Family Court of Philadelphia building. Photo credit: P.J. D’Annunzio.

The young mother was too sick to her stomach to stay in the courtroom where her child’s future would be decided. Before her attorney could ask for a recess she ran out of the proceedings holding her mouth, headed toward the nearest bathroom.

E.C.G., as she is identified in court papers, was barred by the judge from re-entering the hearing that resulted in her child being taken away from her and put into foster care. Her attorney objected to the judge’s decision, arguing his client had a right to testify and explain why she should be allowed to keep her child.

“I’m not allowing her to come back in,” Philadelphia Family Court Judge Lyris F. Younge said at the March 16, 2016, hearing just days after joining the bench. “So that testimony is out the window because she walked out without permission of the court. Even if she was sick she should have had the courtesy to let me know that. So her disdain for the court has been so noted.”

Younge’s decision to lock the mother out was contested and she ultimately received a warning from an appeals court panel to be “faithful to the law.”

“Although the trial court might well have believed that [the Department of Human Services] presented overwhelming evidence against [the] mother, the trial court violated mother’s constitutional guarantee to due process when it precluded her from the opportunity to be heard,” state Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Shogan wrote in the appellate decision.

In tossing Younge’s decision and sending the case back to her, the appeals court pointed to the section of state judicial conduct rules requiring judges to “be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants.”

“When the trial court receives this matter on remand, we expect that the hearing will be conducted in a manner mindful of Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.8,” Shogan said.

This was Younge’s first due process violation on record, but it would not be her last.

A Legal Intelligencer investigation consisting of interviews with parents, family lawyers, and a review of legal documents revealed the sophomore judge has established a record of violating parents’ rights during her short time on the bench. Younge also has more active appeals of her decisions as well as more rulings fully or partially overturned on appeal than her peers in the dependency unit, which deals with custody, adoption and foster care.

Those interviewed, many under the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Younge, described a courtroom ruled by intimidation where parents are not given the chance to be heard and even veteran attorneys have left in tears.

A longtime child advocate who has had cases before Younge described her as “off the rails” and “uncontrollable,” adding, “she gets, in a sense, overly quick to decide and doesn’t wait to hear the facts. She makes rash, unsupported decisions. That’s her M.O.”

But because family court records and rulings are kept confidential on a non-public docket—unless appealed—they do not draw scrutiny. “There isn’t the natural control of public exposure,” the advocate said.

In a separate 2016 case in which Younge, 51, took over for another judge, she was again overturned by the Superior Court for a due process violation involving ordering, without a proper hearing, adoption for a child who was already set to be reunited with his mother.

After reviewing the mother’s appeal, Superior Court Judge James J. Fitzgerald III wrote in the court’s decision that Younge “failed to conduct an adequate hearing to address the plan change or find [the] mother was not a viable resource for reunification” and sent the case back for a new hearing.

In another case, the Superior Court said Younge’s decision to place a child in foster care was made without “any evidentiary foundation.”

The case centered on whether a child, referred to as S.S., should be removed from his grandmother’s care because of allegations of excessive school absences, as DHS claimed in its dependency petition.

“At the outset of the ensuing juvenile court hearing, the trial court summoned counsel to sidebar for a discussion that was not transcribed,” Judge Mary Jane Bowes wrote for the court in an October 2017 opinion. “When the dependency proceedings reconvened, the juvenile court immediately discussed the allegations set forth in DHS’s petition as if it had adopted those facts as its own, summarized that information, and announced its intent to adjudicate S.S. dependent and remove him from [the] grandmother’s care.”

Younge characterized the sidebar conversation as an agreement by all the parties to the facts alleged by DHS in its petition, though nothing in the record supported that characterization, Bowes said.

“The only ’evidence’ in the record currently before this court is the juvenile court’s inexplicable but obvious wholesale acceptance of the truancy allegations that DHS had leveled in its petition,” Bowes said.

When Younge began reciting the facts in DHS’s petition following the sidebar, the grandmother’s lawyer asked Younge whether she would have an opportunity to present contrary evidence.

Younge replied that unless the grandmother came up with documentation to show why the child missed so many school days, she couldn’t testify. The grandmother said she had no documents.

The exchange led Bowes to conclude that there was a disagreement over DHS’s version of the story, contrary to what Younge had claimed.

“To be sure, the mere fact that the juvenile court invited grandmother to submit ‘documentation saying that he wasn’t excessively truant,’ belies the trial court’s subsequent assertion that the case was submitted on stipulated facts,” Bowes said.

Miltreda Kress, 38, a mother of four with an active dependency case before Younge, similarly claims too much deference was given to DHS in her case and that she wasn’t allowed to speak her piece.

Kress said DHS investigated her household after her daughter made false abuse allegations against Kress’ live-in boyfriend, allegations that Kress claims the 14-year-old later recanted.

The transcript from a Nov. 28 hearing shows that Kress was cut off by Younge when she attempted to speak for the first and only time during the hearing:

“YOUNGE: So we had a long sidebar—mom, don’t talk. Because what you will find is that I’m not tolerant of people talking while I’m talking. I gave you an opportunity. If you had anything to present testimony [sic] that’s fine—

KRESS: —I—

YOUNGE: But do not talk while I’m talking—do not talk back, this is not going to end well for you if you continue to do this, I’m just telling you. I’m just telling you, don’t say another word.

KRESS: I apologize.

YOUNGE: Don’t say another word, don’t say anything …”

Kress said in an interview she had to quit her job in order to meet all of her court-ordered obligations, such as parenting classes and therapy.

