A look at the family court system

Devon Green ‘02
Legal Aid Society

When I arrived for my first day on my internship with the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society at Manhattan Family Court, I think I was beyond overwhelmed. It was my first day commuting to the city from my home two hours away. I had no idea how to handle the subway system, and when I finally arrived at the family court I was twenty minutes late. The court itself is pretty overwhelming. It is a huge black granite building with pieces that jut out everywhere. The lobby was full of people trying to get through the metal detectors. It probably took me ten minutes just to get up to the Legal Aid offices on the ninth floor.

When I did finally make it there, I met the two paralegals, Diane and Meredith, who were going to supervise me. They seemed really helpful and nice. They started off by explaining the juvenile justice system to me, focusing on abuse and neglect cases since that is what I would be working on most.

This is a (very) rough outline of how a neglect and abuse case goes through family court:

  1. Suspected neglect or abuse is reported by either a mandated (someone who is legally bound to report such as a teacher) or non-mandated reporter
  2. Case is referred to government social services office (in NYC: Administration for Children’s Services)
  3. Field office investigation (commence within 24 hours)
  4. After the field investigation, ACS determines if the report if unfounded or indicated. If the report is unfounded, there is no further action. If indicated, the children are left with the parent and preventative services and/or a petition is filed, or the children are removed and placed with a relative or in foster care.
  5. Family Court Arraignment- this is the initial court appearance by the respondent parent. During the arraignment, the court considers whether or not there is imminent danger to the children, reasonable efforts to avoid removal, if there should be an order of protection, and if the children can go to any relatives.
  6. 1028 Hearing- this is a hearing that determines whether the children should be returned home or not. During this, there is a fact-finding hearing or admission by parent, which tries to determine if the allegations in the petition are true. Then with the disposition, the judge decides whether or not remaining with the parent would be contrary to the best interests of the child.

There are four outcomes to the disposition

  • Placement with Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), who will then place the child with a relative or in non-relative foster care or in a residential treatment center (RTC)
  • Direct Placement with a relative or friend
  • Release to parent with supervision
  • Adjournment in contemplation of dismissal (ACD)

After receiving this crash course of the family court system, my supervisors sent me to observe some court proceedings for myself. Court was overwhelming at first, and I didn’t really know all that was happening with the proceedings and all the legal phrases that were being thrown around. How it works is that everyone who has a court date must show up at family court at 9:30am. Then, throughout the day each person’s case is called and that person can go to court. I was really surprised to find that each court was just one room with two tables and some plastic chairs facing a judge’s stand. There is no jury in the courtroom, only a judge. In a way, it is similar to The People’s Court on television. In fact, the famous Judge Judy from the court show actually used to be a Manhattan family court judge, which can give you an idea of how some of the judges there act. Besides the judge, there are a couple of court officers and a court clerk. On the other side of the courtroom is the respondent parent (or primary caregiver to the child) and his or her lawyer. Next to them is the caseworker involved with the child (usually someone from Administration for Children’s Services, or ACS) and that agency’s lawyer (usually a Division of Legal Services, or DLS, attorney). The next person over is the lawyer I worked for, called the law guardian. While the two other lawyers make allegations against the respond or defend the respondent, the law guardian chooses his or her own position on the case, representing the children. Children are not allowed in courtrooms, so the law guardian’ s job is to bring the position of the children to the courtroom. If the children are too young to speak, the law guardian bases his or her position on all of the evidence in the case. If the child is old enough to speak and make conscious decisions, the law guardian must follow the child’s wishes. I was really impressed by the role of the law guardian because it kept the focus of the children in the courtroom. I got to observe the law guardians and rest of the court proceedings many other times over the term, especially because I was working full time. Whenever there was an interesting court session, I was the first intern called down to see it. By the end of the internship I knew specifics, such as hearsay is admissible in a 1028 hearing, something a less experienced family court lawyer did not know.

Observing was not the only thing I did at family court. The main part of the internship was working in the Compliance Unit. After a case is closed, the lawyer has the option to refer it to the area in which I worked, the Compliance Unit. The Compliance Unit basically does all the follow-up work for cases that are closed, but for some reason or another need monitoring in case they need to be brought back to court again. I started out with about four or five cases and ended the internship with fourteen or fifteen. A lot of the cases were about following up on court orders, which ranged in anything from making sure a child is getting enough therapy to getting a young adult into an SAT course, and making sure these orders were carried out. Other times, a lawyer just wanted the case monitored to make sure things were going well. Here is an example of one case I worked on. It involves a biological mother who recently had all nine of her children released back to her from foster care. She was supposed to be receiving a homemaking service to help her out with her large, new family. The lawyer who referred this wanted to make sure that she was getting that service and therapy and just generally check up on how things were with the new adjustment. This is what I e-mailed to the lawyer after speaking with the caseworker (CW) about the family:

