Budget Cuts Could Put New Burdens on Family Court

If Governor Cuomo’s budget goes through as proposed, it could make things even more complicated for children and families attempting to navigate the state’s notoriously unwieldy Family Court system. The governor’s proposed budget allots $2.6 billion to the state judiciary. That’s not technically a cut—in fact, it’s the same total number as the current fiscal year, but it forces the court system to absorb its second-in-a-row round of mandatory judicial raises without increasing expenses overall.

Cuomo says the court plan “recognizes the ongoing budgetary pressures the State faces… yet ensures the courts have the resources necessary to uphold their constitutional duty.”

But advocates for court-involved children argue that Family Court can’t afford a flat budget.

While demand has steadily grown, Family Court hasn’t added any new judgeships in more than two decades, according to the Citizen’s Committee for Children. The result is that children often wait months or even years for judges to decide whether they’ll stay in foster care or reunite with their parents, or even whether they’ll get visits with their siblings. The problems have gotten worse over the past three years, as funding cuts have forced the court system to reduce its hours and cut nearly 10 percent of the non-judicial workforce.

This weekend, The New York Times ran a column about one program that stands to lose its state funding this year: Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, is a national organization that trains volunteers to advocate for kids and families, following individual cases as they move through the court.

Under the supervision of a social worker, the advocates do everything from cleaning up bureaucratic messes (like incorrect birth certificates or outdated school information) that can slow cases down, to helping birth parents find a place to live so their kids can come home. Most urgently, the advocates are trained to keep an ongoing record of the case, so there’s less confusion when children are assigned to new judges or foster care workers.

In New York, the program receives $800,000 from the state to serve 3,000 kids in foster care per year. As the Times piece points out, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to provide continuity through a chaotic process.

Bruce Buchanan is a New Jersey-based insurance administrator who credits CASA with making it possible for him to adopt his two grandsons. A generation back, Buchanan and his wife raised a foster daughter from the age of 3. When she had her own sons, the Buchanans considered them grandchildren.

Then the mom’s life fell into chaos. The youngest boy contracted leukemia and was hospitalized for more than two years. The boys’ father died of a heart attack. Their mother fell apart, says Buchanan, and left the state.

New York City foster care placed the boys with Buchanan, who became re-certified as a foster parent and began proceedings to adopt them. That’s when he discovered the dysfunction of the system, he says.

Even though no one objected to Buchanan adopting the boys, the process took more three-and-a-half years. The court held at least 11 hearings in that time, Buchanan says, most of which were postponed because foster care workers came to court unprepared to present findings to the judge. When they did have court abstract ready, Buchanan says, they were usually incorrect. The brothers’ names were reversed, and there was outdated information about where the boys were going to school, or about the youngest boy’s—the leukemia survivor’s—medical status. Two years in, Buchanan says, the court discovered that the foster care agency assigned to the case had never been authorized to work with medically fragile children, and the boys had to be transferred to an entirely new agency.

Buchanan was appointed a lawyer, but he says he only saw or heard her on court dates. It was his CASA advocate who tracked the boys’ progress, presenting accurate information to the judge at each hearing. “The judge ended up relying on CASA for the write-up of the case,” he says. The advocate also helped him get Medicaid for the boys, which had been denied because ACS submitted incorrect paperwork, as well as the foster care and adoption subsidies to which he was entitled.  “I would have been lost without CASA,” Buchanan says. “I don’t know what people do without them. The bureaucracy  is so big and so heavy, a family can get eaten alive. I don’t know how people get through it.”