Family Justice

In 1997, the number of family matters filed in our court system reached record highs, with more than 655,000 cases filed in Family Court and nearly 68,000 matrimonial matters filed in Supreme Court.

The numbers, of course, tell only part of the story. Family law cases can present some of the most difficult decisions a judge can be asked to make. Which parent should have custody of this child? Should a child be placed in foster care due to the parents' neglect? Should this marriage be dissolved? Will adoption serve this child's best interests? Severe social problems - drug addiction, for example, or family violence - may complicate already difficult legal issues. And the effectiveness of the court's resolution may ultimately depend upon the functioning of complex and overburdened social service systems - like the child welfare system - that have many "players" besides the court.

To better meet the challenges posed by this important segment of its caseload, in 1997 the court system launched its "Family Justice Program," a comprehensive set of initiatives designed to make the courts that deal with family issues more open, more accessible and more effective. Highlights of the major components of the Program follow.

Expanding Access to the Family Court

Charged with resolving some of society's most vexing problems, the Family Court is one of the least known tribunals in our court system. Although State law has long provided that the court is presumptively open, due to the sensitive nature of issues within this court's jurisdiction, Family Court judges also have the authority to exclude the public from many of its proceedings. In practice, closure of proceedings has been commonplace, hampering public understanding of this court's difficult and important work.

In September 1997, the court system revised its own rules to strike a better balance between the public's interest in access to the court and individual litigants' interests in maintaining privacy. Under the new rules, public access to Family Court is the rule, with closure authorized only when the evidence in a particular case indicates it is necessary. With greater access, the public should have better insight into the challenges facing the court and be better able to judge the effectiveness of the public agencies that play such an important role in the court's child protective, juvenile justice and family violence caseload.

In addition to expanding access for the public at large, the Family Justice Program also seeks to expand access for individual litigants seeking the services of the Family Court. To better accommodate those litigants with work or child care responsibilities, the Kings County Family Court began twice-a-week Night Court sessions for the filing of family offense, custody and visitation matters and for the hearing of child support cases. A Queens County Family Court Satellite Office was also opened, where self-represented litigants can seek temporary orders of protection through a video link to the main courthouse.

New York City Family Court's "Adoption 2100"

For children in foster care whose birth parents cannot or will not provide appropriate care, adoption is their best hope for a permanent and stable home. Yet thousands of New York City's foster children have lingered in foster care limbo - sometimes for years - while they waited for the fragmented child welfare system to secure the permanent homes they needed and deserved.

In April 1997, the New York City Family Court challenged all the participants involved in the adoption process to work together to make the system as a whole perform better. The court proposed a concrete goal: finalizing 1,700 foster care adoptions within a three-month period ending June 30, 1997.

The goal proposed was ambitious - more than double the number of adoptions completed within the comparable time frame in 1996 - and the Family Court knew that it could only be attained through system-wide cooperation. By statute, all adoption petitions must include more than a dozen reports and documents (such as home studies, medical reports and child abuse clearances) that must be prepared by various agencies and individuals before the court can even begin its work.

But the challenge was met - through an intensive investment of court resources and increased coordination among all the players. Indeed, by the end of the target period, the court had actually completed 2,100 adoptions, and so the initiative that had been originally announced as "Adoption 1700" was renamed "Adoption 2100."

Adoption 2100 is one of several initiatives seeking to speed the permanency process for New York City's foster children. Other efforts include dedicated parts for the review of the status of children who have been freed for adoption but not yet adopted and new procedures to promote the filing of adoption petitions immediately after the entry of an order terminating the birth parent's parental rights.

Family Drug Treatment Courts

Drug abuse is a factor in a large number of child neglect cases filed in some of our urban Family Courts. Traditionally, these matters have been handled like any other child protective case: the court adjudicates the charges and closes the case with a dispositional order directing the child protective agency to provide services to reunite the family. But often these overburdened agencies are ill equipped to deal with cases involving chronic substance abuse - and that can lengthen the amount of time children spend in foster care and reduce their chances of returning to their birth parents.

In 1997, the court system began to ask whether a new approach might not yield better outcomes. Drawing on the experience of the criminal Drug Treatment Courts, a Family Drug Treatment Court was proposed - where parents would be promptly assessed for substance abuse issues, referred to treatment and their progress rigorously monitored by a court-based case management team.

The first pilot Family Drug Treatment Court opened in Suffolk County Family Court in December 1997 with Judge Nicolette M. Pach presiding. In March 1998, a second pilot - under the direction of Judge Gloria Sosa-Lintner - opened in Manhattan Family Court. The goal of these experimental parts is to ensure that drug addicted parents receive appropriate services and encouragement to rehabilitate themselves within reasonable time frames so that their children do not languish for years in the foster care system.

The parents who come before the Suffolk County Family Drug Treatment Court have been charged with neglecting their children and substance abuse has been identified as a contributing factor in the neglect. The Court has a dual mission: encouraging the parent to become and remain clean and sober and assuring that the child is protected and in a permanent home as soon as possible.

The Court officially opened in December after an extensive planning period. We have already been rewarded for our hard work: the first mother in the program entered willingly, saying as she went out of the courtroom for her assessment interview, "this is just the help I've been trying to get for a long time." We are also already able to identify common difficulties in the families. I have been struck by the persistence of unstable housing and have been getting an education in the area of emergency and temporary housing. The issues being raised in our cases will keep our community-based steering committee busy helping us find solutions.