“Devon Green” <devongre@hotmail.com> 04/11 11:18 AM >>>
Hi, this is Devon Green from Compliance. I’ve received the (name) case. I just spoke to the DSS caseworker, ——-. She told me that the family is doing fairly well, but she is definitely not closing the case yet and is monitoring them carefully.
MOM
Has an internship at the YWCA doing secretarial work. She is not getting paid. THERAPY
Mom- Sees a mental health clinician at Ellis Mental Health bi-weekly (it used to be monthly, but she has been more depressed lately). She has been taking various anger management courses as well. She also goes to Family Works weekly for one-on-one therapy with ——- and family therapy with all of her children.
Child 1- receives family therapy
Child 2- has family therapy. Also, there was an appointment for Child 2 with child guidance on 4/3 or 4/4 to discuss one-on-one therapy in order to address suicidal ideations she has recently been having. The CW has not spoken to the mother, so she is not sure how it went.
Child 3- receives family therapy
Child 4- family therapy and sexual abuse treatment program at St.Anne’s with Jamie
Child 5- family therapy and sexual abuse treatment program at St.Anne’s with Jamie
Child 6- family therapy and sexual abuse treatment program at St.Anne’s with Jamie
Child 7- family therapy and sexual abuse treatment program at St.Anne’s with Jamie, along with play therapy with ——
Child 8- family therapy
Children 2 and 3 are also in Respit (sp?) where they go to a foster home on the weekends in order to give mom a break There was a family therapy treatment review 2 weeks ago reporting that the family is making progress.

SCHOOL
The CW says all is going well in school. Child 1’s grades are dropping, but the mother has gone in to speak with his teachers. Mom thinks that his involvement in basketball will bring up his grades because he needs to maintain a certain GPA to stay on the team. Other than that, no kids in special ed, no behavioral problems or attendance problems. School seems to be fine.

RECENT INCIDENTS
The family relations are okay. Things with Child 9 and Mom are improving, however, the relationship between mom and the older daughters is a little rocky. There was a corporal punishment incident last month involving Child 2 that ended up as a hotline. Apparently Child 2 was tied up with belts. The older brother said that he was responsible for it- he was trying to tie Child 2 up to control her, however, the CW thinks that the brother may have been trying to take the blame to cover for his mom. There was also a recent incident where a teacher reported sexual abuse between Child 7 and 9, however, the CW does not think that the teacher knows the family’s history and the mother can handle the problem herself. The sleeping arrangements in the house remain the same and the mother and older siblings are monitoring any sexual behavior. The CW also added that the number of incidents of sexual behavior between the siblings is decreasing.

HOMEMAKING SERVICE
Currently, there is no homemaking service. There was a woman coming into the home, but she left the agency in September (through no fault of the mom). The CW found another woman, but the mom had difficulties with her and she left. The agency is now looking for a new worker.

HEALTH
The mother has been very good with Doctor/Dentist appointments and the children are very healthy.

SUMMER:
The CW is now looking to put all the children into summer programs. She wants the younger ones to go to camp and the older ones to work part-time through the Schenectady Job Agency.
The CW thinks that this is a very tight family, however, they do have their problems to work out and she will continue to monitor them closely.
Let me know if you would like more information!
Thanks, Devon

Obviously, I wrote about more than just the homemaking service and therapy. A lot of times it is hard to get a hold of caseworkers because they are in the field or conducting visits. I learned that once I did contact a caseworker, it was a good idea to get as much information about the children’s situation as I could. Not only that, but the lawyer really appreciates as many details as possible. They usually want to know who the children work with or live with, what they are doing, where they are going or living, and when. Lawyers want to know about therapy, medication, visits with parents, sleeping arrangements, appearance, school, just about anything. This way, the lawyer can get a sense of the whole picture. Also, these thorough interviews sometimes reveal issues that may have been overlooked before.

