Philadelphia Family Court. Photo: P.J. D’Annunzio

Philadelphia Family Court Judge Lyris F. Younge, who in recent weeks has faced strong criticism from an appeals court as well as protests in the street for violating parents’ rights, is off the bench—at least for now—and another judge has taken over her cases, undoing several of her rulings that removed children from their parents.

Younge has been off the bench since last week and has not been assigned judicial duties for this week either, according to the court’s schedule and several family lawyers. Judge Joseph Fernandes now sits in her courtroom and has taken over her caseload.

It is unclear why Younge is not hearing cases at this time or whether she is even in the courthouse. Court administration did not respond to requests for comment on her whereabouts or status. Younge is currently under investigation by the state Judicial Conduct Board, her attorney Samuel Stretton confirmed earlier this month, prompted by a series of articles in The Legal exposing her history of due process violations.

Stretton said in an interview Monday that Younge was taking an “extended chambers week,” to write rulings. A chambers week in and of itself is not uncommon, but it is unusual for another judge to take over a colleague’s workload and to make substantive decisions in open cases.

Stretton said this was because Younge needed extra time to complete her paperwork and the court did not want to hold up her cases for an extended period. However, Stretton said he was also unsure as to whether Younge would ultimately be transferred to another division of the court.

“In the long run, whether she remains there or not, I have no say in that. That would be decided when the opinions are done,” Stretton said.

Since Fernandes has taken Younge’s place, he has undone multiple orders terminating parental rights and sending children to foster care, family lawyer Aaron Mixon said.

Mixon’s clients, Lisa Mothee and Miltreda Kress, both had custody of their children taken away by Younge, and both claimed the judge denied them the opportunity to present their side of the cases in court.

Mothee’s five children were taken from her after the Philadelphia Department of Human Services claimed she had been using opioids. Mixon said, however, that Mothee had been tested and it was determined that she had no substance abuse issues. Mothee additionally complied with all court-ordered goals for reunification, yet Younge refused to reinstate custody, according to Mixon.

However, Fernandes granted reunification for Mothee and her children Monday, ending the months-long separation in a matter of minutes.

In Kress’ case, the Department of Human Services investigated her household after her daughter made abuse allegations against Kress’ live-in boyfriend—allegations that Kress said the 14-year-old later recanted. Mixon added that Kress’ daughters told the court they wanted to return home to her mother, but Younge refused.

Last week, Fernandes ordered that Kress be allowed unsupervised visits with her children in foster care, and they are now on track for reunification by August, Mixon said.

“In Lisa’s case our client has been fully compliant and we’re glad the kids will return where they belong,” Mixon said. “For Millie, we’re glad she got unsupervised visits for her kids.”

Mothee and Kress were two of dozens who took to the streets to protest Younge’s treatment of parents. Along with them were others with cases before Younge, including a grandmother who claimed her grandsons, ages 5 and 9 years old, were placed into foster care even though she was willing to house the boys in her seven-bedroom New Jersey home.

Younge denied custody to the grandmother because she lived across state lines. The 9-year-old was later molested by a foster parent, the grandmother claimed.

On May 4, the state Superior Court reversed a ruling from Younge that kept a couple’s five-month-old daughter in foster care where she remains as a toddler, allowing the parents to visit their child only twice per week, as a means to force a confession of alleged child abuse.

In a stinging opinion published by the state Superior Court, Superior Court Judge Anne E. Lazarus said, “The fact that a trial judge tells parents that unless one of them ‘cops to an admission of what happened to the child’ they are going to lose their child, flies in the face of not only the [child protection laws] but of the entire body of case law with regard to best interests of the child and family reunification.”