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Family courts try to help families struggling in down economy

Posted July 14, 2009
Updated July 15, 2009

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— As families struggle through the down economy, children are increasingly becoming victims. Without a job, it is difficult for parents to pay bills and buy food. The hardship is trickling down to the Orange County Family Court as families try to keep everyone together.

“The economy is fueling a lot of activity that causes displacement of children from their parents and their other caretakers,” said Joe Buckner, chief district court judge in Orange and Chatham counties.

Buckner said over the last two years, as the number of home foreclosures and unemployment rose, so did the number of children in custody of the The Department of Social Services.

“The figure of children in custody in Chatham County is actually up 30 percent. So I think it's a little bigger than the tip of the iceberg. It's got us all very nervous,” Buckner said.

The system is being swamped with families struggling to find work, save their homes and keep everyday stresses from taking its toll.

“With the economy so depressed, I think parents are probably more and more turning to drugs and alcohol as a way to deal with their depression,” DSS attorney Carol Holcomb said.

As a result, more families are ending up before a family count judge.

“I think it's very bad. We've seen the same trends in family violence court and child support court. People who have never been in those courts before as repeat offenders or non-payers, they're there for the first time,” Buckner said.

Buckner said the courts and government can't fix families alone, and that the solution has to come from the community.

The state is also trying to limit case loads by mandating that DSS social workers try harder in mediation to help parents reconcile their problems before seeking help from a judge.

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