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Washington, D.C., Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus King III is about to face his first major political test. Angry at how the city handles child abuse and neglect cases, Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, says he plans to introduce legislation that would carve the Family Division out of Superior Court and create a separate family court with full-time judges and administrators. The House majority whip’s plan is in direct contrast to the court’s ongoing attempts to reform the Family Division. King, who became chief judge in October, must now walk the line between embracing Congress’ interest in local family matters and retaining control over how family cases are handled. DeLay’s involvement could be a great opportunity because it would likely bring much-needed funds to the D.C. court system — but the price could be a plan that court officials and many in the bar don’t want. “It’s clear that there is a lot of interest in a separate family court,” says King. “The issue isn’t whether it’s a separate entity, but in what ways can the services that the court is providing to the public be improved. “Before I fully address the issue of a family court we need to understand those issues,” adds King. Superior Court Judge Reggie Walton, who presides over the Family Division and who has led the effort to assess problems there, says many of DeLay’s concerns stem from a lack of resources in the entire child care system, not just the court. “If we were convinced that a separate family court was the best way for kids to get the appropriate protections and services, then we would say, ‘Yes, this should happen,’ ” Walton says. “ We’re not convinced this is the case. “We are only a part of the system,” Walton adds. There is also a tremendous amount of local support for keeping family matters within Superior Court. Last week, family law practitioners, bar organizations, and court groups that have studied the Family Division came out against DeLay’s plan. “The people on the Hill haven’t had a chance to think this through,” says Christopher Hoge, past president of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia. “Once they’re properly informed as to what’s going on, we think they’ll change their minds.” It’s unclear how committed DeLay is to the idea of a separate family court. Calls for comment from his office were not returned. But a spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who has been working with DeLay on the legislation, says, “We are completely wedded to the idea of establishing a separate family court. The question is more how soon, than if.” DeLay’s move is in direct response to the January 2000 murder of 23-month-old Brianna Blackmond, who was beaten to death shortly after being removed from her foster parents and given back to her mother. Blackmond’s murder, which highlighted several shortcomings of the child abuse and neglect system, immediately grabbed the attention of DeLay. According to two sources, DeLay became frustrated that the city wasn’t moving quickly enough to correct the problems that led to Blackmond’s death, so his staff began drafting the court legislation last fall. D.C. court supporters, however, point out that the court’s role in the matter — the fact that Judge Evelyn Queen approved a consent agreement to send Blackmond home to her mother without holding a hearing — has been remedied. In February 2000, then-Chief Judge Eugene Hamilton issued an administrative order requiring judges to hold hearings in matters involving the placement of children. Reforming the Family Division also was a key issue last year when seven judges campaigned for chief judge of Superior Court. After King was selected, he assigned Walton to head the effort. Walton put together four working groups of judges and practitioners to analyze all areas of the Family Division, which include divorce and custody matters, domestic violence, and juvenile justice. The groups, which were formed last month, have 60 days to report their findings. “We now have a chief judge who is conscientious of these issues,” says James Roberts, president of the Family Division Trial Lawyers Association. When King and Walton met with DeLay two weeks ago, the judges convinced the Republican leader to let them finish their internal study and report their findings before moving forward with legislation. The two judges plan to visit model family courts across the country over the next month, including one in DeLay’s home state of Texas. The study is scheduled to be completed at the end of April. Walton says some of the court’s own recommendations will likely involve increasing the amount of time judges spend in the Family Division. Currently, judges are rotated through the division every year, but some stay on for two. And Walton says he is already pursuing more training for judges and family law practitioners. Walton adds that there are currently 4,500 pending child abuse and neglect cases before the court. Under the existing system those cases are spread out among the court’s 59 judges and several senior judges — averaging about 80 cases per judge. On average, Walton says, about 20 new cases are filed each month, but in January there were about 70. The result, critics say, is that cases get shuffled to judges with big dockets and, sometimes, little expertise. Opponents of DeLay’s initiative have a whole host of reasons why they believe a separate family court would not work. For one, the District had such a court more than 30 years ago. The system, they say, floundered because of a lack of resources and political clout. There is also the burnout factor. Walton, who has handled his fair share of difficult family cases, says that the emotions involved in such cases and the difficult decisions to be made have a lasting effect on the judge. “After three years or so of doing this kind of work, it really takes its toll,” Walton says. “It’s not just good for the judge, but also for the system, for the judge to get his respite.” A new court would also be extremely expensive, requiring its own administrative staff and court leadership. Although no one has exact figures, some practitioners and judges estimate the court would require more than $50 million. “If we set up a whole new court, it would take longer to get it up to speed than fixing what we have now, and it would be more costly than fixing the Family Division,” says Priscilla Skillman, assistant director at the Council for Court Excellence, which has been working with the court and city on child welfare reform since October 1999. At the same time, most everyone involved recognizes the upside when a powerful federal lawmaker proposes spending millions of dollars on a D.C. project. “I see, among other things, that this has the potential for a huge win-win situation,” King says. “If that kind of money becomes available for direct benefit for kids, then we can do some great work here.”

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