From Mom to Not in Seven Minutes: Inside Family Court


City Limits spent months observing Family Court and found an overburdened system where delays were endemic, legal help was scarce and the approach to solving family problems was divided. This is the first chapter in our report.

The lives of the city’s most vulnerable citizens—tens of thousands of its neediest children—are irrevocably shaped by the decisions handed down in Family Court, yet the children themselves are rarely present.

A woman in a white puffy coat and her lawyer sit at a blond-wood conference table on the left side of the courtroom. On the right, a lawyer for the city and a caseworker from the city’s child protective agency fill a twin conference table. A lawyer for the child who is the focus of the hearing sits at a small side table, barricaded by stacks of folders and binders. The judge sits at the center of a low, wood-paneled dais. Her court attorney, two clerical workers, and a pair of armed, uniformed court clerks populate the front of the courtroom, under the “In God We Trust” emblazoned in brushed-metal capital letters on the wall, as the court reporter quietly taps out the record. The woman is in court to formally terminate her parental rights—to “free” her 8-year-old son, who has spent most of his life in the foster care of another woman, for adoption.

Papers are shuffled and submitted to the judge for scrutiny. Lawyers stand up and sit down again. The mother is asked if she understands everything that is happening in the court: “This surrender document is final and irrevocable. You can never take it back,” the judge says, slowly and clearly. The woman says she understands. Another woman, rising from her bench in the small gallery section, is the child’s foster mother, with whom he’s lived for six of his eight years. She says she wants to adopt the child; she says he calls her Mommy.

The woman in the puffy coat keeps her eyes fixed forward. (The child’s father came inebriated to one earlier court session and has not returned for this proceeding, which will, in absentia, end his legal fatherhood.)

Seven minutes after the hearing is called to order and the participants sworn to tell the truth, the matter is concluded: The boy is freed—no longer the child of his biological mother—and will be adopted by the foster mother, who wants him. The child himself is absent from the courtroom and, quite possibly, silent in the case. It is not clear whether the judge spoke with him at all. His young age means that his consent was not required. The boy’s biological mom zips her coat and strides out of the courtroom, boot heels clicking on the tan linoleum tile: No tears, or none visible. The lawyers gather their papers and belongings. The clerk calls, “Next case.”

Blood ties broken, new ties forged, in under 10 minutes. Next case.

A quiet crisis

Every day in New York City, mothers and fathers stand up in Family Court to hear a judge say they must sever all ties to their biological child. In courtrooms from the Grand Concourse in the Bronx to Richmond Terrace in Staten Island, other parents face charges of child abuse and neglect, their children removed to foster care—a return home uncertain, sometimes impossible. Meanwhile, hundreds thrash out custody arrangements and child support deals; some argue over paternity or beg the court to take charge of their wayward child. Others simply wait. They wait to see children detained in juvenile justice proceedings, who are held out of view and escorted to proceedings in handcuffs. They wait for court clerks to help them swear out orders of protection against abusive or violent spouses (or children). They wait for judges and lawyers to meet and render judgment.

Children are at the heart of every proceeding every day in every Family Court chamber in New York City, whether as defendants awaiting juvenile justice proceedings or children needing adult care or, most often, victims of the abuse and neglect that sunders thousands of city families each year. The lives of the city’s most vulnerable citizens—tens of thousands of its neediest children—are irrevocably shaped by the decisions handed down in Family Court, yet the children themselves are rarely present and are almost always silent.

Absent along with the children is the attention of most of New York City to the human drama that plays out, over vast expanses of time and at taxpayer expense, in the halls and chambers of each borough’s Family Court.

Every few years, a young life somewhere in New York is extinguished or scarred by abuse so horrifying that the tabloid ink flows in rivers. Politicians call for reform. Bills are proposed and speeches made. Then, inexorably, the outrage fades. Family Court, however, grinds on.

Today, those twin aspects of Family Court—its obscurity and its inertia—coupled with profoundly crippling economic pressure, make the situation playing out there increasingly precarious.