Sitting judge argues that court staffs are stretched too thin

ADDISON COUNTY — Superior Court Judge Robert Mello called fiscal year 2014 — which spanned July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014 — a record year.
During that year, Mello said there were more than 100 juvenile filings in Addison County Superior Court, of which 54 were Children In Need of Supervision (CHINS) cases. Another 51 were delinquencies, where the state’s attorney has claimed the child committed a criminal act. And 11 of the cases were requests for termination of parental rights, which Mello called the “capital punishment” equivalent in family court cases.
Records, as they say, are meant to be broken — and last year’s juvenile court filings record is no exception.
The first 10 months of fiscal year 2015 have produced “even more cases than we had in the record year,” Mello noted.
As of the end of April, Addison County had seen 65 filings dealing with CHINS — 11 more than last year’s record — and 51 delinquency filings, which equals the 2014 record. Delinquency cases are children who have been accused of a criminal act.
There have also been 21 requests for the termination of parental rights, up from 11 during the record year.
“We have had 31 new filings in two months,” Mello said. “If that were to continue for a year, it would be 180, which would be off the charts.”
On April 21, Mello called an emergency juvenile bench bar meeting to discuss the latest trend.
“I gave the numbers to (Department of Children and Families officials), and they were no surprise to them,” Mello said. “I asked, ‘Is this an aberration, or is this recent trend going to continue?’”
A DCF official at the April 21 meeting told Mello that the surge in juvenile case filings is no aberration, and it’s expected to continue.
“So the numbers are in the stratosphere,” Mello said. “We have already exploded all the records and we aren’t even finished with the (fiscal) year yet.”
And the judge noted that juvenile cases that come into the court system are entitled to priority, by state law.
“You have to give them priority because of the issues involved,” Mello said, alluding to issues of keeping children safe.
“We are definitely stretched thin,” Mello added. “We could use another judge in Addison County, but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, we are begging and borrowing for as much assistance from magistrates and judges in other counties as possible, and they have been helpful to the extent they can. But they are facing the same thing.”
A second judge used to come down for a day each week to help the presiding Addison County judge with the workload. Now, a magistrate lends a hand every two weeks, according to Mello.
“We have less help than we had before, and a greater workload,” he said.
And Mello noted that the Addison County Courthouse staff is also being stretched thin.
“My docket clerks have far more work than we have docket clerks available to do,” Mello said. “In addition to that, our guardians ad litem are beyond the breaking point. These are volunteers, saints on Earth, who volunteer their time … in juvenile cases. Some of our most experienced guardians are refusing to take more cases, or even threatening to resign. They are just buried. They are discouraged. There are too few of them, with too much to do.”
Also in short supply are juvenile attorneys, according to Mello. Each participant in a juvenile case — the child, the parents and various state agencies — is entitled to legal representation.
“Even if we doubled the judge time, we don’t have enough guardians ad litem, staff or attorneys to cover the load if it continues the way it has,” Mello said.
Judges have met with legislators twice during the past six weeks in an effort to explain the need and perhaps leverage some additional aid to address the court system workload.
“I was able to show them the incredible trend that’s going on,” Mello said. “We urged them to provide the judiciary with the resources that we need.”
The fiscal year 2016 budget was still fluid as the Addison Independent went to press. Lawmakers at the beginning of the session had urged the judiciary to find around $500,000 in savings, noting the state was facing a $113 million revenue shortfall.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, is vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He said state Senate leaders are recommending raising another $700,000 for the judiciary through increases to seven categories of court filing fees — particularly in the Probate division. But Jewett was not sure as of Tuesday how the $700,000 would be apportioned.
“I have a feeling this is about getting back to a baseline, not increasing personnel,” Jewett said.

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