually hoping for it in a different context more delays in court. There is currently a broad effort to repeal a federal law called the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which limits the time children can spend in foster care and requires states to relocate to end parental rights when children are in foster care for 15 years were the last 22 months.
Groups like the Bronx Defenders argue that we should increase the time children can spend in foster care to give parents more chances to clean up their crimes and regain custody of their children. But when children have to wait years for their biological parents, who are unwilling or unable to care for them – who repeatedly abuse and/or neglect them – it means they have to wait years before we give them a safe one , loving, permanent home with an adoptive family. The longer they are in the system, the older they are, the more traumatized they are and the less likely a successful adoption is.
Children’s lives should not be put on hold indefinitely by adults, whether because of a bureaucratic morass or activists with agendas of their own. The average time for a child in foster care in New York is almost 27 months (six months higher than the national average). How long should children have to wait for adults to do the right thing?
Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “No way to treat a child: How the foster care system, family courts and racist activists are destroying young lives.”
https://nypost.com/2022/03/26/how-the-pandemic-slowdown-in-court-devastated-nyc-kids-lives/ How the pandemic slowdown destroyed the lives of NYC children in court