In the courtroom of opinion about the level of staffing at New York City Family Court, people all around the child welfare system have reached a unanimous verdict on the need to expand the ranks of judges charged with overseeing everything from abuse and neglect evaluations to paternity hearings.

So when a bill (S5968) promising to add 21 new family court judges to key areas throughout the state – including seven in New York City – was passed out of the state Senate earlier this fall, many child welfare advocates became optimistic that January would bring the first expansion in the number of family court judges since 1991.

“We feel really excited that the senate took the leadership it took in passing the bill in a bipartisan way,” says Stephanie Gendell, the associate executive director for policy and public affairs at the Citizens’ Committee for Children.

In New York City especially, says Gendell, “there’s been a crisis in terms of the need for more judges for years.” The legislative sponsors – Senator John Sampson and Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein – are chairs of their respective houses’ judiciary committees. They’re also both from Brooklyn, which, next to Manhattan, saw the highest number of filings in family court between January and June of this year, and the city’s family court system as a whole has seen more than 118,000 case filings in that period.

“Without adequate new judgeships to hear Family Court’s surging dockets, children and families can wait too long for hearings, jeopardizing the quality of justice and quality of life for many thousands of vulnerable New Yorkers each year,” Sampson said in a statement. The city’s family courts are on pace to log 1.5 million appearances for various court proceedings by the end of this year, according to his office.

Although Sampson is hopeful that the bill will next be passed out of the assembly and signed by the governor this year, the state’s current fiscal climate hardly makes the likelihood of adding nearly two dozen more judges statewide a done deal.

“Against the backdrop of budget cuts … it’s not an easy time to ask for legislation that asks for money,” says Melissa Beck, the CEO of Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT), an advocacy group that helps people who don’t have attorneys to navigate the family court system.

Gov. Paterson’s office would not comment on a bill pending in the assembly.

Assemblywoman Weinstein estimates the bill will cost the state close to $20 million, although she also points out that the Office of Court Administration would be prepared to absorb some of the bill’s cost were it to be implemented this year, avoiding any effect to the state’s current budget.

Weinstein also noted that any family court judges appointed by the mayor would have to go before a screening committee and be vetted before being placed on the bench, a process that could take several months.

Increasing the number of family court judges could actually be a cost-saving measure over the long term, according to Gendell, because faster judicial processing would help to reduce the cost of keeping a child in the city’s foster care system, where she says the median length of stay can be up to four years.

“New York recently failed the federal Child and Family Services Review based in part on the extremely long periods of time New York’s children spend growing up in foster care,” she added. In that federal review, released in March, New York’s child welfare system ranked 42nd out of 47 ranked states for the time it takes for children to return home from foster care, and 44th out of 47 ranked states in the length of time it took for children to be adopted.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Former New York Chief Judge Judith Kaye says that when the family court system was first conceived in the early 1960s, “the idea was that the family courts would provide better, more efficient services to children.”

But as Albany has expanded the role of family court, in ways ranging from the establishment of permanency planning hearings for children in foster care, to the expansion of orders of protection that can be filed for intimate partners in addition to married ones, the infrastructure hasn’t always been able to keep up. (An issue of Child Welfare Watch last year explored this in detail.)

And because of the nature of abuse and neglect proceedings, which have to be heard as soon as possible in order to give accused parents the benefit of a prompt trial, the squeeze on judges’ current capacity can often hamstring other types of proceedings.

“The longer you delay adding judges, the longer families will have to wait to have their neglect matters adjudicated because removal decisions have to be made on a day-to-day basis,” explains Ronald Richter, a Queens family court judge and former deputy commissioner at the Administration for Children’s Services.

“The family court, by virtue of not having enough judges, turns into an emergency kind of court … because the limited number of judges you have must be used to decide emergencies and the neglect and abuse trials,” Richter said.

For the period between January and June of this year, 203 foster care placement and review cases were disposed by the city’s family court, compared with 6,374 abuse and neglect dispositions.

James Purcell, CEO of the statewide Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, believes there is a double standard at play in the tolerance of a backlog for family court cases, because lower-income families are among those most likely to be brought into court to answer to abuse and neglect indications or make petitions to reunify with their children.

“Imagine a middle-class family where a child was taken, and months and months later the final decision has not been made by the court on whether that event [which led to a child’s removal] is valid in the first place,” Purcell said. “I can’t imagine that that would be acceptable in our society if middle-class and upper-class families were treated that way.”

For former Chief Judge Kaye, who recalls having a conversation with the architect of the newly-built Queens family courthouse on how the building was designed around people having to spend long wait times to see judges, the reality of packed waiting rooms for family courts throughout the city is “heartbreaking.”

“I realize these are terrible times, it’s not something we don’t know, but still there have to be priorities for our limited resources – and this is a priority.”

– Nekoro Gomes