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FAMILY COURT ISN'T THE PROBLEM

It is difficult to know where to begin the process of pointing out the numerous flaws in a Dec. 3 "In the Debate" column by Karen Schimke and Russell Sykes. In it, the authors propose an administrative procedure to establish child-support obligations.

Having served as a Family Court hearing examiner for the past 12 years, charged with the duty to hear and decide child-support cases, I may have a vested interest in the process. But I also have a fair amount of knowledge about what is right and what is wrong with the system.

The Schimke/Sykes proposal would bring the entire child-support system to a screeching halt.

Let's start with the duo's most blatant deception -- implying that there are 460,000 child-support cases backlogged in our courts.

Federal law mandates that 90 percent of child-support cases must have a final order within 90 days and 100 percent within 180 days. Our chief judge's directive has consistently been "zero tolerance" for exceeding these goals, and in my experience virtually every case has been heard and decided in these time limits.

This past year, after 12 years and more than 30,000 cases, I had the misfortune of having to report my first case over standards and goals. Within one week of that report, the deputy chief judge for upstate New York was on the telephone to my supervising judge, Vincent Doyle, in Buffalo. Within the next week, I was having a face-to-face meeting with Judge Doyle to explain the problem.

Moreover, Erie County Family Court has one of the fastest turnaround times in the state. Most petitions are scheduled in court within eight days of filing. Filing -- there is the problem. Someone has to file a petition with the Family Court in order for the process to begin. Where is the 460,000-case backlog? It is with the agencies charged with filing these petitions -- the very agencies that Schimke and Sykes would invest with authority to establish child-support obligations.

This proposal strikes me as being a little like evacuating the passengers of the Titanic to the decks of the Lusitania.

WILLIAM J. GABLER Hearing Examiner
Cattaraugus County Family Court

As a hearing examiner in Erie County Family Court and president of the New York State Hearing Examiners' Association, I can attest that fast is not always better in child-support determinations. A myriad of factors must be weighed.

What does the self-employed individual really earn when the tax return says zero? What should the non-custodial parent pay when he/she has other children in a new family? Should the support automatically be reduced when the non-custodial parent claims that he/she cannot find employment? What support should be ordered when a non-custodial parent works "on commission"? How should we assess the custodial parent's desire that the children attend private school? How can we insure that the children receive medical insurance? Is the custodial parent's child-care expense valid?

The suggestion that an automated centralized system establish a child-support obligation by applying a percentage to a figure taken by a computer off a tax return is ludicrous.

And what about due process of law? The administrative scheme purports to have the opportunity for appeal. But every administrative scheme I've studied calls for what is termed an "Article 78" appeal proceeding. One must hire an attorney, have an extensive set of papers prepared, pay a filing fee and go to Supreme Court. To many low-income people, this is no right of appeal.

The hearing examiners applaud many of the recent changes that allow for the expedited collection of child support. However, we are proud of our records and wary of "quick-fix" proposals.

JOHN J. AMAN Hearing Examiner
Erie County Family Court

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