Shortage of Family Court judges leads to backlog

MAYVILLE – Family Court is overburdened.

Despite its overwhelming caseload and the essential role it plays in resolving issues like child neglect, abuse, foster care and juvenile delinquency, the Chautauqua County Family Court in Mayville has consistently been denied additional judges for years.

The Hon. Judge Judith Claire, the only Family Court judge in the county, faults this on a tightened state budget and the “low” priority given to Chautauqua County compared to other, more populated areas of the state.

Moreover, she cites a general lack of awareness among the public, particularly how people have no idea about Family Court, its backlogged, unresolved cases and how countless families remain trapped in what can only be described as a perpetual state of limbo.

“I think it has been amply demonstrated repeatedly in the past decade that there is a dramatic shortage of Family Court judges in New York state,” Judge Claire said. “There was a bill in the (state) legislature for 13 of the last 14 years to create a second Family Court judgeship in Chautauqua County … it never passed … and probably will not pass in my working lifetime.”

Judge Claire, when asked why Albany is unwilling to bring a new judgeship to the county, called out the state government’s tendency to overlook the travails of smaller, more rural communities.

“Chautauqua County is a rural, upstate county as far away from New York City and Albany than any other county in the state,” she said. “It’s unlikely to get attention because people don’t know where it is and they can’t believe that we have any serious problems.”

Of course, having been the county’s Family Court judge for 15 years, Judge Claire said she is all too familiar with the county’s serious problems or “dubious distinctions” (as she put it) that have skyrocketed the number of filings brought to the court. These include alarmingly high rates of teen pregnancy, divorce, babies born with an opiate addiction and infant mortality.

“When there’s a depressed economy, domestic violence also goes up,” Judge Claire added. “We’ve had children as young as 14 in Family Court fighting over custody of a newborn baby. We’ve had people who have children and they’re not even living together. (All of this) is just another day in Family Court.”

Indeed, the Chautauqua County Family Court handles approximately 9,000 cases per year.

It is the third-busiest Family Court in the 8th Judicial District, trailing behind Niagara County, which already has two Family Court judges, as well as four Family Court support magistrates.

“This is unacceptable,” said state Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean. “(Judge Claire) should not have that heavy a burden because it’s not manageable.”

With Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature recently adopting a judiciary budget that includes funding for 20 additional Family Court judges, Young is hoping to have one allocated to Chautauqua County.

She has already proposed legislation to this end, noting that it is currently undergoing committee review.

Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Jamestown, is expected to introduce a matching piece of legislation in the Assembly.

“The goal is to get legislation passed prior to end of session,” said Young, who indicated that the legislative session ends in the third week of June. “This would appoint another Family Court judge specifically to Chautauqua County … and I believe that we can get it passed in the Senate. We want to get an agreed-upon bill between the Assembly, Senate and Governor by the end of the year.”

Family Court deals with issues involving support, juvenile delinquency, child abuse and neglect, persons in need of supervision, foster care placements, paternity determinations, adoptions, termination of parental rights and family offenses.