By Judge Charles F. Devlin, Westchester Family Court
Hurry up and wait! That’s what many Westchester residents think about when they are scheduled to appear in Family Court. Waiting to get in; waiting to get out; waiting for the court’s decision, and, most of all, waiting to see if the decision works. If it doesn’t, everyone soon comes back to wait some more.
Waiting won’t disappear — the volume of cases is simply too great to streamline the process. The wait itself, however, is not the frustration; it’s the disappointment at the end of the wait. What each party in a sensitive matter in Family Court hopes for (and every case in Family Court is a sensitive matter) never seems to happen — a fix that lasts. That’s because Family Court cases don’t easily fit within the traditional concept of a court where events, frozen in time — a crime, an automobile accident, a broken contract — are deconstructed only to be reconstructed for that one-time verdict of guilt or negligence or breach. Family Court, like life itself, goes on, and so do the problems unless someone names them, owns them, and with a sense of ownership, works to fix them.
Resource coordinators would help
A resource coordinator in every courtroom of Westchester Family Court is a solution I think would work, based on my years working in the court system and on the bench. Once a judge identifies a problem, it’s critical for any lasting fix that there be quick information about the right tools and, more importantly, quick access. A resource coordinator would have not just the list of community resources, which Family Courts already have, but also contact information with names and phone numbers of intake personnel. He or she would have not just pamphlets describing programs, but knowledge of intake procedures and the services provided, which should be obtained and kept current through on-site outreach visits.
Fixing problems takes the right tools in the right hands; it takes knowing how to find them and how to make the right choice for the job. Fixing some of the toughest problems in our society is Family Court’s job. To get this job done, a Family Court judge must look behind the title of every case and discover the real problem and then search for the right tools.
Finally, the problem-solving process should involve matching resources to problems as well as not just making referrals, but coordinating those referrals by following-up on intake and participation, and obtaining timely reports.
Family Courts’ Tough Job
Family Court tackles some of the toughest problems facing families — and, not surprisingly, some of the toughest problems in our society. The titles of its cases form a laundry list of these problems — from abuse and neglect to family offense to juvenile delinquency. The list, as descriptive as it may be, doesn’t expose the real problems facing the court and the people it tries to help. The problems behind the titles include mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, gang violence and sexual violence. There are crises in anger management and communication skills; there are developmental disabilities creating chronic, special needs. Economic factors often compound these problems.
Westchester County is rich with taxpayer-funded and not-for-profit programs that provide the tools to fix the problems identifiable in Family Court cases. There are mental health services that provide family and individual