Helen Zelon: Family Court is a kind of hybrid, both criminal and civil. ACS is a hybrid, too, as advocate and prosecutor. You’re a tri-brid: a defender of children, on the bench, and in city government, now as head of ACS. How does your experience influence your leadership?
Ronald Richter: I spent more than half of my career representing children. Fourteen years at juvenile rights practices as a lawyer for children gave me a real overview of all the kinds of proceedings that Family Court handles.
I had the opportunity to represent children aged newborn through 21. It’s a great vantage to learn, a terrific platform to get a real sense of the way the court works. When I came to ACS and became head of the Family Court division, I had this fantastic opportunity to represent the government and government interests in child protective cases; it gave me a different vantage point.
HZ: A quarter-century ago, Chief Judge Sol Wachtler publicly described Family Court as the stepchild of the New York State Court System. Lots of people still agree today. Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson cited resourcing and funding issues as limits on Family Court – which has had had no new judges in 20 years, along with deep budget cuts and an exponentially increasing caseload. Where do you stand on this? Is Family Court a subset or a stepchild of the state courts?
RR: I think it is the most interesting court in New York. The work of the Family Court is critical to the lives of the people who are either brought there against their wishes or who go there because they’re seeking the courts protection or authority for their own protection.
I understand fully why there are those who to this day agree with Judge Wachtler’s pronouncement – but I don’t see the Family Court as the stepchild of the court system. I understand that it struggles with resource issues, but the judges who are making decisions in Family Court every day are extraordinarily brave, courageous jurists. They are making decisions about family life that will have an impact that will be lasting and critical to those lives forever. So it’s not the stepchild of the court system.
The more than we can have the people involved in the practice of Family Court start to experience it as the critical place it is, the less we will experience ourselves as any kind of stepchild.
HZ: This goes to a central conflict: Many, many people say they are ground up by this work. It’s very tough, and there’s no money. And what about the 2008 Sampson report – that called for new judges?
RR: In New York State, it’s very difficult for a lot of reasons, some political, to have new judges created.
HZ: What’s the political rationale, if Family Court serves this high purpose and serves New York City’s most vulnerable citizens?
RR: In Albany, it’s very hard to know what the political rationale is. The Court serves generally people who are not of great means. It’s always hard to draw political attention to issues that affect children and families as opposed to business interests where powerful lobbyists have sway – I think that that probably explains some of it.
They’re not extraordinarily popular issues that get addressed in Family Court. If you look at children’s mental health, that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Matters concerning domestic violence and family violence don’t get a lot of attention, but are they important? Of course they’re important.
Our issues are often not popular. It takes a lot of effort to draw politicians’ attention – but they’re not without merit. They’re not ‘step-issues.’
HZ: What’s your sense of the strength of Family Court today? What’s it doing well?
RR: I think in child-protective practice we are resolving new cases more expeditiously than ever before. There’s a strong conferencing model; cases that can be settled are being settled more quickly than previously.
I think the model for representation for parents is stronger model, by institutional providers in four of the five boroughs. That means that the lawyers who are on 18B panels have rational caseloads and are able to represent clients more effectively.
HZ: What needs work?
RR: We can always work on scheduling. You want people to know when their case is going to be called, and when the case is going to end. I think that we want cases to be scheduled day to day, so that matters can be resolved as expeditiously as possible. You want to have more predictability with respect to how resources are deployed, so that you have an awareness of how many judges are doing what kinds of cases based upon the volume of petitions filed. I think the Court is working in that direction.
HZ: The idea of scheduling a case from day to day, this is not the current practice of the court.
RR: Yeah, yeah.
HZ: According to [ACS statistician] Virginia Gippetti, kids stayed longer in foster care in 2011 than in 2010. I observed cases: one woman whose custody/support opened in 2008. Custody was settled 2012, support is ongoing. The child is six. That’s the reality on the ground. How do you get from that reality to the idea of cases unfolding from day to day?
RR: I think it has to happen borough by borough, and specialty by specialty. You have to have a very deliberate plan. There has to be a rational oversight of how many petitions are being filed, how many actually go to trial. You need to manage the caseload that you have, based on some predictions. It’s not easy, there’s no question about it. But there has to be some sort of logical, rational plan. It depends on how you cut the data –
HZ: How is pro se representation working? How does the ideal of a citizens’ court work out, in practice?
RR: I think there is a very heightened obligation on the part of the judge when you have a pro se litigant before you. You want to make sure that person understands what’s going on. You have to take time and be patient, and you have to have an interpreter who’s also competent, and you have to give that person time to step outside and talk with the interpreter and process what’s going on in the courtroom. You have to have, as the court, an enormous amount of patience because it’s a really scary environment for a lot of people.
People seeking orders of protection – they’re not entitled, or their petition is insufficient. You always feel really bad about doing that at intake – this is nonlawyer who got help in the petition room. You feel badly.
You want to spend enough time with them to understand the legal concepts. They’re in a court of law, they have a right to file a petition. You’re pointing out something that is a struggle for the court and for the litigants. They’re scared in many cases and don’t know how to manage a court environment.
