Talking point

More darkness comes to Family Court

By Ben Krull

On the tenth floor of Manhattan Family Court, where I and other government lawyers have offices, people are crowding their potted plants in front of the few remaining windows. There magnolias, orchids and azaleas soak up the disappearing days of sun left to the courthouse.

Amid the stately government buildings in Downtown Manhattan, the black, angular Family Court – where child abuse, custody, juvenile delinquency and domestic violence cases are heard – is notable for its foreboding appearance. Nicknamed Darth Vader, the building looks more like a prison than a place where troubled families come for help.

Manhattan Family Court, though, is undergoing a makeover. Drilling is heard through much of the day while litigants and lawyers are routed around debris. But when the two-year construction project is complete, the courthouse, we’ve been told, will sparkle.

The remodeling plan calls for new windows to be installed 18 months from now. In the meantime the existing windows will be covered by sheetrock. The boards are being put up quickly, and when they’re all in place Family Court will be almost completely without natural light.

The large windows throughout the court were one of the few perks of working here. Although my office window faced the uninspiring back of an office building, some of the views were spectacular. From one office, streaks of sunlight could be seen bouncing off the Empire State Building, creating a luminescence that bespoke New York’s ambition and power. Other windows offered an unobstructed look at the sky during sunset, as it slowly blended into a collage of clouds, oranges, yellows and impending blackness.

Yet, these views always seemed ill-suited to the buildings joyless air. The powerful presence of the city’s skyscrapers was incompatible with the vulnerability of unskilled, unemployed single mothers living with the humiliation of raising children they are unable to support. And the cheerfulness associated with sunshine clashed with the expressionless teens I’d see kicking at pigeons as they walked to the courthouse.

With or without sunlight, Family Court is defined by misery: the frail, crack-addicted mothers who quietly sob while signing the papers that put their children up for adoption; the adults who stare blankly at court orders, because they are illiterate; the smiling children, diagnosed with AIDS. Amid such sorrow it seems inconceivable that the trendy restaurants of Tribeca and the fashionable shops of Soho sit just blocks from the courthouse.

The sense of isolation symbolized by a windowless building befits the court’s caseload. Family Court’s $40 an hour lawyers and their impoverished clients, after all, are nearly invisible to a public enthralled with the legal squabbles of wealthy celebrities. Now that the court’s interior is almost completely hidden by sheetrock, the autograph seekers, journalists and paparazzi who pass the building on their way to the neighborhood’s more prestigious judicial venues will be spared the trouble of averting their eyes from the city’s least glamorous litigants.

But the symmetry of serving forgotten families in a boarded up courthouse is scant consolation for those of us mourning the loss of light (someone protested by drawing a picture of the sun on an unpainted board). While nobody in Family Court expects much in the way of aesthetics, working in a fluorescent environment will take some getting used to.

Either way, windows will eventually return to my workplace. Still, I don’t expect the building to brighten up much. For the parents and children who play out their tragedies in Family Court, the sun will always be eclipsed by the dark.

Ben Krull is a law assistant to a Family Court judge.


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