Volume 17 • Issue 19 | October 01 - 07, 2004

Notebook


Deciding a child’s best interests in 20 minutes

By Ben Krull

When I tell people that I work as a law assistant to a Manhattan Family Court judge, they usually say that my job must be emotionally difficult. Family Court is associated with sorrow because it hears custody, domestic violence, juvenile delinquency, and child abuse cases, which usually involve children from impoverished households. Much of my time is spent reading case-law and writing memos. But the misery defining the court becomes palpable when I meet with parents to work out settlements to domestic violence and custody cases.

I begin these settlement conferences by shouting the name of a case – “parties on the Reed children” – into a packed waiting room, where my voice competes with a din of chatter and crying babies.

“You have a right to be represented by an attorney,” I tell the litigants, in a formal tone. “If you can’t afford an attorney the court can appoint you one free of charge.”

I ask a series of questions: Is the Administration for Children’s Services involved with your family…how often do you visit your child…did you receive medical attention for your injuries? Sometimes I have a report about the family written by a social worker. Other times the smell of alcohol on a parent’s breath or a black eye tells me what I need to know.

“He don’t pay no child support so he ain’t seeing my baby,” or, “She lying. If I hit her she’d be dead,” the litigants tell me.

I’m dressed in a business suit with highly polished wing-tip shoes. The couples I meet with wear tank-tops, sweat-suits, jeans, shorts and sneakers. I was raised in a prosperous two-parent household and have a law degree. Many of the litigants were raised in slums, by single mothers or foster parents. The settlement conferences are often conducted through a translator.

Most of the time I can settle a case within 20 minutes. When it takes longer I begin thinking about the deadline for the research project, the angry parents waiting to speak with me, the memo about reducing overtime.

The court has added mediation programs and hearing officers to deal with the flood of new petitions, but just as there are never enough roads built to eliminate rush-hour traffic jams, there are still too few resources and too many troubled families.

Often I’m the one who recommends the settlement to a judge. I’ve been called “judge,” “your honor,” and “your worship.” Before the agreement is finalized, the judge makes sure the litigants understand that by accepting the settlement they are giving up they’re right to a trial.

Nothing in my background gives me a way of relating to the powerlessness and vulnerability that most Family Court litigants surely feel. Their mindset is a mystery to me; their life stories incredible tales of survival amid drugs and violence.

The sameness of the cases numbs me to the families’ pain. On a busy day I’ll hear about the father who is constantly late for visitation, the mother who clashes with the father’s girlfriend, the drug-addicted boyfriend, the pregnant teenager…again and again and again. A lawyer I work with calls Family Court a factory. And it does have a factory-like feel: a mill that manufactures order of protection after order of protection…custody petition after custody petition…case after case after case.

The Family Court lawyers that find their job emotionally draining usually represent the children. But I only encounter children through case records – the pre-school kids diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome; the illiterate 12-year-old who tried to fool the court psychologist into believing that he could read; the orphaned 10-year-old whose grandmother died shortly before she was supposed to adopt him.

Children like these are likely fated for a life of sadness. I suspect they intuitively understand the horrific track they’re on, making me wonder what my childhood would have been like without the sense of security I was raised with. But case records are just words on paper. When they become overly disturbing I can shift my attention to the dryly-written legal briefs stacked on my desk. While needy children are usually seen as victims, it is easy to deride the court’s absentee fathers, mothers with children in foster care, drug addicts and welfare recipients, as lacking a sense of personal responsibility. This attitude gives me a sense of superiority, because it allows me to think my social status has been earned solely through hard work and talent.

But this outlook falls apart when I think about the hardship endured by Family Court’s children. I’ve come to wonder why sympathy for them turns into scorn when they grow into the adults their beginnings predict for them. At what point is the innocent, ill-fated child transformed into a societal burden, unworthy of empathy?

Having to acknowledge the role that circumstance plays in our so-called meritocracy has been the most disturbing part of working in Family Court.

I have also been humbled by Family Court’s low standing. The court’s impoverished clientele and low-paid state-subsidized lawyers, places it at the bottom of the legal community’s pecking order.

While other courts in Downtown Manhattan have spacious wood-paneled courtrooms, stately architecture and designated conference rooms, the Family Court building at 60 Lafayette St. makes due with settlement conferences held in busy hallways, courtrooms that are converted offices, waiting areas highlighted by unpainted sheetrock walls and a building that has been without windows for nearly two years because of renovations.

“When the courthouse is crap the message to the litigants is, we think you’re crap,” a Family Court judge once said.
Working in what amounts to a makeshift courthouse, serving families few people care about, makes my job seem unimportant. But my work matters to the people who have cases here.

I was reminded of this a few months ago when I took a taxi home from Kennedy Airport. At the end of the ride the driver said that he remembered me from a custody case he had 13 years ago.

I had no recollection of his case and was startled that he recognized me from so long ago. The driver said that he won custody of his son, who was now 15, and was having discipline problems in school. I felt disappointed that the driver’s son was doing poorly but realized that I can’t be responsible for what happens after a family leaves the courthouse.

Still, taken aback about being recognized, I paid my fare and shook hands with the driver. I sure hope his son doesn’t end up in Family Court.



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