From the perspective of my office in Manhattan Family Court, the economic crisis panicking much of the city is a disaster unfolding on television, much like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For most of the court’s litigants, the worst that can happen already has happened, giving my workplace the mood of business as usual.
In my nearly 20 years as a lawyer doing legal research and conducting settlement conferences for Family Court judges, I have served families of every income level. But it is the parents and children from the city’s struggling neighborhoods who give my workplace the reputation of being a so-called poor person’s court.
Rather than a city defined by its strivers and trend setters, the New York I see from Family Court—with its office-sized court rooms and packed waiting areas, where mothers change the diapers of wailing babies—is a relentless drumbeat of lost lives: the orphaned 10-year-old whose grandmother died days
before she was supposed to adopt him; the grade-school children diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress syndrome; the drug-addicted mothers with children in foster care who come to court pregnant; the father who stared blankly at the custody agreement I asked him to read, until I realized he was illiterate; the teenagers who kick at pigeons in their path as they walk toward the courthouse.
The disconnect between the New York represented in my workplace and the city represented in the far more dignified courthouses on nearby Centre Street gives Family Court the aura of a secluded island—a kind of ghetto where the city dumps its misery.
This sense of isolation is most acute when I venture to a nearby deli for lunch and encounter the high-priced attorneys who practice in the neighborhood. While I wait in the sandwich line with them, listening to their chatter about trial strategy and settlement negotiations, I feel as though I am crashing a party restricted to players in a high-stakes contest for affluence and power. When my food is ready, I hurriedly pay the cashier and, with a sense of relief, retreat to the familiar gray ground of the courthouse.
My discomfort with white-collar New York sometimes seems odd to me. After all, I grew up on the Upper East Side, where I still live, and went to high school across the park, at Columbia Prep. I shop at Citarella’s, work out at the 92nd Street Y and have taken summer shares in the Hamptons.
Still, after graduating law school I sought to avoid the profit-centered mind-set of the private sector, and Family Court’s emphasis on helping disadvantaged children fit into my notion of a worthwhile legal career. But my job’s true draw quickly became the tangible nature of the problems we were dealing with and the glimpse it gave me of life on society’s margins.
It is easy to become numb to the court’s tragedies because there are so many of them. But some cases act as a slap in the face, reminding you that the suffering here is real.
In one such case, a drug-addicted mother came to court to sign papers that would terminate parental rights to her Down syndrome child. The woman’s mother, who was willing to adopt the child, accompanied her. A proud-looking woman, the grandmother stoically sat in the back of the courtroom, clutching a pocketbook that rested on her lap.
As the mother prepared to sign the papers, the judge asked her to name the child’s father.
“I don’t want to say,” the mother said.
“We need to know who he is so his rights can be protected,” the judge implored.
The mother looked down at the floor for several moments before answering.
“My brother’s the father,” she said, before bursting into tears.
I looked at the grandmother, who was clutching her pocketbook like it was a life preserver, and I hoped this was not the first time she was hearing this news. Cases like this barely register beyond my workplace, an indifference that strengthens the barrier my job forms between me and the outside
Adding to this sense of detachment is my status as a civil servant. My 9-to-5 lifestyle, job security and pension plan have always made me feel estranged from the city’s workaholics and risk-takers. And now that the private sector is colored by anxiety, my government cocoon makes me feel even further outside the city’s central narrative.
It is almost surreal to be on the sidelines as one of history’s great dramas gets played out just two short subway stops away, on Wall Street. Government budget cutters could eventually threaten my job, but for now I am mostly an observer, someone who can understand but not empathize with the suffering our economic woes are causing, just as I can do no more than imagine what it must feel like to live the nightmare of Family Court’s most desperate litigants.
Despite the frustrations of working in a place that is far outside the city’s mainstream, I am grateful to have a view of New York that I otherwise would not see. The only time I feel part of the city’s zeitgeist is during the morning rush. Getting on the No. 6 train at 77th Street, I am indistinguishable from the other briefcase-carrying passengers going to work, making it seem that I fit in with the throng of ambition-driven Upper East Siders.
As I exit the Canal Street subway station and head south—with trendy Tribeca just up the block to my right—I spot the sad line of people snaking out of Family Court’s doorway and mentally transform myself into a lawyer who works in a poor person’s court.
Ben Krull is a Family Law attorney and essayist.
A Two-Tiered System
While Family Court is known as a so-called poor person’s court, it could also be called an unmarried person’s court. Parents with children born out of wedlock must resolve their custody and support issues here, while married couples go to New York Supreme Court, where judges specializing in divorce law hear their cases.
It is shameful that New York’s dual system for deciding family law matters mirrors the divisions inherit in the rest of society. Fortunately, there is something we can do about this injustice.
For years, proposals to merge the Family and Supreme courts have been floated before the legislature. Under these schemes all family law cases would be heard in Supreme Court, where judges would preside over everything from divorces to custody and child support disputes between unmarried couples, as well as all the other types of cases presently heard only in Family Court. Many of the state’s seven other trial courts would also be merged.
Court merger advocates stress the cost savings that would accompany consolidation. But the most important result of court merger would be having families from struggling neighborhoods sitting alongside divorcing spouses living in the 10021 zip code, giving real substance to the notion of equal justice.
As Karen Burstein, a former Family Court judge and advocate of court merger, told me: many Supreme Court litigants have never “walked in the same hallway with kids who are in trouble.” Burstein also points out that it is nonsensical to separate parents into different courts based on the type of relationship they have, given that it has become commonplace for unmarried couples to raise children. In fact, I have seen a growing number of Family Court cases involving affluent couples.
Although the state’s top administrative judges are behind a court merger, it has stalled in the legislature largely over the issue of how new Supreme Court judges would be chosen, as judicial selection is one of the last vestiges of political patronage. Burstein thinks that resistance to change is also a factor stalling a court restructuring.
Meanwhile, as the legislature refuses to act, New York’s disenfranchised families are corralled in their separate wing of the justice system, out-of-sight from the rest of New York.
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