By REBECCA ISENHART
SCHENECTADY COUNTY — In Schenectady County, as in the rest of New York state, family court proceedings are often characterized by long wait times and slow progress.
To alleviate that pressure here, the state Legislature approved funding for a third family court judge in the county just before the legislative session ended in June.
The race for the newly created seat has proved unusually crowded, especially on the Democratic line, where four candidates will face one another in the primary Sept. 9. All four Democratic candidates are residents of the town of Niskayuna: Ursula Hall, who has been endorsed by the party; Patricia Rodriguez; Jill Polk; and Bruce Trachtenberg.
Deanna Siegel of Duanesburg is the sole Republican candidate.
Last Monday night, candidates for the new Schenectady County Family Court judgeship gathered in Refreshing Waters Baptist Church in Schenectady for a community forum organized by the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference chapter.
Chief among attendees’ concerns was, unsurprisingly, the wait time at family court. This is the reason funding has been allocated for another judge, and the mere fact of the election will likely alleviate the court’s painfully slow pace to some degree.
The problem is manifold. Court appearances themselves are often spaced weeks or months apart, delaying a resolution for families facing stressful decisions such as custody of their children or potential Department of Social Services interventions. Tensions grow and tempers flare in the space between court appearances, often leading those involved to file numerous petitions that can further bog down the process.
Then, on the day of a family court trial, those involved may be required to wait hours to be called. This can be a great burden, especially for hourly workers who typically aren’t compensated for time away from their jobs.
“Theoretically, the job of the Department of Social Services is to reunite parent and child,” Trachtenberg said. But he acknowledged the stresses of the process.
“They don’t get paid sitting in the family court,” he said.
Community members at the forum asked the candidates to enumerate the ways they would work to solve the problem.
“There are parts of the system that are just flawed from an administrative perspective. Just adding another judge isn’t going to change what’s going on in our culture,” Polk said at the meeting. She said if elected she would evaluate the existing administrative process and attempt to pre-emptively cut back on paperwork, especially by working to move families into mediation so they might avoid the trial process altogether.
After the forum, Hall said an emphasis on mediation services would reduce the caseload for judges, freeing them to rule more quickly on other cases not solvable through mediation.
“I think sometimes parties just need to be able to have an opportunity to kind of vent and be heard and hash out the details,” she said.
The forum’s attendees were also especially concerned about the pitfalls of judging Schenectady County’s diverse community. Niskayuna, where all four Democratic candidates live, is a wealthier place on average than the rest of Schenectady County. The median household income in Niskayuna is about $96,000, according to 2012 census data, but the county average is about $56,000. In the city of Schenectady, where the forum was held, median household income is less than $36,000, and more than 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In Niskayuna, less than 2 percent does.
“As a good friend of mine used to say, well, not everybody’s lucky enough to live in Niskayuna. There are some issues of poverty,” Rodriguez said.
In addition to poverty, language came up at the forum as an issue for the would-be judges. 2012 census data indicated a language other than English is spoken in about 10 percent of households in Schenectady County. That number is higher in the city of Schenectady, around 13 percent, and lower in Niskayuna, about 7 percent.
Rodriguez operates a private practice on Upper Union Street. Her mother emigrated from Mexico and her grandmother spoke no English; now, she said, she often represents clients whose first language is Spanish. Rodriguez said if elected, she would be in favor of providing more translators in court.
As dialogue closed between the candidates and constituents, SCLC leaders and the family court judge hopefuls encouraged the attendees to vote Sept. 9.
“You need to know who you’re voting for for mayor, for City Council, because those people have a direct impact on your life,” Siegel said.