Reflections on Family Court Visits

First Thoughts

After some effort, I located the courthouse and worked my way through the security checkpoint. I was somewhat unsure of where I was supposed to go, and found myself looking around for someone I knew. I imagined that this is what many people who find themselves in Family Court must feel like, just waiting around until someone tells them what to do. —Sarah Wheeler (SW)


I arrived at Family Court promptly, entered the massive atrium, and was immediately daunted by the phalanx of security and the grim efficiency with which visitors and participants were screened (ID checks and metal detectors) and herded into the building. Then I walked to the left, mentioned I was with CUNY Law, and surprisingly I was waved through. The ease with which I did so troubled me a bit. —John Amado (JA)


It was my first visit to the Family Court, and I did not know where to start. It was very crowded, with a lot of noise. Children were running all over the place. I thought that it looked like the DMV with a lot of kids. In the hallway, I saw a couple of interviewing rooms. Although I assumed the purpose of these rooms would be for lawyers to talk with their clients, at the same time, I was curious whether the rooms are a special feature of the Family Court because normally lawyers finish their preparation with their clients before stepping into the court. —Younjae Kim (YK)


The first startling visualization was the number of people who file into Family Court. It was 9 a.m. and hundreds of people were lining up for their turn with the judge. People seeking protection orders from violent partners, custody hearings, hearings with ACS and juvenile delinquent hearings, among many others. The first thought that occurred to me was, this is amazingly efficient BIG BUSINESS! Efficiency is probably not a word often used in Family Court. If calculated, the amount of money that is exchanged at the expense of the poor is astronomical. We are keeping lawyers, judges, court officers, magistrates, clerks, etc....employed at the expense of mostly poor folks who are either in the midst of making questionable decisions, in bad situations, or neither —they just ran into the wrong social worker. —John Salois (JS)


Walking into the building reminded me of my old high school; it was dark and dingy. The number of people in the lobby and the system by which they called people up for their case reminded me of an emergency room at a public hospital. —Conway Martindale (CM)


There's not a hint of glamour in the Family Court house. It looks like what it is, a municipal building in the middle of a crowded urban thoroughfare. It could have been the elementary school I went to, or the City Hall. The front walkway is littered with cigarette butts. The guards wear bulletproof vests. You enter through a narrow doorway, turn right down a corridor that's cordoned off with ropes and pass through a metal detector. To the left there's an anteroom with half-pulled down metal shutters. On the countertop, there's literature telling you how to get an order of protection in English, Spanish, and Russian. This is where you check in, get information, fill out forms, begin your business, and if necessary, move onto the next phase. —Lisa Jacobson (LJ)


Upon entering Family Court we were screened by security and allowed to proceed to a locked door where our contact person met us. Security was very tight. Our contact person led us to a very nice room that was uncharacteristic of the general appearance of the court.


"This court sucks and it's dirty, too!"

That opinion was the first thing I fixed on at the Family Court. Immediately upon my arrival, I visited the "facilities" and spied that cri de coeur scrawled across the restroom wall. I was afraid my worst fears about Family Court were becoming a reality. Certainly it was dirty.... —Jeffrey Brooks (JB)


The trash strewn about the lobby of the Family Court building overshadows the simple linear modernity of its facade. Probably the debris spilled out of pockets that were emptied for security purposes. Besides, children are messy and lots of children —trailing guardians —find their way to Family Court. The security officers working in the lobby, though, are oblivious to the litter. The interior architecture of the court combines rabbit warren with airport lounge. The esthetic is one of sturdiness —and resistance to the wear and tear of human use. The same principles seem to govern the family court system. —Kaila O. Eisenkraft (KE)


Waiting...

Once we entered the waiting area, the serene view from the upper floor was replaced by the chaotic interactions among the numerous families, attorneys, and court staff. It was like being at an airport terminal. —Maria Maranion (MM)


To the right is a waiting room, which looks like the old Port Authority. It has that after-a-late-night-hangover look: dingy, gray, badly lit with fluorescence, and desperate. You move through this room to get to the elevator, and there's another space to wait. There's a lot of people, very few white faces, very few children. No joy. (LJ)


On the first day I left the courtroom to see what the waiting area was like, and was surprised by how many people were waiting to be seen by a judge. The waiting area was a bunch of wooden benches. There were no magazines to read, or a television to watch. They would just sit there for hours on these wooden benches waiting to be called by the court officers. If they happened to leave the spot where they were sitting, there was a great chance that they would lose their seat, and if they were called when they were in the bathroom, there was a chance that their case would be put on the bottom of the pile in the judge's chamber. Many of the people in the waiting room looked scared and uncertain of what was going to happen to them.


Not everyone seems to show up for their scheduled date, which you would not believe by the number of people there. That was a source of surprise. I expected every case to be heard since there were so many people waiting, but the first few cases had no appearance by either the parties involved and, in one case, one of the lawyers did not show up. —Carlita J. Solano (CJS)


The family court system is chaotic. It does not schedule hearings, but rather, takes parties as time permits. Given this, it is perhaps understandable why lawyers, at times, may not be fully prepared for their hearing. If they have a set appointment, then they can plan their day, and would be more fully prepared. This seems like a no-brainer. Yet, the family court system, for some reason unknown to me, does not seem to believe that scheduling hearings by way of set appointments would be efficient for the family court. —James Paglinawan (JP)


The same lawyers were often scheduled to appear in different courtrooms at the same time, or one courtroom would be running late, and that would affect the efficiency of all the courtrooms. Oftentimes I would hear the lawyers complaining about being at the courthouse all day and not getting anything done. But on the reverse side, the judges would sit for 2-3 hours in the morning waiting for the lawyers to show up with their clients. One judge told me that they couldn't wait until the new courthouse was finished so that the clients could finally see that it was the lawyers, not the judges, who kept them waiting for hours.