Before the state Legislature designates any more inland waterways or approves the sale of gift cards for hunting licenses or names an official state reptile to complement the new state amphibian, it should do something to help our troubled children by alleviating the delays in Family Court.
A bill that passed the state Assembly earlier this month would take some of the $5 million included in the state budget for new 20 Family Court judges and create an additional judgeship each in Schenectady and Albany counties.
Schenectady County’s two Family Court judges handle about 5,300 cases per year, on average. Albany County’s three Family Court judges have an even bigger caseload, about 5,500 per year.
The statewide average is about 4,600 cases per year, a caseload that strains the capacity of any single judge to allot adequate time and attention to the people involved.
But it’s easy to glaze over numbers.
What lawmakers have to focus on in supporting additional Family Court judges is the people — the parents and the children — who are at the center of each of those cases. If you’re in Family Court, your family is going through some kind of horrible stress, whether it be a divorce and child custody issue, foster care matters, or child abuse and neglect.
Family Court is where these issues are resolved. But when judges are overburdened, as they are here in our area, they simply can’t devote the time and attention to the cases that’s needed.
Yes, the state has tried to lighten the load by reassigning judges from other counties or from other courts to help handle the load. But nothing can adequately take the place of a local Family Court judge, trained specifically in family law, whose sole duty and obligation is to administer cases in their local communities.
When court dockets are overwhelmed, it means families cannot have their cases adjudicated in a timely manner. For a civil lawsuit or a criminal case, a three- or six-month delay might not mean so much in the long run. But in a child custody case, or a case involving child neglect or placement of a child in foster care, three or six months is an eternity.
The Legislature cannot allow this situation to go another year without adding judges to handle the load. The money is already there. All that’s lacking is the legislation to create the seats.
The Assembly has passed legislation (A.9754) that would allocate nine new judgeships to New York City and one each to Schenectady, Albany and nine other counties. A separate Senate bill is holding out for more judges.
With the legislative session ending a week from today, there’s little time for haggling if these judges are going to have time to run for election this November and take office on Jan. 1.
One has to wonder how much politics is playing into the holdup. All 211 legislators and the governor are up for re-election this year. The recent tumult in the gubernatorial race has contributed to a power struggle in the Senate, where the Assembly bill is held up. So who knows what territorial battles and backroom negotiations are at play here?
Our legislators need to take politics out of the equation. If they have time to honor an amphibian, they’ve got time to take care of people who are at their most vulnerable.
Before they go home to campaign for re-election next Thursday, our lawmakers need to reduce the judicial caseloads in our Family Courts by approving the new judgeships.