Judge Carole Clark, who has presided over the 321st District Court 16 years and is running for a fifth term, said it is a specialized, fast-growing court which she better organized to move cases.
The family court requires specialized skills, which she has, Judge Clark recently told The Tyler Morning Telegraph editorial board.
Prior to taking her seat on the bench in 1999, she worked for Child Protective Services six and a half years and was a lawyer 18 years, spending probably 99 percent of the last 10 years of her practice doing family law. As the family law judge, she deals with divorces, child support and adoptions.
“When I got there, there were about 1,500 cases a year filed in that court. There is now an average of 2,200 to 2,400,” Judge Clark said.
“When you have that many cases, you have to manage it like any kind of business. I instituted the first management system that the court had ever had,” Judge Clark said.
Describing herself as “a social worker at heart,” Judge Clark said she hooked up with a researcher of behaviors in adopted and foster children about how to lessen the trauma of the court system for kids.
At the suggestion of the county judge at that time, Judge Clark said, she instituted a contract system as a better way to budget costs. It started with three lawyers and now has nine because of growth in population and cases.
“Going from an hourly fee to a contract fee, we saved about $25,000 a year for a number of years,” Judge Clark said.
Judge Clark said she implemented a new law that allowed putting people on supervised probation for non-payment of child support. The program started in March 2002 and had1,600 cases last January.
“Since 2002, we’ve collected $48 million in child support in Smith County that was never paid before,” Judge Clark said. “We’ve collected court costs and indigent attorney fees about $305,000 that goes back to the county.”
Judge Clark added, “That (program) is something I’m really proud of because it impacts so many families and as a result, it’s now a model in the state and there are 13 counties that have implemented it.”
Judge Clark also started a pilot program that trains lawyers to mediate CPS cases. One attorney has mediated 97 cases. Had the mediated cases gone to court, the total cost of those jury trials would have been about $2.1 million, compared to the cost of $97,000 for the mediated cases, Judge Clark said.
Funded by the governor’s office, Judge Clark started a CPS drug court in 2007. “We are about even with the national model of 50 percent success,” Judge Clark said, explaining the program gets people into recovery and rehab and teaches them skills.
Judge Clark said she noticed in December 2012 an increasing CPS caseload. To help with costs, she and her team came up with a new, free infant representation program in which lawyers will represent babies.
She attributed the spike in cases to Smith County’s population increasing from 55,000 in the 1970s to 207,000. She also blamed increasing use of methamphetamine and unprecedented violence against kids.
Statistics, Judge Clark said, show the number of children in custody of the state increased from about 100 when she took office to 227 in January 2012, jumped to 232 in February 2012 and had risen to 341 in May 2013.
“We could tell it wasn’t a blip, it was a trend,” Judge Clark said.
Attempting to address the issue, her team set up in April 2013 steps or phases that parents were required to finish to work toward getting back custody of their children. That is causing the caseload numbers to go down, Judge Clark said.
The cost of insurance for court staff has risen 400 percent in 15 years, so not only are attorney fees growing but also staff costs, Judge Clark said. Hourly costs for public defenders in her court last year were $47 compared with $97 an hour in Austin, she said.
To help with rising costs, Judge Clark has proposed a master or associate judge who might hear temporary orders in pending divorce cases.
She said budget problems in the court are partly caused by unfunded mandates from the state Legislature.
Judge Clark said she has tried to be “proactive” in keeping county commissioners informed through emails about the increasing case load and costs.
“From 2002 to 2012, I was in the black,” she said, but acknowledged since then there have been cost overruns.
“I would sit down and talk with any of them (county officials about the budget problem), but nobody has asked me anything. They sent a consultant to talk to me,” Judge Clark said.
Foster care is a broken system, Judge Clark said. One of her goals if re-elected, Judge Clark said, is to have an assessment center where children can be assessed and parents tested to better match them.