In the New York Family Court System, judges adjudicate cases ranging from custody disputes to child abuse. As Riley reports, though, the whole system can feel like an agonizing series of hearings, trials, and meetings—often without any resolution. The process can prove detrimental to a child’s emotional well-being, in addition to draining money and resources from parents.
Family court’s problems may have begun with the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, but “bureaucratic incompetence, outdated technology, and weak leadership have played major roles since then,” Riley observes. “These problems can be addressed meaningfully.” She explains how in her City Journal feature story, “The Tragedy of Family Court.”
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is your host, Brian Anderson, editor of City Journal.
In the early 1960s, specialized “Family Courts” were established in states across the country to oversee cases involving child neglect, paternity, adoption, juvenile and family offenses, and child custody. These days, Family Courts are a crucial part of child-welfare services, but the system is plagued by a number of serious problems.
For the most-recent issue of City Journal, our friend and frequent writer, Naomi Schaefer Riley, visited the Queens County Family Court to report on some of the proceedings that take place there.
We invited Naomi into to the studio to talk about her experiences, and our conversation begins after this. We hope you enjoy the discussion.
Hello again everyone, this is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Naomi Shaffer. Riley, she's a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and writes regularly for City Journal and many, many other outlets. Naomi's latest piece for City Journal is called the tragedy of family court and it appears in our autumn 2018 issue. Naomi, thanks for joining us.
First off, I want to thank you very much for writing the piece. It's certainly a disturbing subject and I hope our listeners can learn something from your description of it both in the article and in this conversation today, can you begin by giving listeners an idea of how family court, how the system operates in New York?
Naomi S. Riley: Well, family court is used for a lot of different purposes. There are obviously court cases involving, for instance, the removal of children from homes by the administration for children's services, but it's also there to mediate internal disputes and families settle divorce cases, custody disputes and things like that. For the article I actually visited Queens family court, but every borough has one and a and they're pretty difficult to watch in some ways.
Brian Anderson: And these are state or city organization. Or both?
Naomi S. Riley: They are state run state funded organizations, but they are located in different parts of the city.
Brian Anderson: Right. Now, can you walk us through a little bit the history of family court? This hasn't always been such a major feature of city life. Right?
Naomi S. Riley: Well that's true. And I think in some ways it's sort of a map to the change and families, you know, 50 years ago we didn't really have courts to settle disputes among families. Those were pretty much settled internally to the extent that you had kids who were, uh, not being cared for by their own immediate family. Extended family would take them in a. or even things like foster care agencies are relatively recent phenomenon in the grand scheme of things. But essentially what's happened is as a family has sort of deteriorated, the structure of the family has deteriorated more and more. The disputes have grown more and more numerous over the last 50 years, such that family core today is completely overwhelmed.
Brian Anderson: And what made you want to look into this, this kind of story?
Naomi S. Riley: Well, I've been writing a lot about child welfare and it's interesting the number of people when you ask them about what's going wrong in foster care, why more kids who are without families can't be adopted, why children are being abused and neglected and not being removed from their homes. Everybody points the finger at family court. It's really interesting because I think they think, well, the buck should stop there now. You could argue about that. I think the buck probably should stop other places first. Um, but even representatives of the administration for Children's Services have said, when I asked them about particular numbers, oh, well, you know, that those are the decisions a family court judges. So I really wanted to find out what it was that was going on there. Also, I would say a lot of foster families that I've talked to, foster parents have complained to me endlessly about how often they are forced to go to these hearings about how pointless they are because they never seem to end and how frustrated they are with the system. So I wanted to sort of see it firsthand.
Brian Anderson: What's the biggest problem with the system? I guess one of the, one of the things you've just sort of alluded to it is, is the kind of time that it takes to mediate some of these cases, and that puts children in a difficult position and it puts parents in a difficult position, right?
Naomi S. Riley: Right. So almost all of the hearings that I attended in Queens family court ended in adjournments, you know, what would the first possibility is that, for instance, no, a piece of paperwork that was supposed to have been filed would not have been filed or that one person who was supposed to be there for the hearing wasn't there for the hearing. Uh, and the result was that you would have a gathering of six or eight or even 10 people there for particular hearing, and the judge would look around the room, look at the paperwork, and then announced that he couldn't proceed with the hearing and everyone should just go home and come back in three or six months. Um, and I think that this was obviously infuriating for the people involved, particularly people who taken off a day from work in order to make this happen. Typically the children were not actually present. It was mostly adults, but you often had lawyers for acs. You had lawyers for each party. For instance, if it was a custody dispute, you had a lawyer who was representing the child and it was just a huge waste of everyone's time. And it seemed like there, there must be a way to avoid this.
