MANHATTAN (CN) — Chronic delays and lack of enforcement in New York Family courts leave custodial parents unable to support themselves and their children when noncustodial parents fall thousands of dollars behind on support payments, a class action against the state’s family courts claimed Wednesday.
Lead plaintiff Liz Martinez and seven other mothers say the Family Court routinely violates its own rule on deciding cases in 60 to 90 days. The result is the state rewards parents who are sometimes thousands of dollars behind on their child support payments, and punishes parents with legal or physical custody who are forced into debt or onto welfare when the courts fail to offer them relief, the women say in New York County Supreme Court.
“Unfortunately, for custodial parents in the New York City Family Court, the vast majority of whom are low-income mothers and unrepresented by counsel, the reality is that these petitions are decided many more than three months or even years after the violation petition is filed,” according to the lawsuit filed by attorney Rene Kathawala with Orrick Herrington.
New York State Courts spokesman Lucian Chalfen said Thursday that he had seen the lawsuit but could not comment on pending litigation.
The mothers ask the New York Family Court to abide by rules that protect custodial parents and are meant to ensure that noncustodial parents pay arrears quickly.
The family court should schedule the first appearance no more than 30 days after a noncustodial parent files a petition and judges should complete proceedings to determine a willful violation within 60 days, the complaint states. Adjournments of more than 14 days should occur only with good reason, the mothers say.
Lead plaintiff Martinez, of the Bronx, says the system fails to deliver justice to mothers desperate to meet their children’s needs.
Martinez is the mother of three children, one of whom has special needs. When she lost her $15 per hour job, and the father of her children fell thousands of dollars behind on child support payments, she petitioned the court.
She filed a first violation petition on Oct. 26, 2015, but faced several adjournments after he failed to show up in court and violated court orders. This year the father is still $27,750 in arrears, and Martinez says she will not get another day in court until February 2018, after her case was adjourned on Wednesday.
Martinez’s case is not unusual. Child support arrears in cases involving custodial parents on public assistance came to $7 billion in the state of New York in 2016, or $11,640 in arrears per case.
Child support arrears of $497 million were paid in the State of New York last year, a collection rate of about 7 percent of support payments owed.
Although New York has introduced courtrooms in the Bronx, Kings and New York counties dedicated to hearing child support violation petitions, support magistrate judges in those cases typically focus on fathers’ future payments and employment, the mothers say.
“However, that is a non sequitur, because the point of a violation petition is to determine the remedy for the noncustodial parent’s willful failure to pay child support in the past,” the complaint states.
A parent who knowingly violates a child support order could face up to 6 months in jail. But judges’ failure to punish violators has encouraged noncustodial parents to let their payments fall into arrears, the mothers say. That leaves the burden on low-income mothers who must turn to public assistance to meet the needs of their children, and are forced into debt and even into shelters.
“The economic costs are borne by all of us as government is forced in many cases to provide public benefits to the custodial parents and their children because they are not receiving child support,” the 40-page complaint states.
The mothers seek class certification and mandamus relief, to assure Family Court complies with Family Court Rule section 205.43 as required by the U.S. Social Security Act.
Defendants include New York State’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, Chief Administrative Judge of the Unified Court System Lawrence Marks, Chief Magistrate of the New York City Family Court Carol Sherman, and Chief Administrative Judge of the New York City Family Court Jeanette Ruiz.
Lead counsel Rene Kathwalla, with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, is assisted by attorneys with Sanctuary for Families - Center for Battered Women's Legal Services, both of Manhattan.