New York Times

May 28, 2002

Handling the Meltdowns of the Nuclear Family

New York Times

Family Court is perhaps the saddest place in New York.

It is where society gathers the child abusers, juvenile delinquents, deadbeat dads, bickering parents, wife beaters and the Cains and Abels.

There have been some significant changes in the system over the past five years. Proceedings have been made open to the public. Judges now specialize in specific family problems. Referees deal with custody and visitation matters, and hearing examiners deal strictly with paternity and financial support cases. Night courts opened in Brooklyn and the Bronx a few years ago and there are now satellite court offices in Harlem, Red Hook and Long Island City. A new Queens courthouse will open in the fall.

But despite this, the hallways of Family Court grow more crowded every year as people turn to the system to solve their problems and the government steps in to prevent cruelties. Consider: there were 190,430 new cases filed in Family Court in 1990; 198,989 in 1995 and 240,709 in 2000. Officials don't expect the numbers to drop.

Most every type of family feud is dealt with at Family Court except, paradoxically, the dissolution of the family itself. (Divorces are handled in State Supreme Court.)

The crowds at the city's family courts are thick, the attitudes are often bad and some stories fall over the cliff of the cockamamie. Recently, one parent told a judge in Manhattan that she slipped in a moment of anger and her hands accidentally wrapped around her daughter's windpipe. The judge could only roll her eyes.

"This is not family court, it's a disaster court," said Paul Cooper, a lawyer who is representing a mother at Queens Family Court who is accused of starving her infant with a strict vegetarian diet. "You pull the roof off of this building and you're looking into the bedroom of America. The family is crumbling, the bedroom's on fire and we're asking the judges to be the grandparents here. It gets worse every year."

To say that the system is overburdened is to put it mildly, lawyers, judges and unhappy citizens agree. About two million New Yorkers walked through the metal detectors of Family Court last year as defendants, character witnesses and the like. Sometimes the visit is a good occasion. Three thousand adoptions are consummated here each year. But most of the 750,000 appearances in family court last year meant bad news for someone.

Some Legal Aid lawyers, who among other things represent children against their abusive parents, handle as many as 110 cases at any one time.

"In some cases we as a society are failing our kids," said Kim McLauren, the attorney in charge of the Queens Legal Aid Society, who stopped to speak for a moment the other day, balancing an armload of manila files. "The system is overtaxed. We should be investing in children, not cutting back programs."

Money cannot be the prime motivator for this job: a first-year Legal Aid lawyer is paid about $43,000 a year and gets a raise to $53,257 after five years. Private lawyers paid by the state to represent battered and indigent women have not gotten a raise in 16 years. On most cases they earn $25 an hour out of court and $40 in front of a judge, rates among the lowest in the nation. Children's advocates criticize the system while applauding its judges, court officers and lawyers, describing their work as herculean.

"The courts are understaffed, caseloads are really high, the buildings are inadequate for the amount of people going through there," said Gail B. Nayowith, executive director of Citizens' Committee for Children of New York, an independent advocacy group. "The backlog for these cases are weeks and months. The workloads are incredible considering that we are making life and death decisions for kids."

The system was devised before the days of crack and the divorce epidemic. Add to that a more litigious society, a greater willingness to report abuse and no compunction about airing arguments in the post-Jerry-Springer world, and you have the modern Family Court.

"People use family court to play out their animosities, and it clogs it up," said Joseph M. Lauria, administrative judge of New York City Family Court. "You get to know some of these families. The good part is we can help with long-term resolutions of family problems."

Family Court is not a tribunal of instant gratification. While you are guaranteed that you will see the judge the day you are called to court, the chances are better than good that you will see the judge again for many more days over the span of many more years.

In civil matters, the courts can attract a surly, frivolous element, since there are no filing fees and the government not only obliges but instructs the do-it-yourself lawyers who gum up the system.

These kitchen-table counselors seem to think the definition of justice is "give me what I want" and the process of discovery is something like "Yo, the guy in the hallway don't have to pay child support because he don't have a Social Security number, so why should I have to sign over my unemployment check?"

The current family courthouse in Queens is a former public library retrofitted in the early 70's. It is an old rundown building with municipal smells and filthy windows and rows of plastic chairs on each floor. The walls are papered in admonitions: no smoking, no caustic chemicals, no entry, no, no, no.

The referees hear cases in offices no bigger than a broom closet. People former confidants and lovers bicker, scream, throw fists. The waiting rooms are snake pits of accusation and recrimination. A woman got stuck between floors in the elevator and when service resumed, her ex-husband was waiting on the third floor to laugh at her.

Take the case of Leon v. Gallo, a couple who got along famously until their daughter was 4. Then, according to court papers filed by Anthony Gallo, things fell apart between him and Ana Tapia-Leon, the mother of his daughter, Gabrielle, and the woman he now refers to as his former paramour.

"For reasons known only to the respondent," his affidavit for visitation rights said about Ms. Tapia-Leon, "and over what appeared to be a very short time, her feelings for me dramatically changed." While the root of their problem lies in this phrase somewhere, neither could explain where the anger began. They have been in court a dozen times over three years bickering about custody.

As if proof was needed of his love for his child, Mr. Gallo, 38, recently showed a tattoo of "Gabrielle" on his chest. In support of his character, he dressed in new shoes and a tie, and carried letters of reference from his barber and a local deli clerk.

He wept. "I miss my daughter and that monster won't let me see her."

On the other end of the grubby waiting room, Ms. Tapia-Leon sat alone with her tears. She maintains that Mr. Gallo abused their daughter, although court-mandated investigations have revealed no evidence to its truth.

Ms. Tapia Leon carried many papers, among them a drawing by Gabrielle that read "no."

"You see, my daughter doesn't want to see that man," she said, and to that effect she vowed to fight Mr. Gallo to her dying day.

"I'm an educated woman," she said. "I went to university and I keep an immaculate home. I thought these kind of things happened to drug addicts and alcoholics. I never thought I'd be in a place like this, and I blame him for it."

The former lovers eventually got to see a judge near the end of the afternoon. The outcome? Come back in two weeks. Just in time for Father's Day.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company