Hon. Nicolette M. Pach


Combating Domestic Violence

While thankfully no longer a subject hidden from the public eye, domestic violence unfortunately continues to be a leading cause of injury to women in New York State. With heightened attention to the issue, victims are increasingly turning to the courts for protection and safety. The 1997 Family Justice Program included several measures to improve the courts' ability to respond to these growing demands.

To test new approaches to handling family offense matters, a pilot Family Court Domestic Violence Part was established in Manhattan. In the Part, victim advocates assist self-represented litigants at all stages of the proceeding, from drafting the petition to providing service referrals that may be essential to ensure the petitioner's return to court. Respondent referrals to batterers' programs and substance abuse treatment are also emphasized. Preliminary figures revealed that "failure to appear" rates in the Part were about half the typical rate, indicating that petitioners in the Part were much more likely to pursue the case to a disposition on the merits. Drawing on these lessons, additional dedicated Parts will be implemented this year.

On the technology front, the court system continued expansion of its Domestic Violence Registry, a Statewide database of orders of protection and warrants issued in domestic violence cases that may be accessed by designated law enforcement and court personnel. Receiving over 300 transmittals daily from approximately 1,350 courts across the State, the Registry has logged in over 270,000 orders since its start-up in October 1995. In June 1997, a new application of the system was introduced so that judges could more quickly access Registry information via the Unified Court System"s "CourtNet" intranet system.

In recognition of New York's leadership in developing new approaches to combat domestic violence, the United States Department of Justice awarded a grant to the court system and the State Division of Criminal Justice Services to convene a conference on interstate enforcement and technology issues. At the November 1997 conference, representatives of nine Northeastern states discussed implementation of the "full faith and credit" mandate of the Federal Violence Against Women Act as well as technological innovations, like New York's Domestic Violence Registry, that can facilitate implementation of the federal law.

Our Family Violence Task Force, co-chaired by Third Department Presiding Justice Anthony V. Cardona and Justice Sondra Miller of the Appellate Division, Second Department, entered its third year of working to improve understanding of domestic violence issues throughout the court system. At the 1997 judicial education seminars, the Task Force presented a three-hour training program built on an interactive hypothetical case involving domestic violence issues in matrimonial, criminal and Family Court proceedings. The Task Force also conducted sessions throughout the year at the training seminars convened for newly elected and appointed judges, for court attorneys and for court clerks.

Streamlining Matrimonial Litigation

In November 1996, the court system announced the appointment of the Hon. Jacqueline Silbermann to the newly created Statewide post of Administrative Judge for Matrimonial Matters. With strong Statewide leadership in place, the court system worked throughout 1997 to make matrimonial litigation less costly, less painful and more fair to all litigants.

In counties with high caseload volume, dedicated matrimonial parts can help ensure consistency and expertise in the handling of these often complex matters. The number of such parts is now approaching 30, operating in 10 counties across the State. In New York County, special Matrimonial Enforcement Parts have been established to ensure that emergency motions to enforce maintenance and support orders are promptly heard without disrupting trials of pending matters. Staffed by judges of the Supreme Court, Criminal Branch, the very existence of the Enforcement Parts sends a message that matrimonial orders are taken seriously and violations will be swiftly addressed.

The court system also continued to explore new case processing methods to expedite divorce litigation. In Westchester County, for example, a pilot Differentiated Case Management program is underway, with cases assigned to one of three "tracks" - each with its own time frame for completion of discovery and motion practice - depending upon the complexity of the matter. Several Alternative Dispute Resolution pilots are also underway, such as those in New York and Nassau Counties, which feature non-binding early neutral evaluation to help parties conduct informed and realistic settlement discussions.

The lack of uniformity among the counties in filing requirements for matrimonial actions has long been a source of confusion and delay for attorneys filing uncontested divorces for their clients and for self-represented litigants. To address this problem, a single set of forms - usable throughout the State - has been developed, along with a booklet giving line-by-line instructions for completing the forms. These Uncontested Matrimonial Packets are available in both hard copy and computer disk format, as well as on the court system 's website. Without doubt, the need for this initiative was real: in the first three weeks after the forms became available on-line, over 6,500 copies were downloaded.

Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children

Co-chaired by the Chief Judge and Professor Ellen Schall, the Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children has helped make New York home to the nation's only Statewide system of cheerful, welcoming court-based Children's Centers. The Children's Center - now 22 strong - provide quality drop-in child care for litigants as well as links to services such as early childhood health, educational and nutritional benefits that may help families in crisis resolve the problems that have brought them to court. In 1997, the Centers served more than 40,000 children and connected more than 500 families to Head Start and other services. In addition to the Children's Centers, the Commission is presently implementing the State Court Improvement Project, a four-year federally funded effort to assess and improve foster care, termination of parental rights and adoption proceedings.

More information about these and other family justice initiatives can be found in two recent reports issued by the New York State Unified Court System: Family Justice Program (April 1997) and Family Justice Program Phase 2 (February 1998). Both are available from the Office of Court Administration as well as on the courts' website.