Brian Anderson: This is a problem for adults. I think it's an even bigger problem for children, right? Because of the way they perceive time and the difficulty of, keeping their circumstances. So uncertain.
Naomi S. Riley: Yeah, absolutely. Especially for children under say the age of three a where we really want to find as quickly as possible a permanent safe and loving home for them and the idea that you could have a child who is six months or a year old and a judge might say, oh, let's come back in three months or six months, when the circumstances could be such that that child could be forming attachments to foster parents, adoptive parents or biological parents depending on the decision. But instead we are keeping them in this kind of limbo that is really preventing the kind of attachment that we know is important for their social, intellectual and emotional development.
Brian Anderson: How, um, how big is the system in New York? In terms of dollars or, or in terms of how many people are operating inside of it?
Naomi S. Riley: Uh, I'm not sure what I was thinking back. It's a system that is perpetually claiming to be short of dollars, I guess is, is the, is the, is the problem the, the judges would say that they have too much on their docket. There's really not much that they can, uh, they can do to move these cases along and of course, like any city agency, you know, things, you know, close at a certain time, they only operate on, on certain days and so, you know, 4:00, it's time for everybody to go home, even if your docket is much longer than that.
Brian Anderson: Now, towards the end of the piece you go over three different ways that the system could be improved in terms of increasing its efficiency. Before we finish the interview, could you just sketch some of those reforms that, that are circulating?
Naomi S. Riley: Yeah. Well, I think that the first one is obviously an issue of what I, what they call calendaring. I'm amazed that judges actually a don't simply say to people, okay, everybody needs to come back in a month. We'll find a time for you. Instead, at the end of each hearing that I was at, a judge would say, oh, let's try and six months, could you come back on Thursday, December 13th? And someone else would say, no, I have a dentist appointment that day. And it seemed absurd. This was not the way that you would schedule appointments for, say a doctor. You would go see somebody who, uh, you know, the receptionist who had a lot more time on their hands than the judge.
Brian Anderson: So the judges themselves are setting these appointments.
Naomi S. Riley: Yes, yes. They're spending, I would say at least 10 minutes at the end of each hearing actually discussing an, uh, an appointment making system, which is something I think that could be done by a computer system much more easily or certainly a by an assistant a much more efficiently. So, you know, one question is whether we can enforce by state law, some kind of speedy trial, a mandate, you know, obviously this is something we have in criminal court where we say, look, you know, come hell or high water. This person needs to be able to be seen by a judge. We can't have this case go on forever. Now, of course the judges will say, and the court, uh, you know, representatives will say, well, if you want to have speed of your trials, you need to dump more money into the system. I'm not actually opposed to that. I think that we may have reached a point where we simply need more judges to be looking at these cases.
Naomi S. Riley: Um, but I also think another solution is that, you know, judges really need to be using their discretion more to determine which cases do not belong in family court. I mean, if you have a boyfriend and girlfriend who are simply a, you know, arguing over who gets the apartment or things like things which are technically family disputes, which I saw a number of and sometimes didn't even involve children, a dispute over a, you know, an elderly person. Uh, you know, one, one sibling thought this should happen to them. One sibling thought that should happen to them, whether you need a family court hearing for each one of these cases, let alone whether you need several hearings, uh, you know, that are, that are drawn out by these different, uh, Germans seem simply crazy to me. And, and, uh, a system that is supposed to be charged with protecting vulnerable children, I think should not be in the habit of taking what seemed to me like much more frivolous cases.
Brian Anderson: Don't forget to check out Naomi Riley's essay, the tragedy of family court. It's in our latest issue and you can find it on our website, www.citydeskjournal.org. You can follow Naomi on twitter at Naomi s Riley. We'd also love to hear your comments about today's episode on twitter at City Journal. Lastly, if you like our show and wanting to hear more pleasingly ratings and reviews on itunes. Thanks for listening and thanks Naomi for joining us. Thank you.