Crisis In Family Court

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

Research assistance: Hillary Chute


Swift Justice

Carrie Boretz

Judge Gloria Sosa-Lintner, a family court judge for 11 years, sees the best and worst of family court. Every day.

Part of the day she is a regular family court judge, with all that entails— countless delays, absent or unprepared attorneys, confused parents— and the rest of the day she runs a new drug court, called Family Treatment Court. Here, treating the problem expeditiously is the name of the game.

In order to qualify for FTC, parents must admit they've got a drug problem— and that their kids have suffered as a result of it. They then waive their right to a fact-finding trial and jump right to "disposition," or deciding what to do about it. The logic is straightfoward: The faster parents get into treatment, the sooner they can get their kids back. "The women who are participating in FTC must feel like they have a chance to get their child back in a reasonable period of time," says Sosa-Lintner. This is the carrot.

The stick? Addicts who can't stay clean can rapidly lose permanent custody of their children.

Manhattan's Family Treatment Court is the latest in a line of experimental "boutique" courts introduced by New York's chief judge, Judith Kaye. Only a year old in March, FTC is one of only 12 such courts nationwide, taking as its premise a nonadversarial approach to resolving child neglect cases (75 percent of which involve parental addiction). Drug courts are already wildly popular in the criminal system, where their numbers have grown from one a decade ago to 400 today. The idea is just now gaining acceptance in family court; the first two Family Treatment Courts in New York State were launched last year.

Unlike conventional Family Court, FTC has a team of people who work with the same clients, in the same courtroom with the same judge, under a strict schedule of appearances that speeds the entire process. As the Adoption and Safe Families Act is implemented over the next year, such speed will be crucial.

"Clearly there are two clocks running here," says FTC project director Raye Barbieri. "There's the recovery clock, which is long-term— and 15 months is short-term to someone trying to recover from years of addiction. And then there is the child development clock. Fifteen months in the life of a one-and-a-half-year-old is almost its entire life."

The key to speeding the process is keeping close tabs on clients— FTC clients are in court every two weeks in the beginning, and then monthly for the duration of a year. Within two days of her first court appearance a mother— and 90 percent of the time it is the mother seeking to regain custody— is assessed by a clinical team. If she is willing to acknowledge her addiction and waive her right to a fact-finding trial, FTC staffers find an appropriate drug treatment program for her. The following day she appears before Judge Sosa-Lintner and is immediately enrolled in drug rehab.

The court holds the mother accountable. Each time she appears in court, she first visits the FTC offices, where her urine is tested for drugs. The FTC staff checks in regularly with her drug program counselors to keep track of her progress; those progress reports are read aloud to the judge. The judge, who gets to know the FTC women because of their regular appearances, has a clear sense of each person's history, knows to expect occasional relapses, and knows to reward clients with more access to their children as they stay clean for 30 days, 90 days, 365 days.

By all accounts, the program is a success.

"FTC can't be the only option— after all, it's voluntary— but it should be available to anyone who wants it, in any borough," says Sosa-Lintner, who likes the hands-on approach. "A lot of attorneys in regular family court don't think they can do any work on a case between adjournments. They just look at the case file that day, as they're walking into court— and try to figure out what they're going to say on the spot. That's not true with FTC." The frequent appearances not only require lawyers and social workers to have all their ducks in order, they give the judge confidence in her decisions. "In regular court it may be a year before you see someone back in your courtroom. With FTC the women are in court on a monthly basis. All the facts are known to the judge a lot sooner— so you can monitor the whole situation better."

And that means that kids are spending a lot less time in foster care. "In FTC we have families being reunited after seven months, on average, and that's basically unheard-of," says Cynthia LaCaprucia, a Legal Aid attorney who represents the children in court. "I can see what years and years of foster care do to kids, and it's not good." Is she confident about returning kids to their parents within this abbreviated time frame? "Yes, because I have more information than I usually do. I've seen the parents regularly, I see the written reports, see the drug test results. In regular court, I have no information for months on end, so I'm going to err on the side of caution when I advise whether to return the children or not. Here, I know the women and I see the changes and I feel confident returning the children. I really do." — K.H.

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