The New York State Family Court was established in 1962, replacing the Children's Court and the Family Division of the Domestic Relations Court. The Family Court was given original jurisdiction over seven types of proceedings: neglect, support, paternity, termination of custody by reason of permanent neglect, juvenile delinquency and person-in-need-of-supervision (PINS), and family offenses. The Court also was authorized to hear support and custody applications in matrimonial actions referred from the Supreme Court, and petitions concerning services for children with developmental disabilities. In 1962, 95 Judges in the Family Court heard 96,000 cases, or slightly more than 1,000 cases annually.
Today, 263(1) Judges and Hearing Examiners hear over 670,000 cases filed annually in Family Court, or over 2,500 matters per judicial officer. These cases now include 20 types of proceedings. Moreover, the vast majority of litigants are self-represented or are assigned counsel because they lack funds to hire a private attorney.
These factors -- an overwhelming and increasing caseload, limited resources and many litigants without counsel -- too often result in prolonging cases or disrupting trial proceedings. The crush of cases means that Judges must assess cases quickly, without time for unhurried reflection or complete factual records. Indeed, a case may be concluded within minutes, so the Judge can move on to the average of 60 cases on his or her daily calendar. Disruptions also result from competing demands on attorneys who cover a multitude of different cases. The Family Court's current operational framework thus fails to ensure the expeditious resolution of cases with the resources at hand. All too often, it is the litigant who suffers.
The Unified Court System began to address these critical issues in April 1997, with the Family Justice Program. That program included many initiatives designed to improve the delivery of justice services to New York's families. Within New York City, the program established:
In June 1997, new rules were adopted to expand public access, including access by the media, to Family Court proceedings. These rules provide the citizenry with a window into the process by which difficult decisions affecting children and families are made, and open the court to public scrutiny and accountability. The rules provide safeguards that strike an appropriate balance between the public's right to know and the privacy interests of children and families who appear in court. The new openness of Family Court complements the initiatives of the Family Justice Program, making the Court accessible to litigants and the public.
These initiatives were the first steps in the court system's continuing pursuit of an efficient and effective Family Court. The New York City Family Court is now poised to take the next and vital step toward this goal, while Family Courts Statewide will be conducting pilot projects according to their particular needs throughout 1998.
During the months since the Family Justice Program was announced, the Unified Court System conducted an in-depth examination of Family Court operations. The analysis included consideration of recent legislative changes that will have an enormous impact on the number of cases filed, the processing of cases and the hearings that must be held -- for example, the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act requires the filing and processing of interstate support and paternity cases, and the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 mandates more frequent reviews of foster care proceedings in order to achieve permanency for children in shorter time frames.
Phase II of the Family Justice Program reaches into the heart of Family Court operations, focusing on case management, the organization and structure of support offices, the required data and information for specific types of cases, the time frames within which information must be provided to the Court, the services essential to the litigant and the most efficient methods of providing these services.
The modern case management, specialized treatment of cases and operational innovations set forth in Sections I, II and III of the text refer specifically to initiatives that will be implemented in the New York City Family Court. The initiatives set forth in Sections IV and V of the text will be implemented by the Family Courts outside New York City and by the Supreme Court.
I. Modern Case Management
The needs of the children and families arriving in ever-increasing numbers in Family Court mandate nothing less than a radical transformation of the way the Court conducts its business. Phase II of the Family Justice Program introduces specialized treatment of cases involving families and children -- an approach that has proven successful for criminal and civil cases. This approach, which is a departure from the existing system in which every Judge hears every type of case, creates a Court in which all of the resources -- Judges, support staff and data collection -- are focused on the functional needs of the individual case types.
This function-based case management system will have immediate and measurable benefits. Judges will become more familiar with the idiosyncracies of specific case types, and clerical support and data collection systems will be designed to meet the requirements of that case type. The back-office staff will gain expertise in expediting the case process for specific types of cases, and litigants will experience significantly fewer delays and adjournments. In the few instances in which litigants will have cases in more than one Division, Family Court will readily accommodate the family by assigning all of the cases to the Judge hearing the most critical matter.
