The following is an edited version of a speech delivered to the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Children and the Law Family Court 50th Anniversary on Sept. 14.
With nearly three quarters of a million filings each year, the Family Court is the face of the justice system for so many New Yorkers. People come to Family Court to resolve the most pressing and important issues in their lives—child custody, visitation, foster care, adoption, support, paternity, guardianship, juvenile delinquency, family violence, child abuse and neglect. What is at stake in the Family Court is not just money or property, but the very fibre of human beings’ lives.
Judges presiding in Family Court are experts not just in the law, but in the circumstances of the litigants who come before them. They seek not simply to punish or determine fault or damages. They look to underlying causes, motivations and impairments in order to address difficulties and effect change in the lives of real people.
I want to express my great admiration, deep respect, and commitment to the men and women who work in our Family Courts around the state. Their dedication, focus, and persistence is matched by the lawyers who practice in Family Court, by court staff, by probation officers, social workers, service providers, mental health professionals, and by all of the incredible array of agencies and different disciplines that are represented in the halls of the Family Court.
When the Family Court Act was signed into law in 1962, it marked a transformation in how the courts responded to the problems of children and families. Though, to be sure, many elements of the Family Court we know today were already in effect.
The seeds of our modern-day Family Court can be found in its earliest antecedent, the Children’s Court, which opened its doors at Eleventh Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan on Sept. 2, 1902. The New York Times called it “one of the greatest steps forward in the direction of ‘child saving.’”
New Yorkers had witnessed a growth in social services for children as well as an evolution in the laws affecting children. With the advent of the Children’s Court, children in New York who were accused of wrong-doing were, for the first time, removed from adult courts and away from adult criminal defendants, making New York a leader in Juvenile Justice reform. Like Family Court, the Children’s Court reflected the belief that children should be treated as children. By the 1920s, Children’s Courts had spread across New York State. In New York City, the Children’s Court was made a part of the Domestic Relations Court.
In so many ways, descriptions of those early courts evoke the Family Court we know today. Nonetheless, the need for reform was crystal clear. Families were still forced to go before different judges, in different courts, in different buildings. The Children’s Courts heard neglect and delinquency cases. Support matters went to the Domestic Relations Court. Domestic Violence cases were heard in criminal courts, as, strangely, were paternity cases. Supreme Court handled custody matters, while adoptions went to Surrogate’s Court. One study in 1955 called our system a “jurisdictional hodgepodge,” that “caused the people in this community, least able to cope with it, to be knocked around in the Courts as if in a pinball machine.”
The facilities were profoundly insufficient. The courts did not have enough resources. Their virtual invisibility to the public meant that their needs were not properly understood.
And the Children’s Courts were plagued with procedural anarchy. Judges were free to make decisions without the benefit of rigorous fact-finding or meaningful challenge from the litigants. Unease grew with the practice of denying children the legal rights enjoyed by adults. All this culminated in a rising tide of support for further fundamental change. The result was a revolutionary piece of legislation: the Family Court Act. Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed it into law on April 24, 1962. It went into effect in September, 50 years ago this month.
With the Family Court, New York at long last had one court able to adjudicate the vast array of issues confronting children and families and it established those procedural rules that were so badly needed: assigned counsel for children, the right to appeal, the right to remain silent, and discovery and evidentiary rules.
The U.S. Supreme Court, five years later, in In re Gault, finally caught up to New York. In the landmark opinion by Justice Abe Fortas, the court cited New York’s laws many times in holding that children have a right to counsel, a constitutional privilege against self-incrimination, the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, and the right to adequate notice of the case again them. Again, New York was, as it has so often been, a leader in court reform on issues that affect children and families.
The history of Family Court since then is one of progress and growth. It has changed for the better in so many ways since its creation, with expansion of jurisdiction, improved court practices, and more advanced services. But the history of the Family Court is also a history of continual struggle to give the court resources consistent with the critical work it does.
