D.C. Family Court:

Additional Actions Should Be Taken to Fully Implement Its Transition

GAO-02-584: Published: May 6, 2002. Publicly Released: May 6, 2002.

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The District of Columbia Family Court Act of 2001 was enacted to (1) redesignate the Family Division of the Superior Court as the Family Court of the Superior Court, (2) recruit trained and experienced judges to serve in the Family Court, and (3) promote consistency and efficiency in the assignment of judges and the courts actions and proceedings. The act requires the chief judge of the Superior Court to submit a transition plan outlining the proposed operation of the Family Court. The plan shows that the Superior Court has made progress transitioning its Family Division to a Family Court, but challenges remain. The transition plan addresses most, but not all, of the act's required elements. For example, the plan identifies the number of judges and magistrate judges needed and outlines an approach for closing or transferring cases from other divisions to the Family Court. However, the plan does not include (1) a request that the Judicial Nomination Commission recruit and the president nominate the additional judges the court believes are necessary, (2) the number of nonjudicial staff needed for the Family Court, (3) information on the qualifications of the judges selected for the court, and (4) information on how the court determined the number of magistrate judges to hire under the expedited process provided for in the act. Although not specifically required by the act, the plan includes information on performance management and enumerates performance measures that are oriented more toward the court's processes than on outcomes. Measures that focus on outcomes for children and families could help to optimize the court's performance. This testimony is based on a May report (GAO-02-534).

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its transition plan supplement, the Court stated that it considered several factors in determining the number of magistrate judges needed under the expedited appointment procedures. Specifically, the Court considered the safety and permanency of children, optimal caseload size, and available courtroom and office space. It then determined the maximum number of children whose cases could safely be transferred without causing delay in permanency. According to the Court, a gradual reassignment of cases among judicial officers is the safest way to transfer cases. In addition, the Court established a set of criteria, as outlined in its initial transition plan, for the return of cases. Using these criteria and taking into account the concerns of the District's Child and Family Services Agency and the Office of Corporation Counsel about the number of judges before whom social workers and attorneys appear, the Court determined that 1,500 abuse and neglect cases could be safely transferred to the Family Court during the initial transfer period ending May 31, 2002. Based on the number of cases eligible for immediate transfer (1,500) and the need to assign manageable caseloads to the new magistrate judges so as to enhance the quality of court hearings and outcomes for children, the Court determined that a caseload of 300 children per magistrate was appropriate. Accordingly, the Court appointed five magistrate judges in April 2002 and the remaining four magistrate judges in October 2002.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the District of Columbia Superior Court complies with all statutory requirements contained in the District of Columbia Family Court Act, the Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Superior Court should supplement the court's transition plan by providing an analysis of how the Family Court identified the number of magistrate judges needed under the expedited appointment procedures.

    Agency Affected: District of Columbia: Superior Court

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the D.C. Family Court Act, the chief judge may not assign an individual to serve on the Family Court as an associate judge unless that individual has training or expertise in family law and certifies that he/she will participate in the ongoing training programs for judges of the Family Court. The initial transition plan identified the need for 15 associate judges and identified 12 judges currently serving in the Superior Court to fill some of these positions. However, the plan did not address the qualifications of these 12 individuals. We recommended that the Chief Judge supplement the court's transition plan by providing a determination of the number of individuals identified in the transition plan to serve on the Family Court that meet the qualifications. The Family Court's supplement to its transition plan was issued in July 2002. This document states that the Court considered three factors as qualifications to serve as an associate judge on the Family Court: (1) experience and training, (2) positive interest in serving, and (3) willingness to participate in the extended training under the D.C. Family Court Act. According to the Family Court's transition plan supplement, the 12 judges currently serving in the Superior Court met all three of the selection criteria. In August 2004, the court provided information on the qualifications of the three newly appointed associate judges and thereby provided a description of the qualifications for all 15 judges appointed to the Family Court. By appointing only qualified individuals as associate judges to the Family Court, it is in a better position to ensure that decisions and actions support children and families and that the Family Court complies with applicable laws.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the District of Columbia Superior Court complies with all statutory requirements contained in the District of Columbia Family Court Act, the Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Superior Court should supplement the court's transition plan by providing a determination of the number of individuals identified in the transition plan to serve on the Family Court that meet the qualifications for judges on the Family Court.

    Agency Affected: District of Columbia: Superior Court

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A consultant to the Superior Court of D.C. completed a staffing study in June 2002 which identified shortages of nonjudicial staff in the Family Court. However, according to Court officials, significant changes had occurred while the study was underway and as a result were not reflected in the study results. In September 2003, the Superior Court entered into another contract to reassess resource needs in light of these changes and results from that study were received by the Court in July 2004. The consultant reported that there were staffing gaps in certain divisions of the Family Court, but also recommended that the Court complete its process of reengineering efforts before increasing the staff levels. In August 2004, the Court noted that its business process reengineering work was underway. In July 2006, the Family Court reported that, since reviewing the consultant's report and after examining its staffing needs in light of organizational and operational changes, it requested and received approval to create new nonjudicial positions to ensure sufficient support in this area.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the District of Columbia Superior Court complies with all statutory requirements contained in the District of Columbia Family Court Act, the Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Superior Court should supplement the court's transition plan by providing a determination of the number of nonjudicial staff needed for the Family Court when the staffing study is complete.

    Agency Affected: District of Columbia: Superior Court

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2004, officials reported that the Court was in the process of identifying indicators that will allow it to establish baseline performance, identify areas for reform, and measure progress in meeting timelines and other goals, such as child safety, permanency, and well being. Additionally, the court identified 13 measures as the core of its initial performance assessment. The Court planned to begin collecting the data in 2004. In 2005, the Family Court implemented two performance measures -- permanency and timeliness -- to reach the goal of ensuring that children have permanency in their living situations and to expedite permanency by minimizing the time from filing the petition to permanency. They collected related data, such as the percentage of children who reached legal permanency, and the time elapsed until hearings for children removed from the home. This was the first time that the Family Court was able to measure the time for children to reach permanency. Their subsequent data analysis allowed the Court to better assess performance over time in achieving positive outcomes for children.

    Recommendation: Although not required by the Family Court Act to be included in the Family Court's transition plan, the practices of courts in other jurisdictions, if fully adopted, could optimize the court's performance. To achieve more efficient and effective operations, the Chief Judge of the District of Columbia Superior Court should consider identifying performance measures to track progress toward positive outcomes for the children and families the Family Court serves.

    Agency Affected: District of Columbia: Superior Court

 

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