The New York City Family Courts are Clogged Worse Than the BQE at Rush Hour
By Joy Rosenthal
I filed two uncontested divorces in early February 2021 in Manhattan Supreme Court, and neither of them have been signed yet. That is nearly 13 months. It is stressful for my clients, and has a real economic impact, because they cannot transfer or access their retirement accounts until their judgment of divorce is signed. — But that is nothing compared to what is going on in Family Court. I worked in the Family Courts for 10 years before I became a divorce mediator, so what I report below really hit home for me.
New York has a de facto apartheid court system. One trial court (“Supreme”) hears divorce cases, but a different one – (“Family Court”) handles related matters, including paternity, child support, custody, visitation, abuse, neglect and adoptions. The vast majority of people using the NYC family court are poor people of color who cannot afford attorneys.
The NYC Bar Association and the Fund for Modern Courts just came out with a report about the impact of Covid on the NYC Family Courts.* It starts out by talking about “‘a second-class system of justice for people of color in New York State.’ Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in how the Family Court has fared during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Family Courts shut down entirely for about 6 weeks in March 2020, and then re-opened only for emergency cases. Child support cases were not emergencies, but that left some families unable to feed or house their children. Custody and visitation were not emergencies, but that kept some children and parents separated for months on end. Non-emergency cases simply did not docket these petitions – for months. That created a backlog of at least a year. (This is like the cases I filed in Supreme Court, but with even longer waits.)
Problems were made worse by lack of communication – the court websites didn’t tell users what was going on, people could not file petitions online (as they can in supreme court), they couldn’t check the status of their cases, and no one was answering the phone. Now they have a backlog of over 10,000 cases – and last month, the Office of Court Administration transferred 6 judges out of family court. As my old clients would say, that don’t make no sense!
The report makes several practical, common-sense recommendations. They call for better systems, technology and communication – including a user-friendly website, online filing, the ability for the public to track their cases online, and providing litigants with access to technology so they can participate in remote proceedings. But that requires time, commitment and money — all of which are in short supply.
One thing common about all proceedings in Family Court is that they involve children. Precious, loving, funny, curious, thoughtful children. As Whitney Houston sang, children are our future. Come on, New York – we can do better than this!