Reflections on Family Court Visits

The Proceedings

This was my first experience of visiting a court in the United States and therefore I was filled with anticipation. I was quite surprised that no one questioned my presence in the courtroom. I was formally dressed and I blended in with others who were formally dressed and sitting in the back of the courtroom. I later found out that these individuals were other attorneys waiting to have their cases heard. What I found most troubling and distracting was that the attorneys seemed to come and go as they pleased with no form of deference or respect for the proceedings or those present in the courtroom. It was also not very easy to ignore the movements in and out of the courtroom since the room was very small. However, it seemed commonplace. No one seemed to mind. —Sandra Smith (SS)


Although I had been told that the surroundings and mood in Family Court would seem informal, I was surprised by the extent to which this was true. There were several people in the room who didn't seem to have any involvement in the cases being heard. Many conversations were going on at once, including those between attorneys and caseworkers and the judge, and the two court officers. People were walking in and out of the room all the time, and no one seemed to care if they were creating a distraction. —Daniela Crespo (DC)


I noticed that there was a lot of activity going on while the judge was hearing each case. The guards and other court personnel walked in and out of the courtroom. This was very noticeable when the judge was about to adjourn the case before her and go on to the next. At the time I wondered how the judge could concentrate on what she was doing with all this activity around her. (SAS)


Sitting in on the proceedings felt very voyeuristic and I was surprised by the lack of respect for the parties by the other lawyers in the courtroom who were litigating on behalf of the parties. —Susanna Saul (SuS)


I was struck by how public it all is. The most intimate details of your public life are opened and exposed to anyone within earshot. Other attorneys walk through the room, have little chats with the guards. No one seems to take any notice of his or her surroundings. It's all business as usual. Routine. But I keep wondering, "What's the mother thinking about?" Without ever hearing a word from her, because the only time she spoke was to whisper in her attorney's ear, I thought she was the more deserving parent. The father, who was being questioned by the opposing counsel, answered every time in Orwellian Doublespeak. He obfuscated....The judge listened and engaged and corrected and clarified, but his tone and demeanor were always neutral and fair to both sides. I think he was the only person in that room who never lost sight of the child who was at the center of the drama. (LJ)


The first case we heard involved a father petitioning for custody of his child. The Legal Aid Society and another attorney represented the mother, who was not present. The court date was postponed again, with a strict warning from the judge that the trial would proceed as planned if the mother was not present. The father seemed angered and upset that the trial was postponed; I could not help but feel sorry for this guy who seemed to be getting the runaround by the system. —Eric Conroy (EC)

More often than not the attorney for the parent was not present. This seems to be quite inefficient but I had expected this after hearing that assigned counsel received low payment for their services. I had a really hard time imagining how these parents felt. As a first-year law student, I was having some trouble following some of the cases, and I couldn't even imagine the trouble the parents were having. —Halli Green (HG)


Most of the people were there to obtain temporary restraining orders. They would identify themselves and then be told what behaviors were forbidden and where to go for the relevant documents. The process was repetitive and methodical. People spoke quietly. Although unaccompanied by stories, the requests provided glimpses into battered lives. Most of the petitioners were casually dressed. A man in business attire stood out. When asked if he wanted a temporary restraining order, he answered dispiritedly, "I have no choice." (KE)


I was surprised by the nature of the interactions between the different players in the courtroom. One particular corporation counsel attorney struck me as especially informal, even in her conversations with the judge, who incidentally, appeared completely bored. This attorney constantly had one finger twirling her hair repeatedly when she addressed the judge. She reminded me of a nervous middle schooler. (DC)


The lawyer-judge interaction seemed formal, yet pleasant. The attorneys did not appear to be adversarial. What amazed me was how the clients who were represented seemed to "lose" their voice. Although the judge asked them if there was anything they wanted to say, they mostly spoke through their attorneys. There was one outburst from a father who was not represented by counsel when the case worker told the judge that he had not provided her his contact information. Other than that, the courtroom atmosphere was generally controlled, with the exception of court officers walking in front of the bench, and attorneys opening the door to see if their case was ready to be heard. (MM)

I think the physical makeup of the building influenced my assumptions about the attorneys we were going to observe. I assumed because the building was second rate and because the system seemed so unorganized the attorneys were going to be the same way. On the contrary, the attorneys were very knowledgeable of the law and had very meticulous and thorough lines of questioning. The parents' lawyer was especially skilled in grilling the caseworker on the stand, catching her and pointing out when she made inconsistent statements.... (CM)


I was especially impressed by the 18B attorneys who had been appointed to represent the parents. Although they have a reputation for being hurried, disinterested, and burdened by their caseloads, these lawyers seemed to be very attentive, caring, and passionate about representing their clients. They knew the facts of the case very thoroughly despite, I imagine, having very little time to prepare. One of the lawyers who engaged in cross-examination did a thorough job of extracting evidence, putting forth his theory of the case and disqualifying the credibility of the witness. The law guardian and the counsel for ACS also seemed very competent and well-prepared, although this is a little bit less surprising since they have more resources at their disposal than 18Bs, who are often sole practitioners. (SuS)