This function-based approach is in stark contrast to the system in place for so many years. Currently, each Judge hears all 20 types of Family Court proceedings, including initial petitions, supplemental petitions alleging violations and seeking enforcement or modification of orders, and returns on warrants. In addition, many litigants appear seeking emergency relief and must be heard immediately. This process can wreak havoc on a trial part calendar, which averages up to 60 scheduled cases each day, resulting in disrupted trials and limited time to hear applications.
The problem of an unmanageable number of cases is compounded by the number of parties and participants involved in each case. A Family Court case rarely involves only a petitioner and a respondent. Most cases involve more than one respondent, children, counsel, interpreters and service providers such as probation, victim services and mental health services. All must be present to commence or continue a proceeding.
In addition, the parties and participants in Family Court proceedings are from agencies and offices that routinely appear in Court. These include The Legal Aid Society, Corporation Counsel, the Administration for Children's Services, the Office of Children and Family Services, and attorneys from the Law Guardian Panel and the 18-b Assigned Counsel Panel. On any given day, representatives of these agencies may have ten cases requiring their appearance in many different parts. As a result, Judges, counsel and service providers engage in a never-ending juggling act simply to coordinate all participants necessary to a single case.
These problems will only be exacerbated as the number of petitions filed annually in Family Court continues to rise. The number of cases filed from 1990 through 1997 forecasts what lies ahead:
Function-Based Court Parts
Due to the overwhelming caseload in the New York City Family Court today, the Individual Assignment System (IAS), in which one Judge hears all types of cases and all cases involving the same family, no longer fosters the most effective case management. Phase II of the Family Justice Program brings modern case management to the New York City Family Court, channeling the 20 disparate types of court proceedings into four specialized, complementary Family Court Divisions based on the nature of the proceeding:
In New York City, the function-based court parts in the New York County and Bronx County Family Courts will be operational in April 1998. The Kings County and Queens County Family Courts will follow in the Fall of 1998. Family Courts outside New York City will establish pilot programs throughout the year.
The New York City Family Court currently has a single intake, or assignment, part that processes new petitions on the day of filing. The Judge presiding in intake issues process and temporary orders where appropriate, and adjourns the matter to his or her trial part to a later date. Thus, every Judge hears all of the different types of Family Court cases, engendering the case-management problems identified above.
The new function-based system immediately resolves these problems by providing for the efficient management of each case from the moment the case is filed. The Judge presiding will quickly review a petition, order any available temporary relief and promptly direct the case to the appropriate part. Each of the four divisions will have its own data collection and data retrieval capacity designed for its particular function. Such information is vital to a Judge or Hearing Examiner who must issue a temporary order of protection, custody, visitation or support on the very day a petition is filed.
In addition to the enhanced computer databases, each of the four Divisions will have assigned, specially-trained staff -- in short, its own back office. This dedicated staff will be fully familiar with the nuances of the proceedings, any history of litigation and the dispositions available. They will oversee and ensure the smooth, efficient functioning of the entire City-wide Family Court system. Case management professionals will monitor the function-based Divisions in each county, act as trouble-shooters on a daily basis, and modify operations if necessary.
The combination of these factors -- immediate referral to the function-based Division, informational databases specifically designed for each Division, and dedicated staff assigned to the Division -- will provide the New York City Family Court with the ability to dispense relief promptly, and dramatically reduce the time for final disposition.
