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Jefferson County Family Court judge candidates cite need for services

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WATERTOWN — The three Jefferson County Family Court judge candidates say there are not enough services available in the community to help children and families possibly avoid having a court decide their fate.

The candidates, each a longtime practitioner in Family Court, made their statements during a forum attended Wednesday by about 100 people at the Children’s Home of Jefferson County. David H. Conklin, incoming president of the home’s board of directors, said the agency decided to host the event because most of its residents pass through the Family Court system before being placed there.

“We thought it was appropriate to host the forum because of how important the position is to what we do,” he said.

The candidates include Republicans Kathy L. Quencer, Brownville, and Eugene J. Langone Jr., Watertown, who will face each other in a primary Tuesday, with the winner opposing Democrat Susan A. Sovie, Sackets Harbor, in the general election in November.

The candidates generally agreed with each other on the issues, including a move being studied by a commission created by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo which would raise the age under which a child is considered a juvenile under the state’s legal system from 15 to either 16 or 17. The candidates also agreed that more services are needed to divert children and families from Family Court, which is already the busiest court in the county, handling about 5,700 cases last year.

Ms. Quencer said the court system needs more resources to help unify families that have been separated because of abuse, neglect or other problems. She said, as an example, that there are not enough people available to supervise visits between children and their families, sometimes resulting in a child and parent spending just two hours a week together, which is inadequate to ensure a reunification and lengthens the time families are apart.

Ms. Sovie said the area “is vastly in need” of additional mental health and substance abuse treatment providers, with families often facing long waiting lists to begin treatment. She said these types of services need to be streamlined, with agencies either combining expertise to provide services or making sure services are not being duplicated,

Mr. Langone said he, too, sees a need for more services, as long as they are adequately funded. “Could we use more services? Absolutely. Could we use more funding? Absolutely. But the services we have are top-shelf,” he said.

In response to a question submitted to the candidates before the forum, Ms. Sovie said one change she would make in her first year as judge would be to strengthen ties between social service agencies, families and law guardians, such as those offered by the county’s Family Treatment Court, a specialized court for parents who have neglected children because of substance abuse issues, a program for which Ms. Sovie is specially trained.

“My first goal, and one which I plan on starting immediately, is to start a collaborative treatment program,” she said.

Ms. Quencer, who has served as Brownville town justice since 2008, said she wants to use that experience to help Family Court operate more efficiently for both families and attorneys.

“Now, if you file a petition, it takes weeks to get it before a judge,” she said. “If we could better manage the calendar, I think it would move cases through more quickly and improve the system.”

Mr. Langone said he did not foresee making any changes to Family Court’s operations in his first year, as he would use that time to determine what changes are necessary.

“I don’t think I’d go into a new job thinking I’m going to make changes in the system,” he said.

The three candidates are competing for a 10-year term to replace Judge Richard V. Hunt, who is retiring after 30 years as judge.

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