Crisis In Family Court

The City Gets Tough On Child Abuse and Neglect, And The Judicial System Staggers Under The Load

The stakes are high and time is short in family court.

On a Wednesday afternoon in Manhattan, Judge Gloria Sosa-Lintner makes quick and careful decisions based on limited information and hopes for the best. Hour after hour, sometimes till late at night, Sosa-Lintner hears child-abuse and neglect cases— as many as 60 a day.

It is a grim scene: dingy linoleum floors, fluorescent lights, orange plastic chairs, drop ceilings, kids whining, and courtrooms so cramped you can smell what the stenographer had for lunch.

Each case garners 10 or 15 minutes of Sosa-Lintner's attention. Over the course of an hour, half a dozen families are united or rent asunder.

At 4:15 a grandmother petitions for weekend visits with her two grandchildren. Grandma has successfully completed 185 days of drug rehab; mom, a drug addict, is missing in action. "Are you ready for the weekends?" Judge Sosa-Lintner asks. When grandma, lawyers, and social workers concur, the judge grants the visits with a "Good luck, ma'am."

At 4:25 a mother in drug rehab is chastised for testing positive for cocaine that morning. Her two children are in foster care. "If you don't get yourself rehabilitated you're going to lose your children to someone who recognizes that they're a priority," the judge warns. A tear rolls down mom's face. The judge is unmoved. "Try harder," she says curtly.

At 4:40 a mother of two preschoolers is congratulated for 108 drug-free days. The judge awards weekend visits.

At 4:51 a heroin-addicted mother who had been AWOL from rehab for three months begs to be reenrolled in detox so she can eventually get her toddler out of foster care. The judge orders her into rehab and maps out the consequences of failure: "You need to get yourself together and stay clean or your child will be freed for adoption."

At 5:05, a mother who has 267 days of sobriety under her belt and has been awarded provisional custody of her daughter is congratulated by the judge: "You're doing well. Keep it up."

At 5:15 a man disputes that he is the father of a child in his custody. He says the mother— a drug addict who can't be located— slept around a lot. He says he doesn't think he is the dad and even if he were, he doesn't want the boy. The judge points out that two weeks ago he appeared in court as the father of the child. The man shrugs. A lawyer for the Administration for Children Services observes that this is a "child with special needs" and suggests foster care. A lawyer for the child agrees the boy ought not be placed where he is not wanted. A lawyer for the mother says nothing. The judge looks at the father and sighs, disgusted: "This is the sad reality of family court."

New York's family court is in crisis.

Beginning in 1995, when 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo was beaten to death after a family court judge returned the child to her abusive mother, Giuliani demanded a when-in-doubt-yank-'em-out approach to child welfare. As a result, the number of child-abuse and neglect cases being filed by the city's Administration for Children Services (ACS) has shot up from 6658 neglect cases in 1995 to 10,395 cases last year— a 55 percent increase. What that means is that the number of kids being removed from their homes in the city has surged from 8000 in 1995 to 12,536 in 1998.

But as the number of family court cases climbs, the number of judges— and attorneys— remains almost constant. For example, there are 4000 more abuse and neglect cases in the city's courts this year than there were five years ago, but only 15 new Legal Aid attorneys to handle the tremendous increase. (The city's 145 Legal Aid attorneys, who represent the children, typically juggle 120 to 130 cases at a time.) And while judges across the state are dealing with 100,000 more cases a year than they did a decade ago, the legislature has added only five new family court judges to the system.

The courts are clogged. Cases crawl through the system, often taking as long as 18 months to get to trial. That's part of the reason kids average four years in foster care, waiting to find out if they will get returned to their parents or put up for adoption.

And things are about to get a whole lot worse.

Last month, the New York State legislature passed its version of the federal Adoption and Safe Family Act (ASFA). Under this law, the state must file a petition to put a child up for adoption if the kid has been in foster care for 15 months out of the last 22 months. In New York, that could mean that 5000 children would immediately be put up for adoption— and a good percentage of the city's 40,909 children in foster care would quickly follow suit.

"Everybody agrees ASFA has the potential to completely overwhelm the courts," says Public Advocate Mark Green. Because of the speeded-up time frame, families will be in court a lot more frequently. "Increasing the work for family court without increasing the resources is a potential nightmare," he says.

Advocates for parents and children also worry that the new law may be unduly harsh. "In many instances 15 months is not enough time for parents to make changes, particularly where substance-abuse issues are involved," says Madelyn Freundlich, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit research and policy center. Indeed, 75 percent of neglect cases are drug related (i.e., mom's an addict). But in New York City, Rudy Giuliani has slashed funding for preventive services such as drug-treatment programs for parents.

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