By Susan Spencer
As published by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette
WORCESTER — The backlog of cases in Worcester County Juvenile Court was supposed to have been fixed.
Language to add a judge permanently assigned to the court, the busiest juvenile court in the state, was signed as part of outside sections to the fiscal 2019 budget last July by Gov. Charles D. Baker Jr., after prodding from Central Massachusetts legislators.
The Worcester court has been overwhelmed with cases and has only four permanent justices on its roster. An additional circuit court judge has been helping out.
But that fifth permanent position has not yet been filled. And to compound the backlog, one of the Juvenile Court associate justices, George F. Leary, recently retired, leaving the bench in mid-February.
Area legislators delivered a letter to the governor Tuesday asking that the administration expedite a resolution to the growing problem, which they called a crisis.
The fiscal 2019 budget amendment, spearheaded by state Sen. Michael O. Moore, D-Millbury, who worked with state Rep. James J. O’Day, D-West Boylston, and others, would have brought the total number of judges serving Worcester County Juvenile Court to six, with one a designated circuit court justice.
Mr. Moore circulated the letter among members of the Central Massachusetts legislative delegation over the past week, informing Mr. Baker of the increased gap between the caseload and the number of judges, and requesting that the two positions be filled as soon as possible. Twenty-one lawmakers signed the letter.
“I’m hoping the letter will, I guess, put the administration on notice that their good-faith attempt to rectify this ... is not working out,” Mr. Moore said in an interview. “The situation has just gotten worse.”
Juvenile Court justices hear cases in Worcester and hold limited sessions in Fitchburg, Leominster, Milford and Dudley. They hear more than 600 abuse and neglect cases a year, which is a 40 percent increase since fiscal 2012, when the court was hearing 425 such cases annually, according to Mr. Moore.
Mr. Moore said, “We have a judicial system that’s not keeping up with their obligation.”
Carol A. Erskine, first justice of Worcester County Juvenile Court, said, “The caseload is still very high, as high as it has been for the last five years.”
Currently the court has 1,349 open cases of child abuse and neglect, involving 2,460 children.
There are also 246 children in foster care awaiting permanent placement, since their cases are pending for trials to consider termination of parental rights, according to the legislators’ letter.
Judge Erskine said it was important that the court have appropriate judicial resources “so children aren’t in foster care longer than necessary.”
She said last week that 75 new cases had been filed by the state Department of Children and Families since Jan. 1, an average of 10 new cases a week.
“The fact that we have so many cases is attributable, in part, to the opioid crisis,” she said. “Children are really paying the price.”
Other factors contributing to the high number of cases in juvenile court include changes in DCF policies, after several high-profile cases in which children in DCF’s care fell through the cracks, and a change in jurisdiction bringing 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system, according to the senator.
Judge Erskine said she was grateful to Mr. Moore for championing the issue. She said she understood that the process for hiring the one justice added in the budget amendment was underway, with the Judicial Nominating Commission currently reviewing candidates.
While the court is handling emergency custody cases, delinquencies and cases of children requiring assistance without delay, according to the judge, the backlog continues to build for children awaiting trials that will determine where they might find a permanent home.