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Urgency should be paramount when it comes to Worcester County's children, DePalo said. "We are talking about the most vulnerable kids," he said. "While they are waiting, these kids are getting criminal records that are growing and growing."

DePalo said the children involved in juvenile court often are placed outside their homes, attend schools where they feel unwelcome and are in facilities or programs where they sometimes act out in frustration. Making them wait longer for their cases to be resolved can have negative impacts that affect them for the rest of their lives, he said.

WORCESTER — Three years after Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation adding a sixth judge to hear cases in the state's busiest juvenile court, Worcester County remains short-staffed, raising frustrations among legislators, judges and those who work to serve children.

 

Inside the court's mostly closed sessions, juvenile court judges in Worcester can be tasked with hearing 80 or more cases a day in the city.

 

They work to determine who is the best guardian for a child, set temporary custody for children who cannot live with their parents, determine whether parental rights should be terminated and a child placed for adoption and hear from the state Department of Children and Families every time that agency takes custody of a child.

 

The juvenile court also hears criminal matters where underage children are arrested for alleged crimes. Truancy and delinquency are also handled by the court.

 

“Although care and protection petitions constitute a major aspect of our caseload in the five courts we sit in throughout the county, we hear many other case types including criminal cases, runaways, truancy cases, sexually exploited children and cases of many youngsters who suffer from serious mental illnesses," First Justice for the Worcester Juvenile Court Carol Erskine explained.

 

The judges travel to Fitchburg, Dudley, Milford and, in normal times, Leominster one or more days a week to hear cases.

 

What happens after trial ends?

 

A judge can spend an entire day writing 100 pages or more detailing his or her decision in a single case and explaining in long form how the law was applied. “When (a) trial ends, the judge is required to write detailed findings and conclusions of law supporting the decision, a time-consuming task that takes the judges off the bench to complete these decisions," Erskine said. 

 

Worcester County, of the state's 11 county courts (Franklin and Hampshire are combined), has the highest number of children under its care.

There are 1,900 children currently in the jurisdiction of the Worcester court. By comparison, Suffolk County has about 1,430, the second-highest number, and that county includes Boston.

 

In June, 39 new cases were filed and 64 children entered into care and protection in the court, State Sen. Michael Moore said. “We are currently inundated with child abuse and neglect cases in our court," Erskine said. "Just this year, so far, 236 new care and protection petitions have been filed on top of the already 700 open cases where children are awaiting permanency through trials or reunification.”

Sixth judge requested for Worcester

 

The high statistics aren't new. Worcester has, for years, had a large caseload in the juvenile court and that is what led Moore to file legislation adding a sixth judge to the county: five judges plus a circuit judge assigned to Worcester.

Baker signed the bill into law in July 2018 and soon after, a judge was added.

But almost as quickly, there were retirements, the most recent coming last summer, and that position has been left unfilled.

 

The slow pace for filling the vacancy is taxing the other judges who spend longer periods of time on each case because more lawyers are involved and complicated legal matters must be explained to children.

 

“Matters involving juveniles unfold very differently than in the adult courts," Erskine said. "Unlike adult courts where there might be little or no discussion between a defendant and a judge at arraignment, for example, the process with juveniles must involve age-appropriate explanations, as well as discussions with parents and oftentimes social workers.” 

Coming out of the pandemic, those in the juvenile justice system expect an uptick in cases as children go back to school and begin interacting with teachers and others mandated to report suspected abuse.

 

'Lack of urgency'

 

Knowing that there are not enough judges in Worcester, despite the passage of Moore's bill and related funding, can only be attributed to "a lack of urgency," according to Paul DePalo, a member of the Governor's Council.

Urgency should be paramount when it comes to Worcester County's children, DePalo said. "We are talking about the most vulnerable kids," he said. "While they are waiting, these kids are getting criminal records that are growing and growing."

DePalo said the children involved in juvenile court often are placed outside their homes, attend schools where they feel unwelcome and are in facilities or programs where they sometimes act out in frustration. Making them wait longer for their cases to be resolved can have negative impacts that affect them for the rest of their lives, he said.

 

In Massachusetts, judges are appointed by the governor after being recommended by a Judicial Nominating Commission and vetted by the Joint Bar Association. A candidate is then nominated by the governor and subject to a hearing of the Governor's Council where they can be confirmed with a majority vote. The process can take several months.

No new judge until fall?

 

DePalo said he is aware that the open position in Worcester was advertised some time ago and there were applicants, including some diverse candidates who are quite qualified. He said he's been told it's possible a new judge will be named for the Worcester Juvenile Court in the fall but for him, that's too long.

 

Moore is also troubled. He thought the problem he'd lobbied so hard to solve wouldn't require any further action. But now, he brainstorms aloud and wonders if there's more to be done, perhaps legislating a time frame in which judicial vacancies must be filled.

 

"It's very frustrating, the fact that we still haven't got that sixth judge," he said. "Maybe it's time the legislature looks at the whole nomination process again for justices. If we're going to leave these vacancies and not fill these positions in a timely manner ... maybe it's time we look at some way of revamping the system."

 

Moore said he's heard no reason why it's taken so long to fill the vacancy and directed questions about that to "the administration" which he said should be taking swift actions on the appointments when positions are vacated by judges who retire or step down.

"We've got a lot of pressure being put on our justices," Moore said. "These are juveniles." Many of the cases have languished for as long as 19 months, he said.

 

Notorious cases of child abuse

 

"We have to ensure that these young kids are safe ... some of these children may be victims of abuse, they're kids we need to show support for," he said. "How is their life going to be affected?"

 

Not only are the statistics high, the county has also been the scene of some notorious cases of child abuse, and judges are keenly aware, from these examples, of the many things that can go wrong.

 

In 2009, Leslie G. Schuler of Worcester was charged with first-degree murder in the death of his son, Nathaniel Turner, on Father's Day. He later pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of second-degree murder. The 7-year-old died of blunt force trauma of the head, torso and extremities inflicted by his father.

In 2014, the body of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver was found in a suitcase off Interstate 190 in Sterling. Oliver had been living with his mother and her boyfriend and monitored by DCF. The mother and boyfriend were charged in the case.

 

In 2015, a 2-year-old child died in an Auburn foster home and a second child sustained serious injuries. The foster mother was indicted in that case.

Also in 2015, a Hardwick man was accused of severely abusing his son who was left with life-altering injuries after being starved, dehydrated and suffering burns to his feet. The father was sentenced to 4 to 5 years in state prison, with 3 years of probation to follow, as part of a plea agreement. 

Children in abuse cases often find themselves in juvenile court where judges determine the best avenue to be sure they are safe and getting the care, monitoring and services they need.

 

Caseloads increase without judges

 

Without the additional judge, Moore said, that job becomes more difficult as judge's caseloads increase. He said people concerned about the situation could call the governor's office and ask them to fill the position. They could also talk with their own legislators, he said.

 

The governor's staff indicated that candidates are being reviewed, but offered no explanation as to why Worcester County hasn't been fully staffed.

 

Meanwhile, Erskine said, the numbers and seriousness of the cases heard in the juvenile court continues to grow.

 

“We are disturbed by the significant uptick in serious criminal cases, especially firearms and shootings among juveniles," she said. "There has been an alarming and exponential increase in the number of dangerousness hearings being requested by the District Attorney where, if found

dangerous, a juvenile can be held without bail.”

 

She also worries about the lengthened time it takes to help children living in unstable situations.

 

“The Worcester County Juvenile Court continues to be the busiest juvenile court in the commonwealth and the only juvenile court with a judicial vacancy, which only adds to delays in getting children into permanent homes if they cannot be reunified,” she said.