The sound of sighs and fingers tapping on computer keys could be heard because the Manhattan Family Court was empty — a rare circumstance reserved for off-times like this late Friday afternoon with an hour left before closing.
When asked if the cases have been moving quicker in the Court these days, Judge Douglas Hoffman says, “We had 41 cases today. On a Friday at 4 p.m.? Yes. During the week? No.”
Nine additional judgeships were added to the New York City Family Court system in 2015, increasing the total number of judges in the city from 47 to 56. This was part of a 2014 bill passed in the New York State Senate to establish 25 new Family Court judgeships in the state, allocating $5 million in funding.
Though the increase is a signal of progress, changes have been slow — it is the first addition of judgeships for NYC Family Court since 1990. Despite increased caseloads, the total number of judges for NYC hadn’t budged until last year.
“You still see strains in the ability to schedule timely testimonies,” says Jess Dannhauser, President and CEO of Graham Windham, a non-profit that provides foster care, family and youth services.
According to a report by the New York State Bar Association, from 1994 to 2014 no new judgeships were created, but there was a 23 percent increase in NYC Family Court filings during the period. Pending cases increased from 2014 to 2015 as well, according to the NYC Family Court Strategic Plan published in December 2015.
“We’ve got increased caseloads and they have to deal with those challenges. The judges are trying, but they’re up against resource issues,” says Andrew Schepard, Hofstra University Law Professor.
By the end of 2015, Mayor de Blasio filled all 17 vacancies, which includes the nine additional positions and an extra eight that opened up due to family court judges retiring. According to NYC Family Court Administrative Judge Jeanette Ruiz, the positive impact of the additional judges is already noticeable.
“The addition of nine new judges has reduced the pending caseload per judge from 525 cases in the beginning of 2015 to around 470 cases today,” Ruiz says.
The reduction in individual judges’ caseloads is significant, but the long-awaited change still leaves room for improvement.
“Adding nine judges helps, but there’s a long way to go until Family Court is resourced the way it needs to be resourced,” says Tami Steckler, Juvenile Rights Practice Attorney for the Legal Aid Society.
It’s vital for Family Court cases to move at a reasonable pace because as Stephanie Gendell puts it, “With kids, time is different.”
Gendell, Associate Director for Policy and Government Relations at the Citizen’s Committee for Children, co-chaired the New York State Coalition for More Family Court Judges, the advocacy effort that succeeded in getting the nine additional judges allocated to NYC Family Court.
“We were concerned about the delay,” she says. “The challenges family courts face in general is the cases that come before it are some of the most important cases that come to court.”
Thus, since complex cases come with the nature of family court, it takes time for judges to get decisions right.
“Courts have tried to be creative in scheduling cases and also to expedite cases, but the speed of cases should not be the sole measure,” Steckler says.
Educational plans for students in juvenile justice courts within NYC Family Court are just one example of an area where it’s important for courts to take the time to get it right. Dawn Yuster, School Justice Project Director for Advocates for Children of New York, has worked with students with behavioral or educational special needs who were on probation. She says that some couldn’t access appropriate schooling because the conditions of their probation inadvertently limited the special education options.
“It’s really important that when family court judges are looking at dispositions possible for students that they really take into account their educational needs. From our experience, sometimes family court dispositions don’t always align with the needs of students,” Yuster says.
Other efforts to get cases moving
The efficiency of filings is another area that the Family Court is working to improve. Ruiz says that the Family Court has revaluated how they “assist unrepresented litigants with filing their petitions.”
For example, the number of Do It Yourself (DIY) filings in which people can fill out forms online has increased by 76 percent over the past year. This, Ruiz explains, decreases the time people have to wait to be interviewed to file petitions.
Aside from speed, another area of progress lies in the quality of how cases are handled. One program informed by developmental research called Strong Starts works on improving outcomes for infants in the Bronx County Family Court. Psychologist Susan Chinitz helped plan and then launch the initiative in July 2015.
She says, “One of the major goals is to bring expertise on developmental psychology to the family courts . . . Given their numbers in the child welfare system and how vulnerable they are at their age, this is important. It’s a partnership between judges and experts.”
The hallmark of the Strong Starts program is the addition of an infant coordinator, trained in child development, to the case team. One infant coordinator just started in Queens County Family Court and the second infant coordinator for the Bronx Family Court is in training.
According to Chinitz, cases have gone quicker since Strong Starts has been up and running in the Bronx. There have been five cases of babies obtaining permanency within one year, meaning that their case was resolved and the baby reached a set living situation.
Since the program is new, it is currently funded by private foundation money. Chinitz, however, believes that Strong Starts will have to receive government funding in the future in order for the program to sustain itself over the long-term.
Additional judges and other reform efforts like Strong Starts are increasing the efficiency and quality of family court, but it will likely take more time and funding for outcomes to improve extensively and permanently for families in this court system.
“My understanding is that things have definitely improved, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” Gendell says.
Late Friday afternoons aside, NYC Family Courts remain incredibly busy. But, Gendell puts it in another way; “The magnitude of how important the court is is also one of its barriers.”
Who the new judges are
Elizabeth Barnett, Kings County (Brooklyn)
Tracey Bing, Bronx County
Jacqueline Deane, Kings County (Brooklyn)
Peter DeLizzo, Richmond County (Staten Island)
Alicea Elloras, Kings County (Brooklyn)
Adetokunbo Fasanya, New York County (Manhattan)
Carol Goldstein, New York County (Manhattan)
Alma Gomez, Bronx County
Connie Gonzalez, Queens County
Karen Lupuloff, New York County (Manhattan)
Michael Milsap, Bronx County
Margaret Morgan, Kings County (Brooklyn)
Erik Pitchal, Kings County (Brooklyn)
Fiordaliza Rodriguez, Bronx County
Monica Shulman, New York County (Manhattan)
Gilbert Taylor, Bronx County
Javier Vargas, Kings County (Brooklyn)