II. Specialized Treatment of Cases
The New York City Family Court will be realigned into four Divisions -- Child Protective/Permanency Planning, Juvenile Delinquency/PINS, Domestic Violence/Custody and Child Support/Paternity. The proportion of cases within each division is as follows:
Traditionally, children come into foster care because they are surrendered, voluntarily placed by their parents or involuntarily placed on the basis of allegations and findings of abuse or neglect. Usually, children are placed in foster care for up to 12 months, during which time efforts are made to reunite the family, if appropriate. Progress reports must also be submitted to the Court during this time period. Although compliance with reporting requirements has improved, these reports often are submitted late or not filed at all. When submitted, a number of the reports are incomplete. So too, many petitions to extend placement are still not timely filed, if at all, despite diligent efforts and measurable improvements. As a result, foster care placement either lapses or is routinely extended for another 12 months. The unacceptable fact is that children in New York City now languish in foster care for an average of 4.3 years.
Even after a child is freed for adoption, 18 to 25 months may elapse before an adoption petition is filed. Although this problem has been somewhat alleviated, many adoption petitions still do not include all of the information required by statute, and finalization is delayed until submission of all required documents. Consequently, the child is denied a sense of permanency and belonging, and the foster parents who wish to adopt live in fear that the biological parent will appear and reclaim the child.
The task of the function-based Child Protective/Permanency Planning Division is to provide both safety and timely decision-making for children. With the help of court monitoring and casework supervision, many children may quickly be returned home. If return of the child is not appropriate, the Division will facilitate prompt decision-making by linking the three legal milestones in this area -- foster care, termination of parental rights and adoption -- into one continuous process. The concentration of inter-related proceedings into a single Division allows targeted treatment of these cases through the use of advanced computer technology, dedicated support personnel, quasi-judicial legal resources and assigned agency attorneys.
The Child Protective/Permanency Planning divisional framework builds upon the Adoption Fast-Track Program announced as a Family Court Initiative in April 1997. It began as "Project 1700" and resulted in the finalization of 2100 agency adoptions in the New York City Family Court in the 90-day period of April1, 1997 through June 30, 1997. These extraordinary results are fully explored in the Appendix to this report. It demonstrates that focusing Court resources, intensive monitoring of foster care proceedings and cooperation of all participants lead to an appropriate, expeditious permanency plan for every child and family.
The New York City Family Court has developed a specialized computer program that provides information essential to the speedy finalization of adoptions. The program alerts the petitioner and Court of the approximately 30 documents that must be filed with the adoption petition, identifies which documents have been submitted and the date filed, notes the date the matter was forwarded to the Judge for review, the date returned and the date by which the adoption should be finalized. This program allows adoption clerks to monitor cases by "tickler" for additional information requested as well as for timely finalization. In addition, this advanced computer program includes an automatic reporting system, which provides interim reports at the end of each term of the status of adoption cases by county and City-wide. In this way, the Family Court monitors any lag or problem that may arise and corrects it in a timely fashion.
Drawing upon the success of the Adoption Fast-Track Initiative introduced in Phase I of the Family Justice Program, the New York City Family Court will implement a new data program in Spring 1998 to monitor foster care proceedings. The new automated case tracking system will alert the Court of the impending due date for submission of reports and petitions to extend foster care placement. The system also will provide end-of-term status reports of foster care proceedings by county and Citywide.
The Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children, established in 1988 and co-chaired by the Hon. Judith S. Kaye and Professor Ellen Schall, is committed to studying and solving problems affecting children in the court system, particularly children in foster care. The Commission has been designated by the Court of Appeals to administer the federally-funded State Court Improvement Project on behalf of the Court system. A Project Director will be appointed to implement Court Improvement reform activities in the New York County Family Court, including increasing communication and cooperation with the Administration for Children's Services and other participants in Court proceedings; overseeing an automated case tracking system to follow children through the court process; targeting cases appropriate for expedited cases processing; and identifying trends and factors affecting children in foster care. The Commission will continue to be an important partner with the Court throughout implementation of Phase II of the Family Justice Program.
The Project Director will be assisted by court staff assigned to the project. Heightened scrutiny by dedicated Court personnel will ensure that progress reports include information required by the Court to make a well-reasoned decision to return a child to his or her family, continue foster care for a specific time period or order the termination of parental rights.