“It’s not just impacted me, it’s impacted my children mentally, emotionally and physically,” she said, adding that the financial burden of the case has been crippling. “So far I’m going to be about $10,000 in the hole. I’ve had to borrow money from people for my legal fees.”

Kress said, “I wake up with nightmares in the middle of the night that people are trying to steal my kids. I’ve never woken up screaming in my entire life. … I feel like, who do you trust now? I feel like the system’s failed completely.”

When approached in the courthouse with a request for comment for this article, Younge refused, saying, “Why would I have a conversation with you?” Younge did not respond to subsequent requests for comment.

Younge’s boss, Philadelphia Family Court Supervising Judge Walter J. Olszewski, did not return a call seeking comment. Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper could not be reached for comment, and a court spokesperson declined to comment.

Maida Milone, executive director of the judicial reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said judges must strive to be impartial, both in appearance as well as in their actions.

She added, “One would hope that a judge would come to each case with fresh eyes and a willingness to look at the case before them and apply the law fairly in each instance.”

Most Appealed

Younge worked in the Philadelphia City Solicitor’s Office for a decade, where she represented the city in family cases. After that, she became a “congregate care integrity officer” at DHS in charge of reviewing cases involving child placement. In 2014 she went to work as an administrator for District Council 1199C, the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees.

She ran for a spot on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in 2015. Despite receiving a “not recommended” rating from the Philadelphia Bar Association, Younge was elected with a total of 40,759 votes. Because the bar association does not explain why candidates receive “highly recommended,” “recommended” and “not recommended” ratings, it is unclear why Younge was given a not recommended rating—the bar association’s judicial evaluation process is shrouded in secrecy and its investigators are bound by confidentiality agreements.

Except for a dust-up between Younge and a supervisor about how to handle a family case, Younge had a clean record during her time in the City Solicitor’s Office, according to a former official who worked in the office while Younge was there.

Younge took the bench in March 2016. From that time until March of this year—her two-year anniversary on the court—Younge has amassed almost 160 appeals: 77 active and 79 closed.

Of those closed appeals, eight—or roughly 10 percent—resulted in Younge’s rulings being at least partially overturned by the Superior Court. Of those reversals, three were based on violations of parents’ or caregivers’ due process rights and a fourth was for relying on insufficient DHS-presented testimony that three children would not be irreparably harmed if their mother’s parental rights were terminated. (Cases involving siblings are docketed individually in the court system, but were counted as a single case for the purposes of this analysis.) The rest of her overturned rulings were for miscellaneous errors.

When compared to her peers in dependency court, Younge stands out as the most appealed and most reversed judge from March 2016 to March 2018.

Judge Joseph Fernandes has the next highest number of appeals during that period at 148. However, of the 112 appeals the Superior Court has decided, only two—or 1.8 percent—have resulted in reversals.

Dependency attorney William Calandra said he and other court-appointed dependency counsel do not routinely file appeals unless the case deals with termination of parental rights.

“It’s very rare that you’ll see adjudicatory rulings or permanency hearings appealed,” Calandra said, adding, “I understand that from 5A,” Younge’s courtroom, “appeals are coming at all different stages for a variety of reasons.”

A veteran family lawyer who practices before Younge echoed the accounts of others who spoke to The Legal about Younge making hasty decisions.

“She has these days where she takes the cases extremely personally, she takes any objections personally.”

The lawyer added, “She’s made up her mind pretty much in the first 30 seconds of the case.”

Families who end up in dependency court are often poor, dysfunctional, and have a history of drug use or run-ins with the law. The lawyer said that these circumstances should be met with patience from a judge.

“She’s a very good mother and has high expectations of parents. What she sometimes forgets, though, is the circumstances. Not everyone has had the blessings she’s had.”

The lawyer continued, “She has the capacity to be a good judge, but she has these bad days where she takes it out on the families.”

But not all of Younge’s appealed rulings involve dissatisfied families. Younge is currently facing allegations in an appeal filed by a Philadelphia attorney who claims the judge held him in contempt without giving him an opportunity to defend himself.

Brian McLaughlin, an attorney handling a family case before Younge, was held in contempt after being summoned to another judge’s courtroom for a hearing that took longer than expected, making him late for his case before Younge.

According to the appeal filed by McLaughlin and his lawyer, Karen Deanna Williams, Younge continually put off the contempt hearing for McLaughlin until it appeared that she had decided to let the matter go.

Then, during a scheduled hearing on Jan. 23 for the family matter McLaughlin was handling, Younge allegedly ambushed him at the last minute with an unscheduled contempt hearing, according to the appeal.

“Over the repeated, strenuous, persistent objections of appellant’s counsel and entreaties about the negative impact of the court’s action on appellant’s good name and reputation,” the appeal said, “the trial court forced appellant to trial without apprising him of the nature of the contempt or affording him an opportunity to prepare defense or present witnesses, most importantly, the presiding jurist in the summoning courtroom who wouldn’t allow appellant to leave (thus negating the willfulness of any contempt).”

McLaughlin and Williams further alleged in the appeal that Younge had accessed the adoptions, or “AP,” docket and entered a continuance order and a new contempt hearing date for Jan. 23. McLaughlin’s case did not pertain to adoption and he said he would have had no reason to check that docket. He also claimed he never filed a continuance request.

“It is believed and therefore averred that docketing the continuance order under the AP docket was purposefully done to preclude appellant from having any knowledge of, raising question about or refuting the purported ‘continuance request,’” the appeal said.

Williams said in an interview that with his appeal McLaughlin was fighting for not only himself, but for families whose futures are on the line in Younge’s courtroom.

“His belief is that if his travail … is assistive in bringing relief to them then it’s worth it because at the end of the day he serves this population and he wants this population to be well-served,” Williams said.