When Covid-19 hit, the New York City Family Court came to a screeching halt for thousands of vulnerable families with children, revealing "deep inequities" and technical shortcomings that predated the pandemic, according to a report prepared by the NYC Bar Association and The Fund for Modern Courts.
The report, obtained by the News 4 I-Team, concludes that during the pandemic, the vast majority of families "had virtually no access" to the court. Citing historic underfunding, compared with other courts in the state, the report concludes "Family Court was ill-equipped to respond quickly, consistently, fairly and comprehensively” to families’ needs.
It also suggests the structure of the State's court system locks the Family Court and its mostly poor litigants into a second rate system.
"There were not enough judges," Bill Silverman, a partner at the law firm Proskauer Rose who co-authored the report tells the I-Team in an interview. "Pre-Covid, there were about 56 judges for over 200 thousand filings per year. There was a lack of technology. There is no electronic filing in Family Court. So when Covid struck, the Family Court had more difficulty functioning than other courts.”
Get Tri-state area news and weather forecasts to your inbox. Sign up for NBC New York newsletters.
Now, almost two years later, many families are still facing staggering waits for relief, with their next court dates scheduled more than a year out. According to I-Team discussions with numerous Family Court litigants, attorneys and advocates, the failure to function has left parents,the vast majority of whom are unrepresented by lawyers, in desperate situations.
Victims of domestic violence were reluctant to leave abusive situations because they were unsure of their ability to collect child support, according to Christine Perumal, director of the Domestic Violence Law Project at Safe Horizon. “A lot of our clients who had financial issues were strapped,” Perumal said, describing conversations she personally had with callers to the Safe Horizon Helpline. In late 2020, Perumal says one terrified woman called, locked in her room as her partner went to the grocery store.
“She said 'I don’t know what to do. I have no income. I have a 7-year-old child. If I move out can I file for child support?’ At the time, we had to explain to her that she wasn’t able to access the courts for her child support matter to be heard.” Instead, Perumal says the woman focused on creating a safety plan within her home, avoiding situations that would trigger her partner.
"It just makes you sad, having to sit down and tell your child we just can't afford this right now,” said Cieanne Everett of Brooklyn. Everett initiated a case to collect child support for her 9-year-old son in December 2018, but says the pandemic paralyzed an already lethargic Family Court process. "You're literally at their mercy, sitting and waiting for them to decide when and how you'll be seen and heard."
In August 2021, Everett experienced difficulty logging into a virtual court hearing and a magistrate dismissed her case. As a result, her child support payments of $146 a week stopped arriving.
Everett hoped to get the payments reinstated when she finally secured a new hearing in December but when she logged in on December 2, 2021, Everett says a court employee told her to doublecheck the date. More specifically, the year.
"He goes: Ma'am, what year is your court date?" Everett said. It turns out Everett had the wrong year. Her next hearing is not until December of 2022.
"I am literally pissed." Everett says, describing her shock at the delay. "I said 'so you're telling me that I don't see you again for more than a year?’ And he goes 'Yup that's how backlogged we are.' And hung up the phone. I was shaking.” The report describes massive communications breakdowns between the court and its litigants, with one attorney describing the situation as “practicing law with a blindfold on."
According to the report, the Family Court chose only to deal with cases they deemed "essential." Examples included serious allegations of child abuse that could result in a child being removed from home, juvenile delinquency cases in which a young person could face jail, and requests for orders of protection. These cases moved forward.
However, many cases the court considered non-essential were put on hold for a year. Examples include custody, visitation and child support cases.
"It was an emergency, the fact that I needed to go food shopping," Everett said, adding she remembers the look on her son's face when she told him he had to withdraw from his after school sports activities because she could not afford them.
Adoption cases were also on the Court's non-essential list, which means children are now waiting significantly longer for their family situations to be finalized. One of those children is 4-year-old Kamryn Porter in Queens. The Family Court released Kamryn to be adopted by Marcia Myles last March. But Myles says she was told the adoption won't be official until at least June, the process taking 15 months instead of the prior average of about 3 months.
"It's highly upsetting," Myles told the I-Team. "It's very emotional for me. How could stability not be essential for a kid?"
As the family waits for closure, Kamryn has been practicing tracing and spelling her adoptive family's last name, But Myles says the child is “upset" because she doesn't understand why she's not allowed to use the new name in preschool yet. Until it's official, there are many decisions her adoptive parents are not authorized to make on their own. For instance, they're not allowed to bring Kamryn to visit family in New Jersey nor enroll her in school. "It's just a lot for her not to be ours already," Myles said.
In a statement, State Office of Court Administration spokesman Lucian Chalfen said "There is no question that of all of the courts, the NYC Family Court, which has crushing caseloads and so many litigants who are not represented by counsel, has struggled the most during the pandemic. So this report should be read in the context of that reality.
Having said that, many of the report's recommendations have merit and we will work with the Bar to implement them."
The report recommends the Family Court adopt an e-filing system and build a user-friendly website for families. "We also need to move resources from other courts to the Family Court and we need more judges," Silverman says.
But the court system cannot simply hire more judges. Only the State Legislature can create new Family Court Judgeships. In the absence of such action, the Family Court is forced to borrow judges from other courts. The assignments are temporary. Judges and hearing officers transfer in and out.
Even with the court in its current state of crisis, the I-Team has learned six judges are about to be transferred out, according to a January memo from the Office of Court Administration obtained by the I-Team. Additional correspondence suggests OCA plans to replace at least some of those judges, but their collective 4,500 cases are likely to be disrupted even further during the transfer.
"Why do we have a system where we need to transfer judges from one court to the other, lend them to one court and then take them away, only to delay all of those cases?" Silverman asked. "It makes no sense whatsoever and that is a function of our structure."
Silverman is advocating a Constitutional amendment to simplify the structure of the State's Court System. He argues that with eleven separate trial courts in New York State, and various rules governing how many judges can serve in each court, it’s too difficult to move resources where they're really needed. He describes this structure as “a strait jacket,” that locks in systemic inequities, disproportionately impacting vulnerable clients of color.
Some of those clients tell the I-Team the Family Court felt like a second class system to them.
"It felt like a dead end. Every time you call, no answer," said Eno, a Nigerian-born father of seven who asked the I-Team not to use his full name.
Eno, who drives an Uber to support his children, says he was almost forced into financial ruin by a Family Court error during the pandemic. He describes being frustrated and stressed out as his credit rating tanked and his driver's license was threatened with suspension. Eno says for months, he was unable to reach the Court to dispute an erroneous 15 thousand dollar child support order that was eventually reversed with the help of an advocate from the non-profit legal assistance group LIFT (Legal Information for Families Today).
“People come to Family Court when they have a family crisis and have nowhere else to go. Death of a loved one, not enough money to feed or house their children, children being taken out of state by one parent in violation of a court order. The Family Court was not available in their time of greatest personal need and is still only providing limited support," said Cathy Cramer, LIFT's director. (LIFT's Helpline: 212-343-1122)
"I was really into a depression," Eno said. "As a Black man, they look at you like you are not responsible to take care of your own children."