In addition, two Judicial Hearing Officers will be assigned to hear foster care review proceedings in the Bronx County Family Court and in the New York County Family Court, respectively. This will assist the limited number of Judges who must handle an increasing caseload. The Family Court is adding referees to review and determine adoptions on consent of the parties. The addition of this staff allows the Family Court to realize part of its goal of modern case management -- adequate assessment and prioritization of cases.
Modern case management cannot be fully realized, however, without the elimination of attorney scheduling conflicts. The Administration for Children's Services (representing petitioner), the Legal Aid Society (representing the children) and the Assigned Counsel Panel (representing the children or respondent parents) will assign attorneys exclusively to this Division beginning in April 1998.
The New York City Family Court has reached agreement with the Department of Criminal Justice Services to process fingerprints for adoptions so that fingerprinting results are received within days rather than weeks. The Family Court also reached agreement with the Administration for Children's Services to provide child abuse clearances locally, rather than clearing through the Department of Social Services in Albany. This, too, eliminates long waits for returns.
The Family Treatment Court, introduced in Phase I of the Family Justice Program, will serve as a critical resource for this Division. On-site facilities built specifically for drug-testing of parents involved in neglect proceedings will soon be completed. Dedicated staff, including a project director, clinical director, research director, several case managers and other court personnel have been trained to implement the program immediately. Each case in the Family Treatment Court is continuously and intensively monitored by dedicated court staff from the moment the parent walks in the door throughout the 12-18 month treatment period. At the end of this period, the Court will be assured of an appropriate permanency plan -- either discharge of the children to the parents' care or termination of parental rights. This procedure also complies with the time constraints of the recently-enacted Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997.
The Suffolk County Family Treatment Court opened its doors on December 10, 1997, and the New York County Family Treatment Court is scheduled to open this month.
B. Juvenile Delinquency/PINS Division
The underlying purpose of this Division will be the speedy resolution of cases involving juvenile justice and children at risk. This division will be devoted to juvenile delinquency proceedings, designated felonies, PINS proceedings, related supplemental proceedings and returns on warrants.
Too often, delays in these cases are caused because vital information is not provided to the New York City Family Court in a timely manner. The targeted approach to juvenile delinquency and PINS matters will ensure that Judges know the status of the case at each stage of the proceeding. In preparation for the dispositional stage, support staff will actively seek missing information so the case can proceed on the adjourned date. In addition, the many agencies and offices involved in the juvenile justice system will share data efficiently and effectively.
The Family Court has arranged with the New York City Board of Education and the Mayor's Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator for personnel to be dedicated to communicate information to the New York City Family Court regarding a youth's school attendance records, disciplinary problems and substance abuse. In addition, new Family Court liaisons will monitor a youth's compliance with the several programs offering alternatives to detention, such as EATD (Extended Alternatives to Detention) and CASES (Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services). The liaisons will determine the most efficient method of communication, and will be in place at the time the function-based Juvenile Delinquency/PINS Division is established. The liaisons will be an invaluable resource of timely information necessary to expeditious and appropriate decisions.
In anticipation of the specialized Division, a written protocol developed in lieu of subpoena will be used by the Family Court and the Board of Education to immediately transmit information. In addition, record rooms have been designated in each court specifically for retention of juvenile records, easily accessible for review by the parties and the probation department.
Attorneys who prosecute and defend litigants in Juvenile Delinquency/PINS proceedings will specialize in this distinct area, thereby dramatically reducing attorney scheduling conflicts. New York City Corporation Counsel attorneys, who are responsible for prosecuting juvenile delinquency and some designated felony cases, will be assigned exclusively to this Division. The Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society provides law guardian representation for a substantial number of respondents in both original and supplemental proceedings, and will commit a core group of attorneys to this Division. Finally, a certain number of attorneys from the Assigned Counsel Panel, who also serve as law guardians, will be asked to specialize in juvenile delinquency/PINS proceedings.
