Although she was removed from the Philadelphia Family Court bench in June, Judge Lyris Younge continues to have her rulings overturned on appeal—this time for inappropriately locking up a grandmother at a court hearing.
A three-judge Pennsylvania Superior Court panel held that Younge, who is under investigation by the Judicial Conduct Board, should not have incarcerated H.R., as she is referred to in the opinion, simply because the grandmother did not know her 26-year-old daughter’s whereabouts in a case involving her grandchild, referred to as N.M.
A transcript of the December 2017 court date appearing in the Superior Court’s opinion shows the exchange between Younge and the grandmother. In it, Younge questions H.R. on the location of her daughter and H.R., labeled as “Mother” in the opinion, repeatedly explains that she doesn’t know:
“The Court: All right. This is what’s going to have to happen. Where is the baby currently?
The Court: Where’s the baby?
The Court: [Mother]?
[Mother]: With her mother.
The Court: Where is her mother?
[Mother]: I don’t know.
The Court: OK. Well, that’s going to be a problem for you because you’re going to be on this van to State Road. I’m going to hold you in state[’]s custody until I get the baby.
[Mother]: I just don’t know where she is, Your Honor.
The Court: OK. Well, that’s all right, you’ll be able to make a phone call and get her here.
The Court: Because the baby absolutely has to come into care because I do not necessarily believe the fact that the baby’s not living there.”
The transcript goes on to show that H.R.’s lawyer, Elizabeth Larin, told Younge that there was no way H.R. could guarantee her daughter would arrive at court if she called her. At one point Larin asked Younge if they could simply call the police instead:
“Ms. Larin: Could we just have police go right now?
The Court: No, because I want the baby brought here. I’m not having the police go now. I have grandmom and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Younge then ordered H.R.’s incarceration for contempt of court. “I’m just holding [Mother] until such time [N.M.] is produced to the department. And once she is—once DHS has the baby then [Mother] can be released from custody.”
But Superior Court Judge Correale F. Stevens, writing for the appellate panel, said the law does not permit a grandparent to be jailed in such cases.
“The Juvenile Act addresses confinement in terms of delinquent children. The act does not provide for the incarceration of a non-custodial grandparent to compel a grandchild’s surrender,” Stevens said. “Notably, N.M. was not even a subject child of the adjudicatory hearing before the trial court. Therefore, as ‘[d]ispositions which are not set forth in the act are beyond the power of the juvenile court[,]‘ the trial court’s actions were erroneous.”
R. Stephen Stigall of Ballard Spahr, one of H.R.’s attorneys, said he was relieved the ruling was overturned.
“It was completely improper to lock up this poor grandmother for something over which she had no control,” Stigall said.
“She had no run-ins with the law before she was jailed. It was not a lengthy time in jail, but for someone who has never been in a jail cell, even an hour is terrifying at the least.”
Younge has been heavy-handed in trying to achieve outcomes in other cases as well, for example, according to a Superior Court opinion issued in May, Younge tried to force two parents to confess to alleged child abuse by holding their baby girl in foster care.
In that case, the court said Younge was out of line for refusing to let the child live with her grandmother while the case went on—as a way to make the parents “‘cop to’” alleged abuse.
“If I leave her [in foster care] maybe I get closer to an answer as to what happened instead of moving her to grandmom,” Younge said at a December 2016 hearing.
In a stinging ruling issued by the state Superior Court on May 4, Judge Anne E. Lazarus said, “The fact that a trial judge tells parents that unless one of them ‘cops to an admission of what happened to the child’ they are going to lose their child, flies in the face of not only the [child protection laws] but of the entire body of case law with regard to best interests of the child and family reunification.”
Lazarus added, “We find that the record herein provides example after example of overreaching, failing to be fair and impartial, evidence of a fixed presumptive idea of what took place, and a failure to provide due process to the two parents involved. Finally, the most egregious failure in this matter is the refusal to allow kinship care, despite the paternal grandmother being an available and approved source for same. The punishment effectuated by the trial judge was, at best, neglectful and, at worst, designed to affect the bond between parents and N.M. so that termination would be the natural outcome of the proceedings.”
Younge’s conduct on the bench was first reported in an April 2 Legal Intelligencer article detailing her history of violating parents’ rights. She currently sits as a judge in the city’s civil court system.