February 10, 2016

Misery, and Hope, In a Poor People’s Court: ProPublica Talks With Abigail Kramer

“The courthouse is dismal in the particular way of municipal buildings that serve the very poor. The walls and floors are scuffed. The ceiling is a low patchwork of industrial foam squares. There are no windows to the outside. For a place that deals in the problems of families, it’s remarkably difficult to navigate with kids…. At 10 a.m. on a recent Friday morning, about 30 people sat on benches, wearing the vaguely taxidermied look of those who expect to wait for a very long time.”

This bleak portrait of a reception area in the Bronx Family Court opens the Center for New York City Affairs’ vivid new report “Is Reform Finally Coming to New York City Family Court?” Last week, reporter Joaquin Sapien of ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning independent, non-profit investigative news organization, asked the report’s author, Abigail Kramer, about her work, including her views on the latest push to speed the notoriously glacial pace of child protective cases in Family Court. Here are excerpts; to read the full interview, go to:  https://www.propublica.org/article/the-trials-of-new-yorks-family-court. And to read the Center’s full Family Court report, go to: centernyc.org/family-court.

ProPublica: In your report, you note the cynicism built up over years of pledges to reform the family court system. Does this [newest] effort truly feel different? Why?

Kramer: I think there are good reasons to be optimistic. Five years ago, you could have walked into any child protective courtroom in the city and seen that it was contending with impossible circumstances. Judges had five or six hearings scheduled for the same time slot. Lawyers were running from courtroom to courtroom, missing trials. Families sat in waiting rooms all day. When things are so frenetic, it’s impossible to stop and think about what would work better — either for a particular family or for the system as a whole.

Now, you still see absurd levels of dysfunction and delay but there’s been some relief, and Family Court administrators seem determined to capitalize on it. If there’s ever been an optimal time to make the court work better, it’s now.

ProPublica: What struck you most about your time in Family Court? Is there a detail or anecdote that haunts you personally?

Kramer: Family Court is a sad, surreal place. What haunts me most is not any particular incident, but the cumulative disrespect that we, as a society, show to poor families — and especially poor mothers. I wrote about a woman raising four kids under age 8 in a Bronx homeless shelter. Her case started when she got sick during her most recent pregnancy and stopped taking the oldest to school. In the course of the city’s investigation, she was ordered to take parenting classes, get therapy for herself and the kids, and enroll her younger children in pre-k and daycare.

So now, she spends her weeks dragging her kids to appointments and drop-offs in three different boroughs, often without help getting train fare. The morning I met her, she had walked the entire family two miles from their homeless shelter to the courthouse. When they arrived, the kids were beautifully turned out — hair done, clothes freshly pressed, smiling and cheerful — but their jackets had holes where mice in the shelter had chewed through them.

If we really care about those kids so much, why is their shelter crawling with mice? And why wouldn’t we just help their mother get them to school? I’m a parent with a steady income and other resources, and God knows I need help sometimes. But it’s nearly unfathomable that a social worker would walk into my life and tell me I have to go to therapy or face the threat of losing my kids.

Yes, there are parents that need intervention in order to keep children safe, but when you spend time in Family Court, it’s painfully clear that we apply a level of scrutiny to poor families that the rest of us would never tolerate. And our disdain is reflected in every piece of the process, from the dismal state of waiting rooms to the quality of social services to the time it takes to get a trial.

ProPublica: You note the addition of nine new judges in 2015 — the first increase in 20 years. Is that enough? Does the math really get better?

Kramer: The big-picture answer is no, it’s not nearly enough. Family Court makes spectacularly high-stakes decisions (“Will you ever see your mother again?”) about some of New York’s most vulnerable residents. It’s chronically overburdened and under-resourced. Nine new judges won’t come close to making it function in a way that would be accepted in any system serving people with money or power.

Abigail Kramer is a Senior Editor at the Center for New York City Affairs. Abigail specializes in policy issues impacting low-income children, youth and families in New York City—especially those in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. @abigailkramer11

Joaquin Sapien has covered criminal justice, military healthcare, and environmental issues for ProPublica since 2008.

Photo by Edwin Torres for ProPublica.