C. Domestic Violence/Custody Division
Many of the custody/visitation proceedings in the New York City Family Court include issues of domestic violence. Likewise, many orders issued in family offense proceedings include the children of the petitioner. These proceedings are among the most emotionally difficult and time-consuming matters handled in Family Court. The complicated nature of these cases -- often involving numerous attorneys, multiple evaluations and reports, supervised visitation and other services -- will benefit greatly from a specialized approach and tailored treatment.
The specialization of the Domestic Violence/Custody Division is vital to the prompt and effective resolution of these proceedings. An essential component of the Division is the dedication of staff to ensure sufficient resources to handle the more than 36,000 custody and visitation cases that are brought in the New York City Family Court each year. Additional referees have been assigned to hear and determine contested matters in this Division, on consent of the parties. The referees will devote uninterrupted time to complex custody trials. Supporting the referees will be attorneys assigned to Judges sitting in the Domestic Violence/Custody Division. The attorneys will conference cases to immediately assess the needs and requests of each party. The attorneys will promptly refer an appropriate case, if there is no issue of domestic violence, to the Mediation Services Project announced in Phase I of the Family Justice Program, draft a stipulation of settlement to be signed by the parties and so-ordered by the court, or clarify the issues for trial. If the case cannot be settled, it will immediately be referred to a Judge or referee presiding in the specialized Division.
Retrieval and sharing of information about domestic violence, other court cases and any outstanding orders is an indispensable component of cases heard in this Division. Therefore, in the new function-based Domestic Violence/Custody Division, the Family Court and the Criminal Court will coordinate the transfer of domestic violence cases between the Courts and the concomitant sharing of information between the Courts. The New York County District Attorney has agreed to designate two individuals from the Domestic Violence Division to serve as liaisons to the Division. The attorney to the Judge presiding in the Domestic Violence Part will be the designated Family Court counterpart. This new procedure for sharing information will be in place in all counties in New York City by Spring 1998.
Family Court will also dedicate personnel as contact and information resources to the Criminal Court for this Division by Spring 1998. Access to the Family Court database, the Statewide Domestic Violence Registry and the Special Victims Safety Check is presently available to the Domestic Violence Part, established in Phase I of the Family Justice Program. This information will now be at the fingertips of the designated liaisons for the family offense, custody, visitation, guardianship and paternity proceedings held in one function-based Division.
D. Support/Paternity Division
Over 40% of the New York City Family Court's caseload consists of support and paternity matters -- cases involving child support, spousal support, paternity, interstate support, and violations and modifications of support orders. This large and important caseload will benefit from the Court's new case management system by timely, improved record keeping and data collection, and a dedicated and knowledgeable support staff.
The majority of cases in the Support/Paternity Division are determined primarily on the basis of public assistance records, tax returns and prior orders of support. At present, the New York City Family Court must submit a written request to the Office of Child Support Enforcement Services for an accounting of support paid and due on each individual case 10 days prior to the calendar date. Reports are often not provided until the afternoon of the adjourned date and sometimes not at all. This problem will be resolved by the introduction of a computer program dedicated to this function-based Division. The Family Court and the Office of Child Support Enforcement are developing a computer program that will allow shared access to records of support paid and owed, which currently are maintained exclusively by the Support Collection Unit. Reports will no longer be missing or delayed. The court will timely assess each case, and the litigant will not be required to return to Family Court on yet another date. It is expected that the shared automated program will be available by Summer 1998.
The Uniform Interstate Family Support Act ("UIFSA"), effective in New York State on January 1, 1998, will also have an impact upon the Support/Paternity Division. Since almost all litigants appearing in this Division are self-represented, the New York City Family Court has dedicated staff to process and schedule the interstate support and paternity petitions filed pursuant to UIFSA. Family Court Hearing Examiners and clerical staff received education and training in Fall 1997. In addition, the Court will designate rooms for teleconferencing interstate cases requiring verbal testimony. Attorneys from the office of Corporation Counsel, which is responsible for interstate support proceedings, will be assigned exclusively to this Division.
