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The Trials of New York’s Family Court

A journalist immerses herself in New York’s Family Court system and finds a mix of misery and modest hope.

When Abigail Kramer, a journalist and advocate on children’s issues, entered the world of Family Court, she was haunted by its infamous moniker: “The saddest place in New York.”

Kramer found much that confirmed that assessment:

“The courthouse is dismal in the particular way of municipal buildings that serve the very poor,” Kramer wrote in a recent report for the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “The walls and floors are scuffed. The ceiling is a low patchwork of industrial foam squares. There are no windows to the outside. For a place that deals in the problems of families, it’s remarkably difficult to navigate with kids: Food and drinks are not allowed. There’s nowhere private to nurse a baby unless you go to the first-floor child care room, where you won’t hear a court officer call your case. At 10 a.m. on a recent Friday morning, about 30 people sat on benches, wearing the vaguely taxidermied look of those who expect to wait for a very long time. In a corner, a woman rocked a baby back and forth in a stroller. Down the hall and behind a closed door, a toddler screamed, ‘I want mommy, I want mommy.’"

But Kramer, a staff member at the New School, also found some cause for hope in the court system that handles custody cases, child abuse allegations and juvenile offenders.

  • Cases involving possible child abuse or endangerment had sunk to their lowest totals in decades.
  • Family courts in New York City had received funding to add nine new judges.
  • Brooklyn Family Court had rearranged how its judges would hear cases, with the aim of more speedily moving cases to resolution.

Kramer allows court officials to express optimism, but she also honestly offers context for the glimmers of any confidence about the future. Reforms have been pledged for Family Court routinely. Most have had some impact. But the courts – with their volatile mix of distraught and disadvantaged families – has hardly been remade.

“So many attempts have been made to fix Family Court in the past 20 years,” writes Kramer, “that it’s sometimes described as a place where pilot projects go to die.”

There’s substance to the cynicism. Kramer cites Family Court statistics showing that some judges handling what are known as child protective matters – often involving the removal of children from dangerous households – have caseloads exceeding 500. Brooklyn’s system seems particularly troubled. Kramer offers one way of appreciating just how troubled: When a judge determines that a child is at risk, he or she issues an order requiring the authorities to figure out if the child should be removed from their household. In Brooklyn, fully half of these cases have reached no such determinations more than a year after the judge issued the order.

“We have taken delay to a new level that other courts don’t have,” Chris Gottlieb, co-director of the Family Defense Clinic at the New York University School of Law, told Kramer. “This level of delay would never happen if the litigants were people who garnered respect.”

We sent Kramer a number of questions about her report, and the experiences that informed it.

ProPublica: In your report, you note the cynicism built up over years of pledges to reform the family court system. Does this effort truly feel different? Why?

Kramer: I think there are good reasons to be optimistic. Five years ago, you could have walked into any child protective courtroom in the city and seen that it was contending with impossible circumstances. Judges had five or six hearings scheduled for the same time slot. Lawyers were running from courtroom to courtroom, missing trials. Families sat in waiting rooms all day. When things are so frenetic, it’s impossible to stop and think about what would work better — either for a particular family or for the system as a whole.

Now, you still see absurd levels of dysfunction and delay but there’s been some relief, and Family Court administrators seem determined to capitalize on it. If there’s ever been an optimal time to make the court work better, it’s now.

ProPublica: Your report reflects serious tension over the speed of proceedings. No doubt, there are terrible delays, but some lawyers suggest that speed can lead to terrible decisions. Is it possible to pinpoint and remedy the delays without endangering families?

Kramer: Cases can move slowly for lots of reasons. Families come in with complicated problems. It might take time for a parent to get into a drug treatment program, or to find stable housing. You want to allow for that time, so kids can safely go home. But delays also happen for more dysfunctional reasons — for example, because a foster care agency failed to provide a service that was ordered at the last hearing or an attorney shows up unprepared. My favorite suggestion for reducing delay is to charge lawyers and agencies a fine when they slow things down unnecessarily, and then put that money in a trust fund for the kids.

