Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Are Budget Cuts Creating Hardship for Our Children?

“The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world.” - Charles Dickens

It is no surprise that there have been severe budget cuts in New York State’s court system in the last fiscal year. Most of them came in May of 2011, some followed in the Fall and others in December.

The New York Law Journal’s article on January 20 entitled “Family’s Plight Illustrates Adverse Effect of Budget Cuts on Courts”, highlights the way in which children suffer as a result of the “system” where children end up getting removed from their parents by Child Services and linger in foster care because a judge’s hands are tied by time frames imposed as a result of budget cuts.

Current New York State budget cuts require courtrooms to close at 12:30 pm which is a half hour before the regularly scheduled lunch hour (usually 1 to 2) and at 4:30 in the afternoon, a half hour before the regularly scheduled closing time of 5:00 p.m. These time frames are enforced strictly to avoid overtime pay for court personnel and judges are required to adhere to the schedule. Therefore, at 12:30 or 4:30 if lawyers are “on the record” and even if a person is in the midst of a sentence, the judge is required to stop the proceeding and adjourn the case.

This seemingly “minor” change can result in dire consequences for families and children, who are forced to be parties in the Family Court system. The absurdity of the process was clearly demonstrated by a recent Brooklyn family court case, which involved a 7 year old boy, Jesse Lugo, his sisters and his parents, who were living in a homeless shelter. On Dec 8, the father was badly beaten by three men in the shelter and according to the police report, he was taken by ambulance to King’s County Hospital where he was treated for multiple injuries. The mother was not at the shelter at the time and was not expected back.

The three children who are 7, 9 and 14 were left without adult supervision, so the police took them to a residence in Manhattan for children who are waiting for placement in foster homes. They remained there overnight. The following day, child welfare workers from the New York City Administration for Children Services (ACS) filed a neglect case in family court against the parents. When ACS files a neglect case, the agency usually has reason to believe that the children have been neglected or mistreated by their parents. Here, ACS assumed that since the father was in the hospital and the mother was not at the shelter but presumably at a drug rehab facility, the 3 children had been neglected.

The case came before a judge at 3:45 PM on Friday, December 9. The judge was already trying to juggle two other neglect cases, one of which required a translator, so he gathered all the lawyers and reminded them that the courtroom had to close at 4:30 to avoid overtime. This particular case, was called at about 4:15 but at that hour the judge said he wouldn’t be able to handle the case and it would have to be held over until Monday. The ACS attorney asked for an order authorizing the children to remain in their care, away from the parents for the weekend. The mother, in the meantime, told her lawyer that she was not in a drug rehab but she was actually at that time serving 3 days at Riker’s island for failing to report for community service as a result of a year old subway turnstile jumping case.

Unfortunately, on Monday all seven judges assigned to hear neglect cases were supposed to be in a training session so the case was adjourned to Tuesday, December 13. At 4:29 PM, the judge ordered the children to remain in the care of ACS. As a result of this ruling, over the weekend and until Tuesday, the 7 year-old was sent to one foster home and his sisters, who are older, were sent to another. The children remained separated from their parents and from each other for the next 4 days. When the case reconvened on Dec 13, ACS changed its mind and asserted that the children could now return to the parents.

Unfortunately, this nearly Dickensian saga has not been a single unusual occurrence. Rather, the bureaucratic failings and deficiencies of an already broken ACS system have now been exacerbated by the time frames imposed as a result of another bureaucratic deal, - between State government and unions.

The poor victims of this particular case, the children, were already in the shelter, and instead of helping them, our system served to traumatize them even more. They were removed from their parents, put in a temporary foster situation, then, even worse - separated from each other and put in two separate foster homes for 4 days, after which our illustrious ACS came back and said OK you can now return to your parents and be united with your family. Will the government then pay for therapy that these children will need to get over their ordeal? Incredible!

Sadly, results of this kind are all too common. The only difference now is that as a result of strict time frames in the courts, the children are likely to linger much longer awaiting decisions on their lives. Before, conscientious judges would keep their courtrooms open until 7:30 or 8 PM or even work as late as 11 to ensure that the children’s needs were appropriately met. Unfortunately, this is no longer happening. They are calling it a culture change, but I think it is a lot more severe than that. It’s understandable from my perspective that there is a financial piece and there are budget cuts and union rules, but the effect of such cut-backs in Family Courts falls on the most vulnerable members of our society, - our children. The purpose of Family Courts is to act in the best interests of children and not let them get lost amid the power struggle between State government and Unions. Something urgently needs to be done.

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1 comment:

  1. This was a wonderful piece and I could not agree more with you on this one. Sometimes I feel that they also rush to judge and dont see the bigger picture of some things as well but thats just my opinion.