Family Courts Overwhelmed With Juvenile Rights Cases
02/22/2008 06:10 PM
The abuse and murder of seven-year-old Nixzmary Brown in 2006 prompted reform at the city's welfare agency, but all this extra attention has ended up delaying justice for thousands of children. NY1's Criminal Justice reporter Solana Pyne filed the following report on what some call a crisis in the city's Family Courts.
Copyright © 2008 NY1 News
Legal Aid attorney Jamien Weddle talks to a teenage client, one of 193 children he represents in Family Court. And while that might sound like a lot, his boss, Amanda White, says his caseload is among the lowest in the Bronx juvenile rights practice, where attorneys represent an average of 230 children at a time.
"We have attorneys with as many as 400 clients," said White.
In the past two years, the filings of abuse and neglect have more than doubled, a spike linked to the death of Nixzmary Brown. Her stepfather and mother are charged with beating and torturing the girl for several months before eventually killing her.
Tamara Steckler, in charge of Legal Aid's juvenile rights practice citywide, says the spike affects more than just attorney caseload.
"The fact that judges, calendars are overcrowded affects my staff," said Steckler. "They can't get cases called. They can't get hearings done. You know, when everyone is overwhelmed, the system just does not function well."
Further straining the system is a December 2005 law requiring more hearings for children who are removed from their home. There are few options to relieve the pressure, as the number of Family Court judges in the city is fixed by state law.
Despite repeated requests by the state's chief judge, the number has remained fixed at 47-- a number that has not changed since 1991.
"Everyone who works in this system is heroic in the way that they're able to deal, and actually accomplish so much with the obstacles that we face, these relentless growing calendars," said Family Court Chief Administrative Judge Joseph Lauria.
Judges frequently hear more than 50 cases a day. Parents and children often wait six months between court dates. A recent report said the delays mean children spend 40-percent longer in foster care.
In the years since Nixzmary Brown's death, the city has invested in reforming the Administration for Children's Services. But the state's done comparatively little to help an increasingly overburdened Family Court system.
"It's a tragedy and it's absolutely unnecessary," said City Councilman Bill de Blasio, chairman of the City Council General Welfare Committee. "I mean, this is something that everyone agrees can be fixed, should be fixed, and is fixable, but there's not the political will in Albany to do it."
Leaving those who are suffering the most as a result, the city's most vulnerable.
- Solana Pyne