In its first few years of its existence, the Family Court grew rapidly. It began with 83 judges. By 1965, there were 105 judges and the number of new filings was just under 100,000. Yet almost from the start, the Family Court confronted challenges. The annual reports of the administrative board of the New York State Judicial Conference in 1967, in 1968, 1969 and again in 1970 warned of the difficulties the Family Court faced —acute shortages of personnel and services, antiquated physical facilities, chronically understaffed probation services and a sharply increasing workload.
In the intervening years, the Family Court matured, it grew in size and its resources and personnel greatly increased. We now have 143 Family Court judges, plus 44 multi-hat judges around the state, a staff of almost 2,000, and a budget that has grown from $24 million in the late ’70s to $162 million today.
And we are so indebted to so many who made this happen. First, my spectacular predecessor Judith Kaye, whose dedication to our children and to Family Court was and is unswerving and complete. Thank you Judge Kaye, and thank you to the fabulous Judicial Commission on Justice for Children that she created. And thank you to so many others all over our state— the great Kay McDonald, Michael Gage, Joe Lauria, Tony Cardona, the one and only Howard Levine, Sharon Townsend, Ray Allman, Frank Boccio, Edwina Richardson-Mendelson and so many more—all pioneers!—all gave their professional lives to creating the Family Court of today, a modern court of law dedicated to the pursuit of justice for families and children.
We cannot afford to falter. If we miss opportunities to give children the support they need to grow into productive adults, to place them in homes where they will be safe and loved, to protect victims of domestic violence from further harm—if we miss these opportunities, then we will feel the social consequences for decades to come.
Look at what the Family Court has done. Through the careful use of non-judicial personnel, we have been able to put judge’s time to best use and move cases forward more rapidly, despite increasing case loads. Case conferencing, alternative dispute resolution, and using social workers to assist in identifying services and making referrals have all helped the courts run more smoothly. Special parts for children aging out of foster care ensure they get the attention they need.
Best practices for abuse and neglect cases mean that as many children as possible will grow up in stable, caring and supportive homes. Focusing on permanency and adoption programs, we facilitate as soon as possible a permanent home and family. The Courts Catalyzing Change program helps minority children, who are disproportionately confined in secure detention and disproportionately placed in foster care. Continuous trials and dedicated trial parts facilitate dispositions and save time for litigants, lawyers and the courts. Children’s Centers around the state have taken a tremendous burden off of parents and care givers juggling court appearances and child care. Problem Solving Courts have made a fundamental change in the way family cases are handled. These courts look to the underlying issues that bring families and children into the court system and seek to address root causes.
We have built an infrastructure around education and professional development for judges and court staff, using the Judicial Institute and the Family Violence Task Force to keep judges and court staff up-to-date on current issues and new innovations. Technological advances, computerized case management and data collection allow us to manage the expanding case load in a way we never could before. And we have reaffirmed the Family Court’s openness. The Family Court is a public institution and it is essential that the public have an understanding of the critical role the court plays in our society.
We have come so far and yet there is so much more to be done. In particular, there is an urgent need to create more Family Court judgeships. And we must finally change the age of criminal responsibility in New York. Fifty years after the Family Court Act, we know that young people aged 16 and 17 years old, who are accused of non-violent crimes, do not belong in the adult criminal justice system. It is time once again for New York to become a leader in this area as we did 50 years ago.
On this anniversary, we can look back with great pride at the “experiment” of the Family Court that has now lasted a half a century. We can look with great pride on the millions of children who have been saved from abuse or placed with a stable family, on the young people who have been given a second chance, on the victims of family violence who have been protected, and on the parents who have been helped in seeking custody or support. And we can look with great pride on the heroic efforts of so many who work in the Family Court, for whom this is not just a job, it is a calling. They know how emotionally draining a day can be, and how much difference a day can make to a family in crisis. This day is a celebration of the Family Court, but truly, it is a celebration of all those who have a role in Family Court. You have my deepest gratitude and that of the entire Unified Court System.
Jonathan Lippman is chief judge of the State of New York.