Kids, Families Top Priority for Cash-Strapped Court System

May 2012Articles Philadelphia Bar Reporter
The commitment to children and families of Philadelphia by the First Judicial District’s Family Court Division remains strong in the face of budgetary constraints, growing dockets and increased violence. Family Court Division Administrative Judge Kevin M. Dougherty and Domestic Relations Division Supervising Judge Margaret T. Murphy addressed the Family Law Section on April 2 with an update on the state of the Philadelphia Family Court.

Housed at 1801 Vine St., the Juvenile Branch handles Juvenile Court operations, Juvenile Probation and Children and Youth Services that includes dependency and adoption cases. Last year was a banner year according to Judge Dougherty, who handles all operations and is a presiding judge. Judge Dougherty’s diversion programs consisting of deferred adjudications and consent decrees have served to decrease the disproportionate percentage of contact with the Juvenile Branch by African-American youths. Unsupervised juvenile probation terms have significantly decreased from 21 months to nine months due to Judge Dougherty’s implementation of flexible hours for the probation officers that allow them to more easily assess their probationers. Supervised probations terms have also decreased from 21 months to 12 months.

The Juvenile Court has responded to a growing wave of juvenile crime such as flash mobs and the recent SEPTA beating. To better combat juvenile crime in Philadelphia, Judge Dougherty assembled a juvenile enforcement team specially trained to handle juvenile gang violence and certified to carry firearms. Judge Dougherty has also established a juvenile identity database that includes nicknames, tattoos and identifying marks. The goal of the database is to prevent false identifications and also to more quickly identify and locate juveniles suspected of committing criminal acts. All of these efforts by the Juvenile Branch are aimed at providing safety to the streets and homes of Philadelphia.

The Dependency Court recently implemented a 90-day review program, which moves cases toward permanency faster. Last year there was a 6 percent decline in placement of children outside of their homes and a 45 percent decrease in out of state/county placement.

In pursuit of a more holistic approach to dependency matters, Judge Dougherty brought in representatives from the Philadelphia School District into the Family Court building at 1801 Vine St. Academic information related to IEPs, absences and report cards is now much easier and quicker to access, which facilitates the progress of dependency and juvenile cases. Also, interns from the University of Pennsylvania have dedicated space at 1801 Vine. The interns mingle among the family members in the Family Court waiting rooms and provide information and applications for a variety of social services designed to help Philadelphia families, such as CHIP and LIHEAP.

The Family Court is the only courthouse in the country that provides supervised custody visitation facilities for families. Judge Dougherty has ensured that protocol is in place to document all supervised visits and incidents, if any.

Judge Dougherty’s most recent initiative is tracking kids that age-out of foster care. While this is the hardest population to study and assist, Judge Dougherty does not shy away from a challenge.

“Our children are worth it” is Judge Dougherty’s motto. So long as Judge Dougherty is the gatekeeper to the adult system, he expressed his commitment to keeping the children of Philadelphia walking out and fairing well.

With the burgeoning custody dockets due to the high volume of modification and emergency petitions “we can never have enough” personnel in the Custody Masters Unit, Judge Murphy said. She also expressed concern with the growing number of custody cases crossing the dependency line.

In response to the new custody statutes that became effective in January 2011, the focus on criminal convictions of custody litigants and members of their households has received greater scrutiny at the Domestic Relations branch. Criminal extracts are routinely being pulled and reviewed by the custody masters and judges. While Pennsylvania extracts are easily accessible, concerns arise with out-of-state convictions, which are more difficult to obtain in a timely manner. Counsel should review criminal abstracts for all parties before going to court to ensure preparedness to deal with the court’s examination of the litigants’ criminal backgrounds.

Judge Murphy proudly reported that Pennsylvania is the number one state amongst urban communities in the nation for child support collections, with the next state lagging 50 percent behind. This achievement is due in part to the practical approach utilized by the FJD of closing out support cases where there is no hope of collecting support arrears. Such orders are closed without prejudice so if the obligor ever has ascertainable income from employment, a lawsuit, disability, workers compensation or other source, the case can be re-opened for collection efforts.

The divorce cases in Philadelphia are attorney propelled. Judge Murphy reported that last year the FJD saw about 2,000 new cases and disposed of about 2,000 cases. However, Philadelphia is laden with about 10,000 inactive divorces that Judge Murphy cannot simply dismiss for lack of activity, due, in part, to the 2005 amendments to the Divorce Code that allow an estate to step into the shoes of a deceased spouse in divorce cases where grounds had been established. Prior to that amendment, if a spouse died during a divorce, the action abated and any resulting litigation would proceed in the Orphans Court Division. To combat this growing number of inactive divorce cases, Judge Murphy has undertaken to personally review each inactive divorce file for disposition. Judge Murphy encouraged any counsel who seek leave to withdraw in an inactive matter to present some documents of efforts made to locate the client for withdrawal to be approved.

Judge Dougherty confirmed the progress of the new, unified Family Court building, which will have 15 floors and 29 courtrooms. The new building at 15th and Arch streets is expected to open in the late summer of 2014.

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