COURTING TROUBLE: FAMILY COURT
OVERWHELMED WITH NEW CASES

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It was 5 p.m. on Friday and Family Court Judge Lee Elkins still had six more cases to see. Attorneys clustered in the back of his Brooklyn courtroom, scribbling in their files. A young caseworker looked petrified as she raised her right hand to be sworn in.

The brutal death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown is taking a dramatic toll on the city’s already overburdened Family Court system. Exhausted judges, lawyers, clerks and court officers are struggling to keep up with the workload—and prevent another deadly mistake.

In the week starting January 12, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) logged 1,848 reports of suspected abuse or neglect and removed 146 children from their parents. On January 19 alone, 44 cases were filed by ACS, compared to 12 on the same day in 2005.

For attorneys, who carry caseloads of 80-110 each, that means scrambling to pull together new evidence, while reviewing existing cases for missed signs of danger. “Our people are working harder than ever,” said Ronald Richter, head of ACS’ Division of Family Court Legal Services, adding that he planned to meet with senior managers this week to discuss the issue.

Tamara Steckler, attorney-in-charge of the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society, which represents children, wasn’t surprised by the increase. High-profile incidents like Brown’s death always provoke a flood of reports, she explained. “It was pretty much the writing on the wall once this case came into being,” she said. “Whether or not all these cases need to be in court remains to be seen.”

The fear, said Steckler, is that new removals, which require immediate hearings, could clog the system and delay the regular court dates scheduled for other parents seeking to reunify with their children. “The [removal hearings] have priority,” she said. “So they would effectively bump other cases to future dates.”

Meanwhile, the courts are also wrestling with the burden of the Governor’s Permanency Law, new state legislation enacted last month that requires periodic updates for every open case. That one-two punch is “having a devastating effect on the Family Court calendar,” said Manhattan Judge Jody Adams. “We’re not removing any cases, only adding them. Just consider the chaos that is causing.”

Family Court Administrative Judge Joseph Lauria is confident the judges can handle the onslaught, particularly if they review cases in advance and encourage out-of-court conferences. “We take a very calm and methodical approach,” he said. “If we keep our heads, we’ll see this through.”

Richter seemed to agree. “Since this is the first week we have encountered the surge in filings,” he said, “we are not convinced it will continue indefinitely.”

Yet some parents say ACS has already gone overboard in its effort to protect itself from blame. Barbara Johnson, 41, said she was arrested and briefly jailed for drug possession in October. But it wasn’t until a few days after Brown’s death on January 11 that ACS came knocking on her door. The agency removed her five children a few days later, placing them with their grandmother. “It’s all because of that girl that died,” said Johnson. “I think my case must have been sitting on someone’s desk for months.”

That’s just the problem, said Judge Elkins. “I’m not seeing an overreaction,” he said. “I’m seeing cases I should be seeing.” In fact, as caseworkers appeared before him, he often seemed irritated by their prior inaction. In one case, for example, a report on a malnourished baby called in by a hospital on December 25 had been virtually ignored for nearly a month. In another, ACS had provided preventive services to a beleaguered mother of six, but couldn’t explain why she wasn’t on public assistance.

Lawyers in Brooklyn Family Court describe Elkins as a model judge, one who carefully weighs each case on its own merits. They even joke about buying him Friday night theater tickets so he won’t keep them at court so late.

But even Elkins has a breaking point. “You can’t just institute change without providing the infrastructure,” he said, referring to the new state law. The whole system, he said, needs more resources to function well. “If you want judges to consider on a case by case basis, they need to have time to make good decisions.”

–Cassi Feldman