Sometimes, however, caseworkers are not very cooperative. I had one caseworker that told me her lawyer instructed her not to speak to me! Other caseworkers tried to dance around or avoid questions. For example, in this update, I was supposed to find out if a termination of parental rights (TPR) had been filed or if the mother was making efforts to be reunited with her children, such as visiting them and completing parenting skills programs and drug tests. In this case the mother was not making sufficient effort. She was not visiting her children or cooperating with the agency. This leaves the children in limbo—they are not with their mom and they are not freed up for an adoption. The goal of the lawyer is to establish a permanent home for the children, preferably with a biological relative, but if none are cooperating, in an acceptable pre-adoptive home. This caseworker (CW), however, was refusing to TPR the biological mother (BM) despite her being so uncooperative. He was not a very competent caseworker and often gave his own diagnosis instead of offering me concrete facts. Once again, it was important to ask many questions concerning the children and focus on other areas, because I found out that the caseworker was not getting the court ordered therapy that one of the children desperately needed:

Hi,
Hope you had a nice weekend. I spoke to the CW for the Carter case and this is what he told me:

Concerning TPR
- CW does not know where the mother completed parenting skills training (even though we had an appointment for this phone call) but he will get the information to me. He assumes that she had 16-18 sessions to complete the course.
- CW said that he is definitely giving the mom more drug tests as soon as she gets out of the hospital. She has been in the hospital since the miscarriage which was about a week and a half ago. He does not know what blood disorder the mother has, but he will also get that information to me. He did mention that she definitely looks like she is suffering from something because she is pale and drawn. I asked him if he thought this blood disorder would impair her ability to care for her children and he answered that he wasn’t sure, it all depends on what type of disorder it is. He’s also not sure when the BM will be released from the hospital.
- I confirmed that the BM missed half of her biweekly visits with the children before she was hospitalized and the CW said that she had, adding that, for the record, “she is not the most motivated person in the world” and that she is very pathological. He thinks that she’s in active denial. When I asked for specifics he said that the BM will not visit because she claims she doesn’t have the time or the FM is too far. Also, the BM has not called the children at all. The CW thinks that the BM needs the chance to take advantage of the agency’s services. He suggests deep psychotherapy for her, and he is sure she is suffering from depression. The BM has been evaluated by the agency’s psych, but he diagnosed her with only a personality disorder that is not a detriment to her children.
- When I suggested a TPR, the CW said that his job was to put families back together and not to break them apart. He has been working for awhile on this case and knows everyone well and he does not think a TPR is the best thing for the children. He will only file one if a judge orders him to.
Child 2’s Therapy
- CW said that the referral for therapy at Schneider’s Hospital has been in since 10/99 but there have been no appointments due cancellations/scheduling conflicts with both the hospital and the FM. I suggested that Child 2 be in therapy within a week or we may have to bring the case to court and the CW said he did not like that kind of deadline imposed on him, that he has been working 24/7 to get Child 2 to Schneider’s because it is so excellent and he doesn’t want to put pressure on the FM who has been working hard enough as it is. I suggested putting pressure on the hospital and he said he would like to use more diplomatic means, but after awhile admitted that he doesn’t know about things- there’s a possibility that he’s been lied to because the FM has had some issues taking Child 1 to therapy in the past. The CW ended by saying that he will put more pressure on the FM to get Child 2 into therapy and if things don’t work out with Schneiders, then he will try a different place for therapy.

Also, FYI, the CW told me that police are investigating the BM’s husband for having sexually abused the oldest child (Latifah).
Even though the CW said that the FM was good and everything was stable in their home, he refuses to file the TPR because he doesn’t think the BM has been able to take advantage of the agencies services, and he still wants to work with her. However, this blood disorder has been complicating things for him right now.

He should be calling back within the next few days with the information on parent training and the blood disorder. Is there anything more that I should tell him. Should I push the TPR any more? (He seems pretty stubborn).
Let me know what I can do to help.

Thanks,
Devon

When it came to responding to these reports, the law guardians were amazing. A lot of them wrote back to me right away and I got to talk to most of them in person. A lot of times it is hard to get in contact with all the lawyers because they are completely overworked—one paralegal told me they have 120 cases at time! Despite this, interacting with any of the law guardians was really educational and exciting. They asked me my opinions on cases and allowed me to work with them in doing things like filing motions. A lot of the law guardians are young too, which was great because they have all this energy and enthusiasm for their jobs that is really inspiring.

I also got the chance, because I was at Legal Aid full time, to work closely with a lawyer specializing in juvenile delinquent cases. It was such an interesting, eye-opening experience. I was able to walk through whole cases at a time with him, from when he interviewed adolescents in detention to their court hearings.