Race and class play a significant role. I did not see any rich white kids here! These kids are poor and their families lack resources as they try to fight the system. Prosecutors appeared so polished. Law guardians have the most challenging work. They speak for the child as his/her advocate. It is well known that law guardians make little money and often feel overwhelmed with their caseload. The lines are distinctly drawn. Kids are trapped, broken families need help, yet the system keeps it that way. Parents (mostly on welfare) appeared helpless, overwhelmed, and at the mercy of the judge. It is easy to see this as a belittling experience for parents, having to appear contrite before the judge, who makes assumptions about their lives and tosses blame so casually. One lawyer labeled the placement attempt and detention sentence as "draconian" for a kid who was just acting out because of the problems at home (domestic violence, problems with stepfather). These kids all clearly need services, not jail time. —Nicole Mandarano (NM)


One case involved domestic violence, perpetrated by the husband against his wife. There was no end to the complications involving orders of protection, child visitation, child custody, pending assault charges, and it all had to be translated into Chinese. The judge had to play 20 questions with the attorneys to simply find out what was really going on. What she discovered was that not all of the interested parties were in attendance, the order of protection was not being enforced, and a host of other complications. She ended the proceedings, and demanded to see EVERYONE involved back in her courtroom on the next day. The end result is that the attorneys got paid, the system chugs on, and the public got nuttin'. (JB)


The judge told the mother's lawyer that he only had two hours to complete his questioning and that if he wanted to spend all of his time on the distant past, however irrelevant, he could do so. The judge then told him that when his time ran out, he could no longer ask any questions. I thought that this scenario was a good example of wasting the extremely limited economic resources of the family court. The father?s lawyer, of course, was actually very upset all throughout. (JP)


The judge did not hold back from telling the parents that he thought that their previous parenting actions were terrible (he called their parenting skills "execrable"), and that basically he was making counseling mandatory before he would consider returning the two children to their home. However, I could understand the helplessness that the respondents must have been feeling —having the judge and everyone hearing the most personal details about your life, and having to sit there and be admonished if you want to get your kids back. Also, during this hearing people came in and out of the room constantly, which added to the general lack of privacy about the entire situation. (SW)


The judge, who I thought quite familiar and pleasant, became very aggressive during the proceedings. He wanted to know why the children were taken away from their mother. He wanted to know what the ACS did on their part to prevent the mother from being separated from her children. He wanted to know what dangers the children were in. (SS)

The parents seemed visibly nervous and uncomfortable. They were clearly having difficulties accepting the legitimacy of the proceedings. It was very difficult to watch the interaction of the judge, a representative of a system who had wrested a child from his father's home, scold a man who had been wounded by the system and clearly had nothing but contempt for it. Although the judge's decision was appropriate in light of the circumstances, I doubt very seriously that parenting classes and anger management workshops are going to improve the relations within a family that is plagued by an angry father and a mother who has poor decision-making skills. I do not think that the children are going to experience a very safe, secure, or stable childhood in the care of their parents, although I do not think the solution is to place them in foster care. (SuS)


A couple were at court to rescind the protective orders they had taken out against each other. The judge granted their request. Before the process could move on, the husband asked if he could say something. He needed to tell the judge that he and his wife had acted like children, that sharing one room had tested their relationship beyond endurance, that they were determined to do better. The judge listened patiently. And she assured the wife that the order would not be a blemish on their record. In that one encounter, the judge overcame the aloofness that was built into the system. (KE)


The judge asked the mother what her plan was. The mother told the judge that she wanted to get clean and was working with a rehabilitation facility to end her ten-year addiction to heroin. The judge seemed caring and did her best to make sure that the defendant knew everything that was going to happen and how she needed to proceed to get her child back.


The issue that most stuck in my head involved a mother who had been addicted to heroin for quite a number of years. Upon realizing that she was pregnant she ceased using heroin and enrolled in a methadone program. She did not have a stable place to live and in fact has lived with friends for the past several years. She does not have a job, money, or education and is currently not on any public assistance. She is also not aware of who the father is. The state stepped in and placed the child in a foster agency. The question the judge had to decide was whether it was in the child's best interest to place the child back in its mother's care. I suspect the court weighed the large number of foster children already in the system and the child's best interest in being raised by its biological parent. The court decided to give the mother another chance on the condition that she remain on methadone and seek drug counseling along with weekly visits to a social worker for drug testing. The mother was also required to go on public assistance until she was able to find a job and seek her own housing. My classmates did not agree with the court's decision but I have worked in a foster agency and have visited the settings and environment that the mother has probably grown up in, and can sympathize with her. I commended the mother for seeking help to end her long-time addiction and believe that she deserved a second chance. Had the child been older and had to endure the neglect and abuse of watching its mother get high, I do not know how sympathetic I would have been, but I was not ready to dismiss her and throw the child into the system, which can be too emotionally devastating. —Liza Joglar (LJ)


A mother who was addicted to heroin petitioned the court for a return of her child. The judge asked her if she understood everything that counsel had prepared in their briefs and the circumstances under which her child had been taken away. The judge showed firmness, but remained compassionate, explaining the treatment plan the mother would be entering the following day. The judge's stern warning at the end of the case made clear that she was giving the mother an opportunity to get her child, clean up her life, and better her child's life. The judge told her that if she failed to participate in the program her rights would be abandoned. When the case was over, we left the courtroom, passed the mother in the hall, and returned to our lives as law students. (EC)