Florence Roberts, who spent much of her career at Legal Services NYC serving low-income families, incarcerated women and victims of domestic violence, died June 1 at home in Greenwich Village after a three-year fight with cancer. She was 73.
Roberts headed the family law units of two Legal Services NYC offices, first in Brooklyn and later in Queens. Friends, colleagues and those she mentored credited her with promoting the parental rights of mothers and domestic violence victims at a time when family services received little funding or resources.
In one of her most notable cases, Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41 (2d Cir. 1983), Roberts convinced the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that her client, a widow whose husband had left her without divorcing her, was entitled to Social Security survivor benefits even though he had remarried in another state without her knowledge and listed his second wife as the beneficiary. Roberts also worked on one of the state’s first open adoptions, protecting a mother’s right to see her children after her parental rights were terminated.
“Florence was a guide, mentor, tremendous resource, and friend to me and … a large and diverse cadre of domestic violence attorneys,” said Donna Lee, a professor at City University of New York School of Law who has taught its Battered Women’s Rights Clinic, in an email.
Roberts grew up in the Bronx. She lived in Taiwan for several years with her husband, Moss Roberts, a professor of Chinese at New York University. After they moved back to the United States, Florence Roberts earned a Master’s Degree in history from New York University and began working as a substitute teacher for New York City public schools. She later enrolled in Brooklyn Law School, graduating in 1978.
Roberts specialized in family law, first at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A and later at South Brooklyn Legal Services. In 1987, she became the director of the South Brooklyn office’s family law unit and started one of the city’s first uncontested divorce programs. It prioritized domestic violence victims as its clients.
In 1993, Roberts left Legal Services NYC to start the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project’s Battered Women’s Project. A year later she rejoined Legal Services in its Queens office, where she led the family law unit until she retired in 2006.
In retirement, Roberts volunteered with the Incarcerated Mothers Law Project of Volunteers of Legal Service, often visiting women in prison to advise them on their parental rights. She also served on the advisory board of the New York Asian Women’s Center, which helps women and children escape domestic abuse.
Roberts received several awards throughout her career. In 1994, she was honored with the New York City Bar Association’s Legal Services Award, and in 2001 she received the “In the Trenches” Award from the Lawyers Committee Against Domestic Violence.
Roberts is survived by her husband; a son, Sean Roberts, a traffic court judge for the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles; a daughter, Jenny Roberts, a law professor at American University Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C.; and four grandchildren.
The family is planning a memorial for this fall.