Tamara Steckler, Attorney-in-Charge of the Juvenile Rights Practice, discusses the overburdened Family Court system with the Associated Press.

After 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown was discovered emaciated and beaten to death despite warning signs of her abuse, sweeping reforms were made to New York's child welfare agency. Millions were invested, caseworkers were added and police presence beefed up. But the legal system that deals with troubled families remains stagnant in the two years since Nixzmary's death, choked with a backlog of hundreds of cases that forces children around the state to languish in foster care.

"You have a certain exigency to cases involving children," Judge Ann Pfau, chief administrative judge for New York state courts. "You want to be able to resolve problems as quickly as possible, you just want stability for the child. Six months in criminal court case is different from six months in a family court case. Six months is a very long time for a child. We think about it all the time."

There are 47 judges assigned to Family Court in New York City, and about 146 statewide who handle more than 750,000 filings each year. In New York City, judges regularly have more than 2,000 cases pending, and can hear more than 50 cases per day.

The court handles matters involving families and children, and makes legal decisions involving paternity, adoption, custody and foster care in addition to abuse and neglect cases and juvenile deliquency.

The number of judges hasn't changed since 1991, despite a surge in filings after the girl's death. The court's heavy caseload has also been expanded by a recent law giving its judges jurisdiction over additional types of domestic squabbles.

"There is no court in the state that has more filings than Family Court," Pfau said. The system has been borrowing judges from other courts and getting retired judges to come back to work to help ease the burden.

Pfau said that what the system really needs is for the State Assembly to add more judges. An analysis showed at least 14 judges are needed in New York City alone to handle the workload, according to Family Court Chief Administrative Judge Joseph Lauria.

"We are straining our present resources, but the work has to go on," Lauria said. Bills asking for additional judges have been proposed from time to time, usually following a high-profile child abuse case, but nothing has been approved. A bill stalled in the State Assembly that would have created 39 new judgeships, including 14 in New York City.

But the New York is facing serious economic trouble with a $5.4 billion budget deficit looming next year, so it may not be likely to hire more judges any time soon. Gov. David Paterson cut $427 million from the current state budget and wants to slash another $600 million next year. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ordered cuts amounting to $1 billion by fiscal year 2010. Nixzmary died Jan. 11, 2006, of a vicious blow to the head while being punished for taking a cup of yogurt from the family refrigerator.

Investigators discovered she had been a virtual prisoner, confined to a room with dirty mattresses, a broken radiator and a wooden chair to which she was bound with a rope. She had been using a litter box as a toilet. Her stepfather, Cesar Rodriguez, was convicted of manslaughter in March and is serving 29 years in prison.

Nixzmary's mother, Nixzaliz Santiago, is currently on trial. She pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. Prosecutors say she did nothing to stop the abuse and at times provoked it. There had been warning signs for years before Nixzmary's death. School employees reported that she had been absent for weeks. Neighbors noticed unexplained injuries. The child appeared underfed. Child welfare workers were alerted twice but said they found no conclusive evidence of abuse. Her case never made it to court.

After her death, the city invested $16 million in the Administration for Children's Services, increased staff and decreased the maximum number of cases assigned to each caseworker. The child advocacy law firm that handles many abuse and neglect cases, the Legal Aid Society Juvenile Rights Practice, hired 35 more attorneys and limited their workload to keep children from being lost in the shuffle.

Previously, lawyers at the firm were handling as many as 250 clients apiece. That number was decreased to 150, said Tamara Steckler, who runs the department. "You can have attorneys with fewer cases and an infusion of money to child welfare, but judges are still hearing too many cases," Steckler said. "It's really distressing to work in the courthouse with an inability to do the work well. These children are counting on you so they do not languish in foster care." The average child is spending five years in foster care, and there are about 17,000 children citywide in the system. Even with the bottleneck in court cases, though, those numbers have decreased. In 1998, 43,000 children were in foster care and the average time was nearly seven years.

"Progress is being made," Lauria said. "But it's not down to what we'd like it to be."

 By Colleen Long, Associated Press Writer