I-Team: Family Court Backlog Slows Adoptions - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Family Court Backlog Slows Adoptions

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Three-year-old Emily officially gets her forever family. Three-year-old Emily officially gets her forever family.

LAS VEGAS -- Nearly 500 children in Clark County became part of a forever family in 2012. While every adoption is something to celebrate, the I-Team has learned the number of adoptions is down this year. The decline is due, in part, to a backlog at the family court.

Though she rarely needs an excuse, on this day, 3-year-old Emily has a reason to smile.

"This is case number 47814.  After more than a year in foster care, do you believe it's in the child's best interest to be adopted by you today? Judge Bob Teuton with the 8th Judicial District Court asks the Cepeda family. Emily will leave the courtroom as a permanent member of the family.

Emily is one of some 500 to 600 children expected to be adopted this year in Clark County. The number is down from last year's high of more than 700 children.

"We have a lot of families that are kind of in limbo," said April Mastroluca, a Nevada state assemblywoman. She said that limbo starts at family court.

According to numbers compiled by the state's Department of Family Services, hearings to terminate parental rights are a key part of the adoption process but they are not being held in a timely manner. State law requires the hearing be completed within six months of filing.

Read the statement from the 8th Judicial District Court and review the documents.

"These kids deserve the chance to move forward with their lives and not sit in limbo because they're waiting for a hearing from a judge," Mastroluca said.

Until recently, the vast majority of parental rights -- or TPR hearings -- were assigned to a single judge: Judge Steven Jones. He's now under federal indictment for allegedly using his office to further a $3 million investment scheme. He denies the allegations.

Jones is on paid administrative leave. His replacement is Judge Frank Sullivan who has stepped up to examine the courts' calendar. According to numbers compiled by the court, the TPR hearings appear on track, but Sullivan said he has every reason to doubt that data.

"There's no doubt we could've done much better, we can do much better," said Judge Frank Sullivan, 8th Judicial District Court.

For example, the data notes that he has heard more than 50 TPR trials this year when he said the number is half that.

"I should be able to print out at any time, by command, every child that's in the system and I should be able to see where that child is assigned to by a judicial officer," Sullivan said. "We've been assigning just by the district judge's department and that doesn't tell me a lot because I've got three hearing masters."

He said he has been able to identify several areas of concern, including some 130 TPR hearings that are more than six months old. The majority of them were assigned to Judge Jones.

"He could do more, absolutely," Sullivan said. "I think we could have more stacked calendars. And this is no disrespect to Judge Jones or anybody, but I think we could do it better."

In search of solutions, discussions are underway with the court and its partners in the child welfare system, because every number on a piece of paper is a child who's only wish is to be part of a forever family.

Among the solutions being considered is a new software system to better manage the court's data, a new policy on granting continuances, and some form of oversight with respect to tracking each judge's calendar.

The I-Team also spoke with Nevada Supreme Court Justice Nancy Saitta who said she is keeping a close eye on this matter and will work with the court to address any issues. Judge Jones' attorney did not return the I-Team's phone call seeking a comment.

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