Another privilege I received because I was a full time intern was the chance to do special projects. About every week or so, I got a chance to serve subpoenas. The actual serving was pretty boring, since all hand over a paper and get a copy signed, but it was really great to get a chance to go to Harlem and Brooklyn and learn my way around the city—I even delivered a subpoena to the attorney general. Through delivering the subpoenas, I got to know the investigator in the office, and even got the chance to go on some special jobs with her. One was interviewing an adolescent in Harlem who was witness to the armed robbery of a pizza man. It was really interesting to watch the investigator draw a map and ask the young man the position of every person and his side of the story and then see her draw her conclusions from talking with the boy. She even asked what I thought about the case and wanted my feedback and impressions on all the issues. This was such an incredible feeling, I really felt like a part of the legal process instead of just an observer.

As a full time intern, I also received the chance to observe a different legal process than that of family court. Because I worked full-time, I was invited, along with the paralegals and lawyers, to sit in on a session of the Juvenile Treatment Court at the Harlem Community Justice Center. It was truly an amazing experience. The Juvenile Treatment Court is group of young adults from diverse backgrounds between the ages of thirteen and eighteen that make up the judge, advocates, and jury of a youth-led peer court. How it works is that the police refer non-violent first or second time adolescent offenders to the court. These offenders and their families have to agree to the adolescent being put on trial. The offender then goes in (the one I observed involved a young adult bringing a water gun to school) and is fully tried by his or her peers. The proceedings were impressive—the advocates (lawyers) were well spoken and the jurors seemed to weigh all the issues very carefully. The jury asks the offender questions and then decides on his or her guilt and punishment. Usually these punishments are essays or a certain number of hours of community service with the program. In this case, the offender was punished with three essays each focusing on the offense with the water gun—how it could be mistaken for a real gun, instances where children have been shot by police who thought water guns were real, and other issues surrounding guns. Of course, since the law does not back the court, there is no way to enforce punishments, so it does have its weak points. The most amazing part, however, is that almost all of the offenders get themselves involved with the program after they have been tried. It was really inspiring to see children within the legal system instead of the legal system working against them.

Visiting the Harlem Community Justice Center alone was a unique and thought-provoking experience; my work with the Legal Aid Society for the whole spring term was invaluable. I literally learned something new every day—how an interstate adoption compact works, when a parents rights to their child should be terminated, what kind of medication treats attention deficit disorder. By the end of the internship I saw a family court scene in a movie and I could point out everything that was done wrong. I learned more than just the law as well. Through all of the phone calls and interactions with the law guardians, I learned to assert myself more. I learned that real lawyers actually valued my opinion on a case and I could really make a difference in the case. Sometimes, caseworkers would literally yell at me and tell me not to tell them how to do their job. Normally, I would be intimidated by this sort of thing, but when I thought about how some child’s life was on the line it gave me the courage to trust my own judgements and stand up to the caseworkers to ensure that child got what he or she needed. Knowing that I helped get a child into much-needed therapy, or into a good pre-adoptive foster home, or into an SAT class that would increase the adolescent’s chances of getting into college really made me feel constructive, like I was directly helping children.

Of course, the internship does not foster this feeling of productiveness all of the time. The juvenile rights division of New York City is probably one of the largest and most complicated systems in the country. The internship had its frustrating points. A lot of the time I could not get a hold of caseworkers. One time, I called a caseworker every day only to find out a month later that he was out of the country. Other times names were changed and it was next to impossible to track the children or anyone who was involved with the children down. This definitely made me frustrated and helpless at some points.

Also, some of the things I heard about or saw made me feel frustrated and helpless. This internship is not for the squeamish. I had a case where an eleven-year-old boy was dying of AIDS and not getting the care he needed. I had another case where an eight-year-old girl hits her head against her pillow to fall asleep and wets her bed every night. I heard about parents who shook their baby to death and then went to the bar to get a beer. Seeing and hearing these things got me pretty depressed sometimes, but it also made me feel that my job was that much more valuable. In this huge system where many children are overlooked every day, the Legal Aid Society is still trying to do something to help these children and improve their lives, and just by being a small part of that I really felt like I made a difference.

I still hold this feeling in me. This internship has made me realize that I want to work with or for children as a career. I really respect the law guardians and what they do at the Legal Aid Society. I am seriously considering going to law school and becoming one myself some day. Until then, I am going to continue working with my children’s mentoring program, Direction through Recreation, Education, and Mentoring (DREAM), and perhaps even give legal advice to the parents at the housing development where the children live. I am also working on a magazine article concerning the juvenile justice system in New York City that should be published in my hometown next month.

On the last day of work, I had a really hard time giving over my caseload to someone else. What would happen with these children? Would they be okay? I realized I wanted to work for children and be with them every step of the way. This internship really was an amazing experience for me. Not only did it allow a country girl like me to get a feel for and a sense of direction in the city, but it also gave me more purpose and direction in my life that I have never felt before.