By JUDITH CLAIRE
It is the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Family Court of New York State.
Fifty years after its creation, much of the public is still unaware of what happens daily in Family Court and how it has changed in the past 50 years. Family Courts handle child custody, visitation, grandparent rights, domestic violence, juvenile delinquency, child neglect, abuse, paternity, child support, foster care, adoptions, guardianship, and termination of parental rights. Chautauqua County Family Court handles close to 9,000 cases annually. Nine thousand is not a misprint.
Society is very different now than it was even 15 years ago, let alone 50 years ago.
There has been a sharp rise in divorce rates, the number of parents not getting married at all, a dramatic rise in drug use, and many other trends that have led to an explosion of filings in Family Court. The people who come to our Family Court are often in crisis and the needs from all standpoints are overwhelming.
Until a decade ago, litigants came to court and their cases were resolved without dealing with the problems that brought them there in the first place. That led to their returning, again and again until their own children, the next generation, began arriving with the same problems. Under the leadership of retired Chief Judge Judith Kaye, this began to change. Today Family Courts work to assist in the making of healthy families, functional parents, intact homes, children who possess the skills to grow up into fully participating members of society.
Many think of Family Court as a place of doom and gloom, and there is no question that working in Family Court is not for the faint of heart. In fact, Family Court is a place of hope, a place where change is possible, a place of inspiration where we see great courage. Our parents and our children constantly achieve wondrous things, and to be witness to their joy, pride and new found skills is a privilege and honor. Not all who come to Family Court will be successful and go on to lead healthy lives. Nonetheless, the amount of people who do find success is heartening. It is a regular occurrence for people to tell us with great pride how their lives have improved, how their children are thriving, to tell us that coming to court made a difference in their lives.
I am routinely stopped on the street by both adults and teenagers to be told a success story.
Around our own Family Court, there is a beehive of activity as agencies, volunteers, attorneys, attorneys for the children, all work to offer people a chance for something more.
Some of these efforts include our court currently leading a two year project called "Integrating Trauma-Informed Solution-Focused Strategies in Family Court." There is CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), Mediation initiatives, Family Treatment Drug Court, the Court Improvement Project, BARJ (Balanced & Restorative Justice) focusing on juvenile delinquency, Viewpoint, a project to survey our youth in neglect and abuse cases, to find out directly from them what their needs and concerns are, what we can improve to assist them. We now invite youth ages ten and older to court for an orientation day before they attend their first permanency hearing. '
We hold multi-disciplinary trainings and include public defenders, attorneys for children, assigned counsel, social workers, judicial and non-judicial court staff, school personnel, mental health workers, and foster care contract agencies. And there is much more.
All of these efforts not only improve lives but save the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Healthy families mean cost savings in care for babies born addicted to drugs, educational savings, prison, foster care, public assistance, and other savings too numerous to list.
As we mark the close of the first 50 years of Family Court and approach the future, I would like to express my deep thanks and respect for all the men and women who work in our Family Court and who are committed to serving the members of the public who enter our doors. This includes hundreds of people here in Chautauqua County. All of these individuals make a difference in people's lives. I am honored to be able to work with them.
Judith S. Claire is Chautauqua County Family Court judge.