Op – Ed . . . . . . . . . How to make Family Court work more efficiently

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 therapy; anger management programs; drug-and alcohol-abuse programs; parenting classes; and educational advocacy groups. There are support groups for single parents, victims of domestic violence and families with addictive members. Programs exist for families of mentally, emotionally and developmentally challenged children. The county will provide therapeutic supervised visitation programs. There are mediation programs — both for the resolution of issues in litigation, and as a forum to which parties commit themselves for dealing with life issues after a court hearing. This is a big list, but it is far from exhaustive.

The problem-solving process in Family Court demands dynamic responses to dynamic circumstances. The first steps are identification and forensic evaluation, then knowledge of available community resources and, in a case-management style, matching resources to the challenges impacting the subjects of litigation. In this problem-solving process, the key elements are information and access.

Identifying, matching and managing community resources — these are all tasks a resource coordinator should perform within Family Court. This will make Family Court more efficient, and maximize services to those most in need of them.

How to get started
How can this happen? Start with a controlled study of a pilot project, assigning a resource coordinator to one all-purpose part of Family Court and compare the results with other courtrooms. Such a test could be conducted as a joint venture of the sociology and social work faculties of a university or universities, with one conducting the study and the other providing graduate student interns as resource coordinators.

Waiting! The question is not whether there is a wait; the question is why wait. The recommendation for a resource coordinator as part of the problem-solving process in Family Court is intended to make the wait not time wasted, but time well spent.

Unraveling problems takes time; working through them takes more time. Admitting ownership of the problem, getting the tools to fix it and using those tools are the only ways to establish ownership of the solution. Without that ownership, there is little chance that the problem will find a lasting fix. And the wait continues.

Judge Charles Devlin is a judge of the Westchester Family Court in White Plains, NY. Charlie, his wife Clare, and three children, Catie, Tim and Pat, have lived in Chappaqua since 1986. Prior to his appointment to the bench in 2005, he served as a statewide court administrator as the first director of the Office of Guardian and Fiduciary Services appointed by Chief Judge Judith Kaye and Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman. He has worked for the NYS court system for 30 years.

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