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Volume 77, Number 3 | June 20 - 26, 2007

Hoops court or Family Court, helping kids rebound

By Alysssa Giachino

Though his league’s season ended more than a month ago, on Sunday mornings, Larry Busching is still awakened by the sound of dribbling and a basketball bouncing off the hoop of the courts below his sixth-floor apartment in Stuyvesant Town.

From January through May, Busching, 41, spends Sunday mornings coaching kids ages 10 to 14 in the Police Athletic League’s basketball program in Washington Heights. He sees it as a natural extension of his role as the chief of the Family Court Division of the city’s Law Department.

The department is responsible for prosecuting juveniles involved in crimes ranging from graffiti to assault and robbery. The department works to connect kids with community-based programs to steer them away from criminal behavior, as well as placing them in juvenile detention facilities.

Participating in the basketball league helps Busching interact with kids in a setting that encourages self-discipline and teamwork.

“I don’t know how you can evaluate cases and work on cases if you don’t know some of the developmental things,” he said. “So you can separate what’s serious and what’s just normal rebellious kind of behavior that occurs at that age.”

Busching worked for 14 years in the New York City District Attorney’s Office, starting in 1990, where he handled cases on domestic violence and child abuse. In 2005, he was appointed to the Law Department, where he supervises both juvenile crime cases and child support claims.

He has no children of his own, but Busching and his longtime partner, Yaumpier Vega, share their Stuyvesant Town apartment with a well-behaved fish named Carl. Bushing said they were lucky to get an apartment in 1998 after two-and-a-half years on the waiting list.

“I love it. It’s like one of the last middle-class enclaves in the city,” he said. “One of the things that’s really nice about it is, as I walk around there, I know a lot of people just because they work in the court system. They’re police officers or firemen or court clerks, folks like that — who don’t have a lot of options if you want to live in Manhattan.”

He said he and his partner especially appreciate the quiet that blankets the area at night, a rarity for Manhattan. As for the changes afoot related to the sale of the sprawling complex to Tishman Speyer Properties last September for $5.4 billion, Busching said he hopes it won’t become a sanctuary for the wealthy.

“All the beautification is great, but I think you want to keep the diversity in terms of economics,” he said. “I think it’s going to be hard to maintain, especially as more and more units go to market rate. You hope they’ll be able to keep the character of the development, that they’ll continue to have middle-class people there.”

From early in his career as a prosecutor for the D.A., Busching has been focused on family violence. For 10 years, he prosecuted men who abused their wives and children, physically, sexually and emotionally. Unfortunately, as some of the same children have grown into adolescence, they have committed crimes and landed back in Family Court, but now as defendants rather than victims. Busching said it’s helpful to have insight into such a young person’s background to understand the kind of home environment that led him down such a path.

“With the younger kids that we see coming in as the perpetrators on our cases, there’s actually a hope that you can make a difference with them and move them in the right direction,” Busching said. He said his office works to reduce recidivism by working to curb delinquent behavior while they are still minors.

In recent years, the approach to child delinquency has begun to shift away from a focus on juvenile facilities and toward rehabilitating children through integration in community programs that monitor behavior — while keeping them enrolled in their schools — and when appropriate, with their families. However, the more violent children that are found to pose a greater risk to their community are still sent to detention centers for months or even years.

“You’re trying to find a balance between the needs and best interests of the young person, and the protection of the community,” Busching said. “How do you get this kid engaged in something that’s going to be positive and productive as opposed to the bad habits he’s started to fall into.”

The work of the Family Court is hardly free from controversy, since a court mandate to separate a child or adolescent from his or her family is painful even when the home is dysfunctional.

Up to half of the Law Department’s juvenile cases overlap with child welfare cases managed by the Administration for Children’s Services, an agency that has been under intense scrutiny since 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown was murdered in January 2006, allegedly by her stepfather and mother. In the wake of Nixzmary’s death, A.C.S. has experienced a surge in child abuse reports, which in turn has increased the number of cases flowing through the overburdened Family Court system.

“There are still the same number of judges and they’re struggling to hear great increases in the volume of cases,” Busching said. The Family Court has 47 judges, each of whom may hear as many as 2,500 cases annually. Both A.C.S. and the city Law Department argue their cases before those judges.

The impact of higher numbers of A.C.S. cases means the Law Department’s juvenile delinquency cases are competing for even fewer slots in the court’s schedule.

Busching’s office of 100 attorneys and 60 support staff handle 8,500 juvenile delinquency cases each year. Historically, the office saw more felony cases, but these have declined to about half of the caseload, while the remainder are misdemeanors. More than 50 percent of cases involve violent crimes, primarily robbery and assault.

An additional 7,000 annual cases are interstate child support claims, where a parent with custody of his or her children is living outside New York and seeks payments from a person living in the state.

“What I have in this position is the chance to make systemic change,” he said. “We’re working as a city on how to make smarter decisions. We’re not in the same position we were in the early-to-mid-’90s when most of the cases were felonies, most were violent. We have the opportunity to put in place longer-term solutions, or more nuanced solutions.

“The challenge more and more is bringing the community in,” Busching said. “We can supervise as a system, but not nearly as well as a community can. We’re kind of a blunt instrument, whereas if you have a kid involved in a church group or a sports league, that’s a level of supervision and support that the state just can’t provide.”

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