One of the busiest family courts in the nation occupies a hulking 32-story administrative tower in downtown Brooklyn. On a recent Thursday, I visited to observe the child abuse and neglect hearings on the eighth floor.
By 9:30 a.m., the halls start filling. A lawyer in beat-up wingtips, a supervising attorney with New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), strolls around checking in with his team. They will soon begin the day litigating against parents who were credibly accused by someone — a neighbor, a relative, teachers — of mistreating their children. A few parents and kids have been here waiting, slouched in wooden pews.
A public defender in a pantsuit arrives to defend a mother whose mistake, I later learn, was a “failure to protect” her child during a spousal abuse incident.
ACS Commissioner David Hansell recently testified to city council that the number of cases his agency filed in family court had rocketed up 60 percent between the 2015 and 2017 fiscal years, to more than 14,000, attributable in part to “a sharp increase in the number of indicated investigations with domestic violence in the home.” In this case, his caseworkers had enough concerns about this mother’s situation to place her child in foster care.
That placement happened over a year ago. Since then, the child welfare system decided the family’s situation was irreparable. This morning, they’re seeking a Termination of Parental Rights, which would sever the mother’s legal dominion over her child, who would then be eligible for adoption. The child isn’t here to watch.
Luckily for this mother, her pant-suited attorney is no ordinary attorney: She’s Mrs. S, who happens to lead a team of lawyers, social workers and parent advocates at a high-profile legal aid organization. Last month, the state’s chief judge Janet DiFiore delivered a strong endorsement of their unique approach to defending parents. Mrs. S herself recently testified in city hall on the issue of parents’ rights, and the increase in domestic violence-related child removals in particular. (She doesn’t try many cases these days — I happened across this sensitive hearing by chance, so I’m leaving names out.)
The quality of legal representation in family court varies widely, an issue DiFiore vowed to address in her annual State of the Judiciary speech. Some children and parents get so-called solo-practitioner lawyers, who might run a small private practice out of a room behind a bodega, paid an hourly wage ($75) by the government that has not increased since 2004, and which a panel of judges recently concluded is “woefully insufficient” for guaranteeing the supports Mrs. S’ clients get. Increasing that hourly rate is a top priority for parent advocates.*
The hearing begins around 10 a.m., and tensions quickly escalate. Mrs. S peppers a foster care agency caseworker with questions about this mother, pushing the witness’s memory to its limits. The foster care agency’s attorney frequently objects to Mrs. S’ questions — “too vague,” “what is the point,” “relevance?” — to which Mrs. S counters calmly, “of course there’s a point.” Her point might be to convince the judge the foster care agency didn’t try hard enough to help this mother stay close to her child. If true, this would undermine the case for terminating her parental rights under state law.
Judge Elizabeth Barnett, appointed in April 2015 by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, seems sympathetic to the foster agency lawyer’s objections, but it’s impossible to tell who has the upper hand in this brief peek at the proceedings.
The caseworker says she suspended visits between mother and child because the mother missed her therapy sessions. Mrs. S then has the caseworker explain that she delivered divorce papers to the mother in her homeless shelter from the allegedly abusive father — perhaps underscoring the mother’s commitment to removing a threat from her child’s life.
An ACS source recently told me the agency hasn’t reached any firm conclusions about why their domestic violence-related cases are on the rise. The New York Daily News reported late last year that New York Police Department (NYPD) investigations of domestic violence had also ticked up. Coincidentally, public defenders for people accused of crimes — different than family court lawyers like Mrs. S — recently testified to city council that their clients are often separated from their children as a result of police actions. For example, NYPD responding to a crime scene where a child is present, then calling ACS without seeking relatives to care for a child first, is a potential violation of department protocols. (It’s unclear if this happened in the now-infamous case of a mother named Jazmine Headley, whom NYPD officers violently pried from her son not far from Brooklyn Family Court, in an incident caught on video.)
ACS has been corrected before for its domestic violence case practice: In 2004, the agency settled an epic, years-long court battle with a group of battered mothers. In a ruling that reverberated nationally, the state’s highest court said ACS was too indiscriminate in removing children from parents solely for letting the child observe domestic violence. Most observers agreed ACS altered its procedures over the next few years, including seeking evidence of other harms before removing children from violent homes.
The caseload in Brooklyn Family Court remains high, and today is no exception. Despite the high stakes of Mrs. S’ case, Judge Barnett calls time before both sides finish questioning the foster care agency’s caseworker. This parent – stock-still and silent throughout the hearing – will have to wait at least a few more weeks to learn the fate of her status as a mother.
This story is a part of a new Chronicle series called “Hearings,” where our reporters and guest contributors provide an inside look at how child welfare courts function.
In about half the states in the country, child welfare proceedings are closed to the public and media – despite the fact that they are places where children enter foster care; where families are ripped apart, sometimes put back together and otherwise – through adoption – made anew.
If you are a judge, parent, foster youth, attorney or an advocate for families … we want to hear from you. Share a story from a recent dependency court experience that you believe speaks to a problem or a success story.
Anonymity may be granted depending on the nature of your contribution. Our intent with this – and all Chronicle projects – is to ethically cover the child welfare system, which often means protecting the names and identities of children and families caught up in it.
*UPDATE, Thursday, May 28: This sentence has been edited for clarity.
A recent federal rule change could mean hundreds of millions of new funds for top-flight legal advocacy, and portends a new era of family justice in child welfare. Intense media coverage of this issue will drive increased funding for quality legal representation at the county, state and federal level.
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