The Family Court is presently working with the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance to promote better ways to establish and enforce child support obligations. Automated wage and tax reporting data will expedite the establishment of orders in conjunction with Family Court assurances of due process. Child support orders will be determined on the basis of reported income and executed by automatic wage deduction after an opportunity to be heard, all within an average period of five weeks. An agreement on a joint initiative with the Executive Branch regarding child support should be completed shortly.
III. Operational Innovations
Beyond restructuring the operation of the New York City Family Court to provide for the specialized treatment of cases, Phase II of the Family Justice Program provides for the sharing of information between courts and family justice agencies to improve Court operations on a daily basis. Other innovations include a multi-jurisdictional court, the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which will become fully operational in mid-1999. In addition, pilot programs will be developed in Family Courts outside of New York City.
Since the passage of the New York State Family Protection and Domestic Violence Intervention Act of 1994, many more domestic violence cases are treated as criminal matters and are filed in Criminal Court, both Criminal and Family Courts or referred from one court to the other. The sharing of information is vital for well-reasoned, effective orders to be issued by both Courts. The New York County Family Court and the Domestic Violence Bureau of the New York County District Attorney's Office have designated representatives to channel information (criminal history, domestic violence, custody/visitation, neglect/abuse) between the courts. Thus, the Family Court designee promptly transmits the petition and temporary order of protection to the Criminal Court designee for review in a related criminal proceeding. The Criminal Court promptly transmits its disposition of the matter or declination to prosecute to the Family Court. Each court is kept apprised of related proceedings in the other court, ensuring not only swift disposition but protection for litigants while the case is pending. This system is currently in effect in New York County and will be expanded to the other counties in New York City by Spring 1998.
In addition, the Family Court and the Office of Child Support Enforcement Services, which bear the bulk of responsibility for issuance and enforcement of child support orders and collection of child support, are developing a computer program that will allow the Family Court to automatically access records of the Support Collection Unit for immediate retrieval of the amount of support paid and due on any given case before the Family Court.
Various agencies and institutions work in the New York City Family Court on a daily basis, and cooperation and coordination of efforts among all players is essential to the smooth functioning of the Court. The Administration for Children's Services (ACS) has case-planning responsibility for most foster care and adoption cases filed in Family Court. As mentioned on page 20, ACS and the Family Court have developed a procedure whereby ACS provides child abuse clearances of adoptive parents within days, rather than the three or four weeks that previously was the norm.
The New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services and the New York City Family Court have established direct contact specifically to process fingerprints for adoptions, also as previously mentioned on page 20. As a result, information is provided to the Family Court within 5 to 7 business days, rather than 4 to 5 weeks. This procedure will prove doubly beneficial if New York State adopts the provision of the Federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 that requires fingerprinting of foster parents as well as adoptive parents.
The Red Hook Community Justice Center, scheduled to open in 1999, will be the nation's first multi-jurisdictional community court, hearing family and housing matters as well as criminal arraignments. The Justice Center will not only provide expeditious and more accessible justice, it will also improve outcomes through a coordinated judicial response. Similar to the Midtown Community Court, the Justice Center will integrate into the court functions appropriate on-site treatment and preventive services.
The types of family justice proceedings that may be heard at the Red Hook Community Justice Center will include minor delinquency, domestic violence and PINS proceedings, as well as abuse and neglect, non-welfare related support proceedings and uncontested paternity proceedings.
It is contemplated that juvenile matters would be a natural extension of the Center for Court Innovation's Red Hook Youth Court program, a youth court run in partnership with the Kings County District Attorney's Office and Good Shepherd Services. The Red Hook Youth Court, which is scheduled to begin holding proceedings in the next month and which will ultimately be housed in the Justice Center, seeks to reach children just beginning to display social or emotional problems, before their actions become too serious. In the Youth Court, children who have received "YD" cards from police for low level criminal acts, such as vandalism or truancy, will appear before a jury of teenagers who will deliberate and issue a "sentence" combining community service and other restitution, and participation in mentoring programs.