If you got rid of the major inefficiencies, the court could make rational, case-by-case decisions about how quickly to move cases forward — closing them and getting out of the way when court involvement is just making families’ lives harder, or slowing things down and staying involved when there are real concerns about children’s safety.

The tougher problem is that court proceedings depend on a universe of social services that function outside judges’ control. When a parent is charged with abuse or neglect, she usually ends up with program of mandated interventions: parenting classes, therapy, drug treatment, etc. Sometimes those services are high-quality and helpful; sometimes parents spend half a year on a waiting list to see a mediocre therapist three subway rides away from home. Obviously that’s going to slow things down, but the problems and solutions are much bigger than what can be achieved by a package of Family Court reforms.

ProPublica: What struck you most about your time in Family Court? Is there a detail or anecdote that haunts you personally?

Kramer: Family Court is a sad, surreal place. What haunts me most is not any particular incident, but the cumulative disrespect that we, as a society, show to poor families — and especially poor mothers. I wrote about a woman raising four kids under age 8 in a Bronx homeless shelter. Her case started when she got sick during her most recent pregnancy and stopped taking the oldest to school. In the course of the city’s investigation, she was ordered to take parenting classes, get therapy for herself and the kids, and enroll her younger children in pre-k and daycare.

So now, she spends her weeks dragging her kids to appointments and drop-offs in three different boroughs, often without help getting train fare. The morning I met her, she had walked the entire family two miles from their homeless shelter to the courthouse. When they arrived, the kids were beautifully turned out — hair done, clothes freshly pressed, smiling and cheerful — but their jackets had holes where mice in the shelter had chewed through them.

If we really care about those kids so much, why is their shelter crawling with mice? And why wouldn’t we just help their mother get them to school? I’m a parent with a steady income and other resources, and god knows I need help sometimes. But it’s nearly unfathomable that a social worker would walk into my life and tell me I have to go to therapy or face the threat of losing my kids.

Yes, there are parents that need intervention in order to keep children safe, but when you spend time in Family Court, it’s painfully clear that we apply a level of scrutiny to poor families that the rest of us would never tolerate. And our disdain is reflected in every piece of the process, from the dismal state of waiting rooms to the quality of social services to the time it takes to get a trial.

ProPublica: Some of the numbers are astonishing – like the time it takes families to get their first hearings in child endangerment cases.

Kramer: Family Court doesn’t operate like criminal court, where the primary question is whether a person is guilty or innocent of a specific charge (“Did you or did you not possess ten grams of PCP on a particular Wednesday?”) Cases tend to be slippery, starting because a parent leaves a child unsupervised in a homeless shelter, for example, and picking up allegations of educational neglect or substance abuse along the way.

That makes them very hard to defend against. Often, the most strategic thing a parent can do is try to get the case settled without going to trial — usually by showing she’s “compliant” with mandated social services. The upside of working toward settlement is that parents can avoid getting stuck with negative findings of abuse or neglect, which stay on their records and prevent them from working in certain fields — the last thing that very poor families need. The downside is that it creates this legally ambiguous situation where families may be participating in court-ordered services — and kids may be in foster care — for months without ever having a trial.

When trials do start, they’re shockingly inefficient, often interrupted by multiple adjournments that can last for months. Brooklyn, in particular, is notoriously slow. Beginning last year, as part of a system-wide reform package, the Brooklyn court launched an experimental new strategy to move cases along more efficiently, designating particular judges and courtrooms to handle different pieces of a case. One judge, for example, will spend several months just presiding over intake hearings. Others are reserved for trials.

It’s too soon to tell whether the system makes things work faster — or whether quicker resolutions will result in good outcomes for kids. But many people who work in the courts are hopeful. At the very least, families have a better shot at speedy justice.

ProPublica: You note the addition of nine new judges in 2015 — the first increase in 20 years. Is that enough? Does the math really get better?

Kramer: The big-picture answer is no, it’s not nearly enough. Family Court makes spectacularly high-stakes decisions (“Will you ever see your mother again?”) about some of New York’s most vulnerable residents. It’s chronically overburdened and under-resourced. Nine new judges won’t come close to making it function in a way that would be accepted in any system serving people with money or power.

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