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1Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court overwhelmed, causing long delays on cases

Published: Sunday, May 20, 2012, 12:01 AM Updated: Sunday, May 20, 2012, 12:22 AM

By Sarah Jane Tribble, The Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- In Cuyahoga County, a parent fighting for custody of a child or support may have to wait until 2013 for their day in court.

At least one magistrate at the county's Juvenile Court is scheduling hearings in February next year, records show. At a minimum, the wait is at least five months to get a first hearing on any support or paternity case at the new taxpayer-funded Juvenile Justice Center on East 93rd Street and Quincy Avenue.

The $189 million complex opened last year with plenty of courtrooms and easy parking, and by all appearances seems up to date. But those appearances belie an overwhelmed and dysfunctional operation, according to a Plain Dealer examination of court records and interviews with people who deal with the court.

"The system itself is not serving the community," said Joe Young, an assistant county prosecutor who has for years raised issues with how child support and custody cases are handled.

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Others share Young's concerns. Backlogged cases highlight what local attorneys and officials at the county prosecutor's office and the county's child support enforcement agency call systemic problems at one of the state's busiest juvenile courts.

Richard Jones, who took the helm of Cuyahoga County's Employment and Family Services as well as the Child Support Enforcement Agency in November, bemoans a lack of accountability and productivity as reasons that the court fails to "work on behalf of the people."

"You have a number particularly of low-income families who are voiceless. It would be very different if it affected others," said Jones, who was previously the president and chief executive of Metropolitan Family Services, a nonprofit human service agency that serves about 43,000 families and individuals in Chicago and its suburbs.

Overwhelming caseload, slow response

Few juvenile courts in the state handle as many cases as Cuyahoga County's.

According to the Ohio Supreme Court, Cuyahoga County's Juvenile Court handled more than 26,200 new cases, transfers and re-activated cases in 2011.

State records also show that Cuyahoga County fails to process paternity, custody and support cases as quickly as many other courts in Ohio. The state supreme court's guidelines recommend that paternity and support cases be processed within a year from filing.

In 2011, the statewide average for missing that one-year window was 9 percent of paternity cases and 4 percent of support cases, according to the high court. Cuyahoga County missed that one-year window in 2011 on 11 percent of paternity cases, and, 11 percent of support cases.

As of the end of February, Cuyahoga County's averages had worsened, according to the local court's own data: About 16 percent of child support cases and 19 percent of paternity cases in had exceeded the one-year guidelines.

"I don't know that our numbers have ever exceeded the guidelines like they are now," Court Administrator Marita Kavalec said during one of a series of interviews since March.

"We are keenly aware of it and we are addressing it, we are absolutely addressing it," Kavalec said.

Administrative Judge Thomas F. O'Malley did not respond to requests for interview.

On Friday, after hearing of the case delays in Cuyahoga County, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor released a statement saying the high court is available to provide assistance.

In 2009, the state supreme court conducted a rare review of Cuyahoga County divorce court's five judges and declared that major reform was needed to correct habitually inefficient and under-performing ways. By 2010, Diane Palos replaced that court's Administrative Judge Timothy Flanagan, who held the job for 26 years.

Kavalec said that juvenile court is committed to "looking at everything from A to Z here and within the system." A staffing cut two years ago and an unprecedented increase in cases has caused "an extraordinarily unusual time" for the court, she said.

"The number of children born to unwed mothers has dramatically increased in the county and Cleveland," Kavalec said. "There is not a capacity in this county, in my opinion, to deal with what our society is facing right now."

From 2008 to 2010, the number of motions and new filings for child support and paternity cases increased by 40 percent, peaking at more than 11,000 in 2010 , Kavalec said. She said she was "not inclined" to release how many child support and paternity cases were on the docket last year because the numbers have not been verified.

Franklin County's juvenile division is one of the few in the state as large as Cuyahoga's - indeed it is bigger. The county, which includes Columbus, handled more than 33,300 cases in its juvenile division last year -- or about 29 cases per 1,000 residents as compared with Cuyahoga's 21 cases per 1,000 residents, according to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Yet the wait for a hearing in Franklin County is far shorter than in Cuyahoga County. Magistrates who handle child support enforcement agency cases are booking hearings in July and August, said Gina Palmer, administrative magistrate for that Franklin County's combined juvenile and domestic court.

How are they doing it so quickly? Palmer said Franklin County, unlike Cuyahoga, has a combined juvenile and domestic court.

"It's easier to transfer between them and easier to look at your statistics and make decisions," Palmer said.

While acknowledging that Cuyahoga County's delays were serious, Kavalec said they have internally begun to work on a plan that would improve the pace at which cases move through the system and the service the court provides to the community. She declined to provide any details about the plan, but did say that the court is "scrutinizing data."

Kavalec added that she is "not a proponent of haste" but rather of being deliberate.

Meanwhile, cases languish and thousands of children go without vital monthly payments from absent parents, according to Jones and others.

"These families are in crisis," Jones said. "We exacerbate the tension through all these judicial processes we put them through. Can you imagine being told your hearing would be in 2013? That's just overwhelming."

Failing contract requirements

When it comes to scheduling hearings and processing child support orders, Cuyahoga County's Juvenile Court also has consistently failed to meet its contractual requirements with the child support enforcement agency that Jones leads -- earning a below average rating twice in the past five years.

