Family

Backlog of custody hearings means some NC parents haven't seen children in months

The pandemic created backlogs in courts across North Carolina, but some parents say the delays in family court are especially difficult because that means they are separated from their children even longer.

Posted Updated

By
Amanda Lamb
, WRAL reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — The pandemic created backlogs in courts across North Carolina, but some parents say the delays in family court are especially difficult because that means they are separated from their children even longer.

In June 2019, there were nearly 15,000 civil domestic cases pending in family court statewide, with a median age of 118 days since they were filed, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts. A year later – three months into the pandemic – the backlog had grown to close to 18,000 pending cases, with a median age of 144 days.

By the end of last month, more than 19,500 cases were pending, with a median age of 160 days.

"The court system shut down, so everyone who was on the calendar for those four, five, six months got pushed out," said Elizabeth Stephenson, a family law attorney in Raleigh. "I have clients, and other attorneys here have clients, who have not seen their children in over a year because they cannot get in front of a judge to get a custody order."

Ellie Elassiouty said she hasn't seen her 15-year-old twin sons and 10-year-old daughter for 15 months. She has been trying to get visitation rights, but her court date keeps getting pushed out.

"[It's happened] a lot of times, from October to January, then February and May," Elassiouty said.

In March, the Administrative Office of the Courts released a report acknowledging the backlog, stating, "Despite the still unknown impacts of the pandemic, its effect on case disposition is evident. Courts will be addressing the significant backlog created by the pandemic for the foreseeable future."

"So, we’re in limbo, and parents’ relationships with their children are being irreparably harmed.," Stephenson said.

"[It's] very painful, and I don't know how we're going to build the relationship when they're back," Elassiouty said. "How [do I] to explain to them [when they say], 'Mom, you don't see us for a year. Why? Why?'"

Judge Andrew Heath, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said in a statement to WRAL News that the agency has provided breakdowns of pending cases in each county so that courts can prioritize their dockets to help clear the backlogs. The state has also provided for temporary workers, overtime pay and technology for remote hearings to boost court productivity, he said.

"We are standing with our judicial officials and working together to deal with the backlog because every case is important," Heath said.

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Amanda Lamb, Reporter
Edward Wilson, Photographer
Matthew Burns, Web Editor

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