In a drab waiting area on the fifth floor of Manhattan Family Court, a 6-year-old boy danced among the wooden benches and two strangers wrangled over custody schedules as Natasha, 39, stared plaintively at a closed courtroom door.
At 9 that morning, Natasha had arrived for a scheduled juvenile delinquency hearing for her 12-year-old son. Six and a half hours later, her name still had not been called. Every hour felt like an eternity. The delay had cost Natasha a day’s wages and prolonged her son’s stay in a juvenile detention center, she said.
“Just waiting in the wings for your fate to be decided is really unnerving,” said Natasha, who would not provide her last name because she did not want to draw attention to her son and his case. “I’m praying for help.”
In recent years, long delays have become the norm in family courts across New York State. Soaring caseloads and a stagnant supply of judges have so strained the system that children remain in foster care far longer than they need to as cases are postponed again and again, child welfare advocates said.
As part of the most serious effort in decades to mend a broken system, the new state budget provided funding to add 20 new family court judges, a step lawmakers said would alleviate the judges’ caseloads and better protect marginalized families.
But in a frustrating turn for advocates, regional squabbles over how to disperse the new judges have threatened to stymie an agreement, or at least delay one for so long that the judicial system may have to scramble to fill the vacancies.
Given the magnitude of family courts’ responsibilities, the political dithering “is really sad,” said Cynthia Godsoe, a former lawyer for children and youths who now teaches at Brooklyn Law School. After children spend 18 of the last 24 months in foster care, a parents’ rights can be terminated, she said, regardless of how infrequently an overburdened judge is able to hold hearings.
“We’re talking about ‘do you ever see your children again’ type decisions,” she said.
But, Ms. Godsoe added, problems with family courts have long been ignored because the affected families are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic and many of them live in poverty. Divorce cases, which encompass a broader population, are handled by the better-staffed State Supreme Court.
“Family court is really the poor people’s court,” she said. “If you had legislators who had to wait a million years to get their divorce through, this wouldn’t happen.”
Political inertia, combined with the state’s recent fiscal woes, has kept reform efforts on the back burner, even as recent legislation aimed at protecting victims of domestic violence and shortening children’s stays in foster care has expanded family court judges’ responsibilities.
No new judgeships have been added to the New York City family court since 1991. Since 1998, only four family court judgeships were created in the rest of the state.
During that same time, new laws have taken effect requiring judges to hold more frequent hearings to monitor children in foster care, and have also expanded the definition of intimate partners who could seek orders of protection.
Over 715,000 filings were made in state family courts in 2011, according to a 2013 New York State Bar Association report, a caseload spread over 149 family court judges statewide. Over a quarter of those same filings were still pending when the courts reopened for business in 2012.
A family court judge in Ulster County, Anthony McGinty, said his annual load of 2,300 cases means that children get stuck in limbo as custody battles drag on. As a result of increased vigilance around child abuse, he said, “a system that was already groaning under the weight of too many cases and too few judges is really under terrible strain.”
Responding to a push from the state’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, and a spirited campaign by a coalition of over 100 advocacy groups across New York, lawmakers sought to change that this year by allocating an additional $5 million to family courts in the budget, enough for 20 new judges.
But it remained the responsibility of legislators to disperse the judges across the state. Earlier this month, the State Assembly passed a bill that would place nine new family court judges in New York City and 11 in other counties, after a recommendation by the Office of Court Administration. The city’s family courts have 47 judges to handle about 250,000 filings a year.
That proposal did not sit well with some Republicans in the State Senate, whose constituencies largely reside in upstate districts. Proposed legislation in the Senate would add three new family court judges to upstate counties at the start of 2016.
“It certainly doesn’t do much for my area,” Senator Betty Little, a Republican whose district covers six counties upstate, said of the Assembly bill, explaining that some upstate counties have a single judge whose duties are split between family court and elsewhere.
Behind closed doors, lawmakers are rushing to negotiate an agreement by the end of the legislative session this week. The sticking point, said Assemblywoman Helene E. Weinstein, a Brooklyn Democrat, is how many additional judges should be added to which upstate counties for 2016. Both Ms. Weinstein and Sheldon Silver, speaker of the Assembly and a Manhattan Democrat, have expressed optimism that a deal would emerge early this week.
While advocates are heartened to see the topic on Albany’s agenda, they remain concerned that an agreement will not be reached before budget funding expires at the end of the month. Adding to the urgency is the fact that family court judges in counties outside New York City are elected. (In the city, the mayor appoints them.) The petitioning process for candidates is already underway, putting judicial aspirants behind schedule in collecting signatures, though final legislation could extend the petition period or reduce the number of signatures needed.
Gerald Benjamin, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz, described the dispute as a symptom of long-running regional tensions in the state, pitting upstate Republican constituencies against Democratic constituencies in New York City. Democrats control the Assembly, while the Senate is controlled by Republicans and a breakaway group of Democrats.
In Manhattan Family Court, where several dozen people waited for hearings late into a recent Friday afternoon, Natasha’s face hardened as others were called. Her son, she said, “has never been exposed to stuff like this, so I’m a little bit afraid for him.”
Natasha walked over to a row of windows in the waiting room, pressed her nose against the glass and clasped her hands tightly in her lap.
An article in some editions on Monday about problems New York State has encountered in its effort to reduce the backlog of family court cases described incorrectly the limitations of New York City’s family court system. No new positions for judges have been created for the court since 1991; it is not the case that no new judges have been appointed.