A move toward consistency may help get child welfare cases resolved faster and children into permanent homes sooner.
Under a pilot program implemented Dec. 21 by the Clark County Family Court, the same judge will oversee child welfare cases from start to finish, ending a practice of bouncing the cases among different judicial officers.
Officials say the move will give families more consistency, and will give judicial officers — judges and hearing masters — more accountability for each child.
“Children and families do better when there’s one judge in charge of their case,” said Barbara Buckley, executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and a member of the blue ribbon panel examining shortcomings in the county’s child welfare system and courts. “This enables the judge to get to know the family and to make the best decision.”
The pilot program was one of several recommendations by the blue ribbon committee, which Nevada Supreme Court Justice Nancy Saitta established last fall. The changes are the latest attempt to fix backlogs in the calendar for child welfare cases.
Delays in cases surfaced as a critical issue in 2012. In response, then-Chief Judge Jennifer Togliatti formed a committee, implemented through an administrative order, to examine the court’s process.
Members of the committee, dubbed Access to Justice for Victims of Child Abuse, included key players who are now on the blue ribbon panel, such as Saitta, Buckley and Clark County Assistant Manager Jeff Wells.
Family Court Judge Frank Sullivan was also on the committee. He is not on the blue ribbon panel but has testified on possible improvements.
Even with the 2012 committee’s recommended changes, problems with cases persisted.
“It was a good effort to try to make the calendar better, but it was still not working,” Buckley said.
Under the one family, one judge pilot program, all six judicial officers — three judges and three hearing masters — will get their own caseloads. Hearing masters will now also hear cases involving termination of parental rights.
But some families object to having their cases heard by hearing masters, because hearing masters can issue only recommendations.
“Hearing masters aren’t judges,” Sullivan said. “They don’t have the power of a judge. The hearing masters are going to hear (cases) from beginning to end, if you don’t like what they do, you can object to the judge.”
Every week, the three judges will rotate to hear the objections, Sullivan said. For consistency, Family Court Judge Charles Hoskin will hear all termination of parental rights objections.
Realistically, the system wasn’t going to get three more judges, Sullivan said.
“I think the issue is that if that’s not working out, the long-term plan should be to eventually get all district judges. It really should be all District Court judges … to be honest, if you ask my opinion,” he said. “Simply because it’s important and not that the hearing masters aren’t good. The three hearing masters we have are probably much better than I am, anyway.”
Bringing in new judges would cost about $1 million per judge, taking into account an annual salary of about $160,000 for six years and staff that would need to be hired, Sullivan said.
A bill introduced during the 2013 Legislature would have designated five family court judges in counties with populations of 700,000 or more to hear only cases involving child abuse and neglect, adoptions and parental rights termination. But the measure, Assembly Bill 100 — was withdrawn because the 2012 Access to Justice for Victims of Child Abuse committee was already working to find ways to speed the cases through the system, said Andy Eisen, former democratic assemblyman and the bill’s sponsor.
Under AB 100, the judges wouldn’t have been assigned until Jan. 1, 2015. But Togliatti issued a 2013 administrative order, with recommendations from the Justice to Access committee, and appointed an additional judge and assigned a hearing master for each of the three judges.
“I’m not sure that I would say that it was a missed opportunity,” Eisen said of the bill that would have assigned more judges. It was either “do something in a year and a half or (make) changes now.”
Family Court Judge T. Arthur Ritchie led the Access to Justice committee and testified against AB 100, minutes from the 2013 legislative session show.
During an interview, Ritchie said the court objected to AB 100 because of how the judges would be assigned.
He said both branches — legislative and judicial — worked together to resolve the problem. Bills involving judges are often contentious because you can’t have one branch tell another branch how to assign resources.
“Anytime a district judge’s jurisdiction is proscribed or limited, there are constitutional issues,” Ritchie said then, transcripts of the minutes show. “The way the bill is written might suggest that you are creating a judge with less authority or power than the District Court judge, or would be limited in jurisdiction.”
Hearing masters would preside over almost all hearings, except parental rights termination cases.
But the committee Ritchie led further limited the hearing masters’ responsibilities. It left it to the judges to decide case-by-case what hearing masters can hear, the 2013 administrative order shows.
Saitta couldn’t be reached for comment.
If the current changes don’t work, officials can abandon them, Sullivan said.
“The blue ribbon panel got everyone’s buy-in because I suggested this a long time ago, the problem was that the partners were not amenable to it,” Sullivan said. “It’s a pilot in essence that if it doesn’t work out, if the partners don’t like it, we’ll change it.”
Along with those changes, Sullivan’s courtroom has launched automated court orders. With them, the families walk away with the information they need for their next step in the process. Sullivan aims to have the automated orders rolled out for all six judicial officers this year.
Brigid Duffy, chief deputy district attorney for Clark County’s district attorney’s juvenile division, volunteered her attorneys to write the orders because there are no court clerks available to do so.
“It’s super-important for the families,” Duffy said. “The courts have provided us with the technology, and the technology support, but they have not provided us with the bodies.”
She hopes officials realize that the auotmated orders are a great advancement for the courts, and they’ll provide the necessary staff support. During a public meeting in December, Duffy expressed concerns that at some point her attorneys won’t be able to keep up.
“Their main job is to do the case,” she said this month.