A separate, confidential room for a domestic violence counselor and victims will be strategically located at the Justice Center. This secure space will enable a court clerk to prepare a petition with the assistance of the victim and the counselor while in a safe environment.
IV. Statewide Family Court Initiatives
The Family Courts outside New York City are developing a number of initiatives on a pilot basis in furtherance of Phase II of the Family Justice Program. The initiatives also reflect a strong commitment to the effective and efficient administration of justice.
The Suffolk County Family Court will channel the diverse case types into three units. The Family Rehabilitation Unit will provide permanency planning and security to children in a timely manner. This division will include neglect, abuse, foster care review, termination of parental rights and adoption proceedings. The Family Treatment Part, with dedicated staff and technology, is also part of this unit. The Treatment Part has been in operation since December 10, 1997, and provides intensive monitoring and services to parents charged with neglect due to drug abuse. Since some of the children in foster care also may have discipline problems or brushes with the law, constituting an "overlap" population, this unit will also hear juvenile delinquency and PINS proceedings.
The Family Preservation and Protection Unit will hear all custody, visitation and contested paternity cases. A custody conference part has been established for this division, in which attorneys conference contested custody cases. The attorney will either settle the issues and draft a stipulation of settlement to be so-ordered by the Judge or clarify the issues for trial. The Court is exploring mediation as another resource to alleviate the high number of cases to be heard in the unit.
All support and uncontested paternity proceedings will be included in the Family Support Unit and heard by the assigned Hearing Examiners. The unit will be complemented by a daily child support conference part in which an attorney will conference child support cases. The attorney will expedite the disposition of cases by drafting orders of support on consent of the parties or clarifying the issues for trial.
A pilot project of three dedicated parts is being proposed for the Onondaga County Family Court. Three judges will be assigned to the domestic violence/custody/visitation part. A second part would include juvenile delinquency and PINS proceedings, contested paternity proceedings, adoptions and objections to child support orders. It is anticipated that attorneys will be assigned to hold pre-trial settlement conferences and to refer certain cases to a Judicial Hearing Officer.
The Erie County Family Court will be establishing a division of the Family Court dedicated to Families in Need of Services and Permanency. This unit would be implemented concurrently with a pilot project conducted under the auspices of the Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children. Attorneys will assess cases at an early stage of each proceeding, including neglect and abuse, termination of parental rights, foster care review and adoptions. The director of the pilot project will coordinate judicial and non-judicial court staff and personnel from the Office of Children and Family Services into one cohesive unit that will quickly and efficiently review and conclude cases.
Juvenile delinquency and PINS proceedings also will be heard in the Families in Need of Services and Permanency Unit, given that many of the children cross over between the child protection system and the juvenile justice system. A Resource Coordinator is currently funded through the Division for Youth in conjunction with the Center for Court Innovation. It is anticipated that the Resource Coordinator's caseload may be extended to include individuals with PINS or juvenile delinquency and neglect cases.
A second unit, entitled Families in Need of Protection and Court Intervention, will include all family offense, custody, visitation, contested paternity and violation of support proceedings. This unit will be augmented by a new mediation project established with the assistance of the Better Business Bureau. The assignment of two Judicial Hearing Officers and attorneys to conduct trials and assess cases, respectively, will foster better case management and expedite case dispositions.
V. Matrimonial Initiatives
Phase II of the Family Justice Program also streamlines the processing of matrimonial cases Statewide. The establishment of dedicated matrimonial parts and differentiated case management in 1997 was merely the first step in this process. The Supreme Court will now expand its alternative dispute resolution program from New York County to other counties Statewide. In addition, legislation has been proposed that would allow issuance of divorce decrees immediately upon resolution of ancillary issues, thereby hastening removal of cases from the court calendar. Legislation affecting enforcement of orders and collection of child support and maintenance has also been proposed, which would ensure support while a matter is pending.
A. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)
A Mandatory Early Neutral Evaluation Program will be fully operational in Nassau County in January 1998 to complement the five dedicated matrimonial parts previously established. The program promotes the settlement of cases by mandating that the parties present their case to a Neutral Evaluator Panel prior to filing a Note of Issue. The parties must present specific information, including the pleadings, statement of facts, net worth statements, income tax returns, and appraisal and evaluation reports. The issues are delineated and the Neutral Evaluator Panel, consisting of three volunteer attorneys, renders an evaluation and advisory opinion regarding the issues presented. If the parties settle, a stipulation of settlement is placed on the record. The parties are allocuted and the stipulation is incorporated but not merged into the divorce decree. If the parties cannot agree, a Note of Issue is filed and the case is immediately returned to the assigned dedicated matrimonial part for trial. By requiring the early gathering of financial information and narrowing the issues, the Mandatory Neutral Evaluation Program facilitates conclusion of otherwise lengthy, contentious proceedings.
The Orange County Supreme Court Referred Divorce Mediation Program is a one-year pilot project that mandates review of each matrimonial case to determine if it is appropriate for mediation. The review is conducted by the ADR coordinator, a law clerk to a Supreme Court Justice. Mediators include attorneys, family counselors, therapists and other professionals who have extensive mediation training and a background in divorce and family law. If the parties resolve the issues, an agreement is drafted and placed on the record. The parties are allocuted and the agreement is incorporated but not merged into divorce decree. If the parties are unable to resolve their differences, the case is immediately referred to an assigned Justice for trial.
B. Legislation Affecting Matrimonial-Proceedings
Phase II of the Family Justice Program includes legislation that would strengthen enforcement of judgments or orders requiring payment of support, as well as legislation that would expedite the final disposition of matrimonial proceedings.
Where a spouse defaults in paying any sum of money required by a judgment or order, the aggrieved party should be able to move to enforce the judgment or order by contempt proceedings without first requiring the exhaustion of all other remedies. This provides those who are financially vulnerable with an immediate, additional enforcement remedy that is not contingent on other actions.
Legislation will also be submitted to complement the programs that expedite divorce proceedings. Parties who have resolved issues ancillary to the divorce by mediation or other alternative dispute resolution, and reduced their resolution to writing in an agreement or on the record, should be allowed to immediately obtain a divorce, rather than waiting the statutory time period. If all issues were resolved, there is no point in keeping the proceeding open or requiring often painful and inflammatory testimony sufficient to establish grounds for divorce.
Since its establishment 35 years ago, the Family Court has grown dramatically in both volume and complexity of cases. There is no indication that either will abate. Legislative mandates and appellate decisions continue to add legal and technical complexities to the herculean task of resolving issues affecting the lives of children and families.
The Family Court is committed to improving the management of family law cases and meeting the needs of children and families. The first step toward achieving this goal was the Family Justice Program introduced in April 1997. It established specialized programs in the areas of domestic violence, drug treatment and juvenile justice, night court and satellite courts and provided access to community dispute resolution centers. Phase II of the Family Justice Program focuses on the operational structure of the Family Court, and addresses the more intractable problems of multiple adjournments, disjointed trials and unnecessary delays that affect all those involved in Family Court proceedings. Phase II realigns the Family Court into four cohesive, function-based Divisions exemplified by modern case management methods, technological innovations and dedicated staff. These promote improved, specialized treatment of family problems and improved decision-making capacity of Judges. As a result, the Family Court will enter the twenty first century better serving the children and families that come before it.
1. This number includes Judges who do not devote all their time to Family Court -- 6 Judges preside in both Family and County Courts, and 37 Judges preside in Family, County and Surrogate's Courts, all outside New York City. This number also includes 96 Hearing Examiners Statewide who hear child support and uncontested paternity proceedings.