The court's contract with the agency requires that 75 percent of paternity cases, which establish a parent-child relationship, be resolved within six months of filing and that 90 percent of the support filings be resolved within 12 months of filing.

Chief Juvenile Court Magistrate Dana Chavers bluntly told county leaders during a March public meeting: "We're absolutely unable to do that at this point."

For 2011, the agency ranked the court as below average, citing performance concerns that included "unreasonable delays" in cases, scheduling barriers, and high dismissal rates.

The two-page evaluation also makes note that the court does not provide detailed reports of dismissed cases along with the reasons for the dismissals. Instead , the court's response has been "very limited and far from thorough," according to the evaluation.

Jones along with his deputy director, Anthony Sharaba, said they suspect that magistrates dismiss cases to avoid exceeding time guidelines -- not because the cases lack any judicial merit. Jones and Sharaba said that in many instances, dismissed cases are later re-filed as new ones - causing more time and money to be spent and further delaying the child-support or custody orders.

Kavalec said she "totally and completely" disagrees with the agency's assertions, adding that "we have lawful reasons to dismiss."

"The notion that we are doing so without merit, well, if any litigant believes something is being dismissed without merit they have the right to objection and appeal," Kavalec said.

Chavers, who regularly meets with the child-support agency, said in a brief phone interview that others outside the court would "hardly understand all the things that impact the docket." For example, parents are hard to track down or don't show up in court. Typically, it takes more than four hearings per case to reach a resolution, he said.

"Could we do some things better? Absolutely," he said. "We probably need some additional staff to do that."

Chavers also told Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Sunny Simon during the March public meeting that an obvious solution to processing orders more quickly is to hire more magistrates. Simon asked Chavers to report back on a plan within six months.

Slow to act

The vast majority of the county's child support and paternity cases do not go through the court because people can go directly to the child support enforcement agency for a hearing and decision. But for the thousands of parents who disagree with the agency's orders, their only recourse is the court.

Cuyahoga County, through the support agency's contract, pays the juvenile court more than $2.2 million annually for its services, according to the 2011 contract.

The contract, though, has no enforcement provision that mandates the court to meet certain requirements, Simon and others said. And records suggest that the court is slow in responding to calls for reform.

For example, in August 2009, a county prosecutor working on child support issues sent an e-mail to Administrative Judge O'Malley saying the court routinely fails to adhere to a state law requiring immediate issuance of child support orders when magistrates order changes in custody.

That message prompted an exchange of hundreds of pages of emails spanning years.

For weeks at a time, the e-mails would pass back-and-forth with prosecutors and members of the court, discussing how the cases would be handled by magistrates. Meetings would be held and then correspondence would stop for months.

By late 2011, Juvenile Court Judge Kristin Sweeney requested a meeting, according to email records. In February 2012, more than two years after the e-mail chain began, Sweeney e-mails the prosecutor: "I've added the issue of child support to the judges meeting agenda. My goal is to get the support of my colleagues and the administration to changing the status quo."

The first "Child Support Roundtable," as it’s called in the e-mails, was scheduled for April 4.

Afterward, on April 5, Sweeney e-mailed prosecutors as well as Juvenile Court Magistrates Holley Madigan and Nancy McMillen: "All things considered, I was happy with the way this went. . . it's easy to see why this issue is has been so very intractable."

To date, no changes have been made, said Young, the assistant county prosecutor.

Previous Plain Dealer coverage

  • · Emergency child custody hearings too disruptive, Juvenile Court says; judges may stop taking calls (April 4, 2012)
  • · Fancy digs mean fancier duds, bought by taxpayers, for magistrates in Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court: Michael K. McIntyre's Tipoff (Oct. 30, 2011)
  • · Miscalculation at Cuyahoga County's new Juvenile Justice Center adds to controversy (March 20)
  • · Cuyahoga County officials scrutinize pricey furnishings at new Juvenile Justice Center (March 3)
  • · Belated scrutiny for a money pit: Plain Dealer editorial (March 2)

When articles like this appear in the media one must pause to wonder why they are taking place when the lives of children are in the balance. When Ohio law changed to the “best interest of the child” standard that is used today it was so that children were not involved adult decisions. Yet when courts drag custody decisions out over long periods of time the child come to the forefront of the battleground.

Passage of SB144/HB253 would take the children out of the battle by reducing the conflict that is currently the norm. This legislation would place the decisions of the family in the hands of the family rather than in courts that perpetually drag their feet. Cases that are now taking years to decide will be reduced to mere months as the parents work out between themselves what is best for their individual family. Costs for the courts and the families will be reduced tremendously so that those precious funds can be better used for the future of Ohio’s children rather than expensive and unnecessary litigation.

Yet this legislation is sitting with no movement. Isn’t it about time that the children of the State of Ohio were given a priority so that they may enjoy the American Dream that we all thought was possible at one time.

Call your Senators and ask them to support this legislation!

Call your Representatives and ask them to support this legislation!

Ohio’s children deserve better than what is being done for them now. It is time to move this legislation forward.



Ohio Family Rights is a national free association of like minded people that work to comprehensively change the way that states and the courts view custody between divorced and never married people.  We have dedicated ourselves to correcting what has long been a major problem of socially engineering fit parents from the lives of their child every day. This goal can only be accomplished by comprehensively correcting the flaws within the “Shared Parenting laws” that are currently in place so that all fit parents and their children can benefit from equal custody. Please join us in our efforts to protect the families of this nation and the future of our children.

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