HZ: Another expression of that tension: Judges explain, but they’re under giant pressure to close cases – judges, attorneys and caseworkers all say they feel that pressure.
RR: Look, you’re under pressure to do a good job on your cases. But you have to make sure a pro se litigant understands what they’re there for and what’s happening.
HZ: Is it correct that the ACS budget exceeds the budget of the state judiciary?
RR: Our budget is $ 2.7 billion – I have no idea. I think it does, but look at what we do: We’re protecting all the children in NYC. Who’s telling you that? They’re comparing New York City’s child welfare agency to the state court system? It seems like apples and oranges, we have entirely different missions.
HZ: What it goes to is a culture of finger-pointing in Family Court. Lawyers say, it’s the judges, judges say it’s ACS, caseworkers say the lawyers are driving me crazy…
RR: I wouldn’t point a finger at anyone. I think judges are doing extraordinarily difficult work.
HZ: People say, ACS, because of its dual role and huge presence in Family Court, has an outsize influence on proceedings, outcomes, and the whole process.
RR: We certainly as an agency provide the court with critical information the court needs to make decisions.
I thought that my [judicial] colleagues felt very frequently frustrated by our agency’s lack of bringing information timely to the court. I felt as though I and my colleagues had frustrations with some of our provider agencies. Those frustrations are sort of classic in the child-welfare agency/juvenile court relationship.
Obviously, ACS is now playing a stepped-up role in juvenile justice. We run detention, and now, we’re going to be running placement. Yeah, we’re going to be playing a bigger role. But judges I know have a confident and sturdy sense of themselves; I think they don’t have a problem having us around.
HZ: I hear it from parents, especially those who are not so adept, or are very frightened.
RR: I think that’s very fair. In any role I’ve had, parents have always experienced this agency with trepidation. That’s because we’re an agency that’s viewed as having the legal authority to affect their parental rights. There’s no question that that is very frightening, especially to parents who don’t have a sense of what their own rights are and who don’t understand how to assert their rights.
I agree with you. It’s daunting to confront a child-protective agency as a parent is being investigated.
HZ: Last week, you gave testimony before the City Council about a new initiative to keep older kids out of foster care. How will that work?
RR: It’s called the Teen Preventive Initiative. It involves investing in preventive service agencies to identify promising practice models. The goal is $20 to $22 million, investing in programs to answer a call that we heard from child protective specialists, the front-line workers.
A lot of our cases, a third from the state central registry, involve teenagers that are creating CP issues in their homes. When those kids come into care, they’re generally unsuccessful – in foster care, and in congregant settings.
We don’t really have robust preventive services for this young person and the mother. We want to find models similar to those used in juvenile justice, multisystemic therapy. So that we can have a social worker work intensively with this mother and this family for up to six months.
Right now we have it available in Manhattan via the New York Foundling and in one zone in the Bronx. In 2013, it will be available citywide.
HZ: Why is New York last among the states in time to adoption?
RR: We acknowledge that that is really not acceptable.
I think there are a lot of reasons. Part of it is a function of our real reluctance to file termination petitions. Since I got here, we have started doing foster care ChildStat, where we are focused on cases where children in care more than three years. Our foster care agencies are sitting with us once a month, looking at kids who arespending too much time in foster care
HZ: How many children so far?
RR: We’ve seen four cases, two cases a month [alternating with preventive Child Stat, another program]. It doesn’t end up being that often. What we found is what we thought: Case planners at FC agencies tend to over-identify with parents. The law says you’re supposed to file a termination petition in 15 of 22 months.
Before you can get there, it takes a long time to get the paperwork together and sign orders of settlement. Once we get that, it takes us a long time to get home studies completed. We don’t expedite these paper processes sufficiently quickly, and they delay adoptions.
What happens is, sometimes kids change their mind and don’t want to be adopted
Sometimes the parents change their minds and they don’t want to be the parent any more, and we lose viable adoptions.
HZ: As head of ACS, you already have a big bucket of money to do the agency’s work. If you had an even bigger bucket of money, what would you do to make Family Court better?
RR: I would try to resolve the scheduling issues with finality. I would probably figure out somehow to extend the day to make more sense for the people who work there and the people who come there. I don’t think a 9 a.m. to 4:30 schedule really works. The design is not really practical for the users and the families who need the courts. Some of our families work; young people who would like access go to school; it’s really impractical that the court is open when it is.
If you go at 9 a.m., there’s not a lot going on. Nobody’s there at 9. I realize that
I scheduled 9 a.m. calls as a judge, but it was hard to get them going, hard to sell 9 o’clock.
If I had a pot of money, I would reschedule the court and figure out how to use time in a smarter way. And then, I would try to add some time to that, probably on the late end, and get more done in a day–have some late hours for parents. The court did this – obviously, there was night court in family court, I don’t know if it still exists.
HZ: It doesn’t.
RR: I think it should be more kid-friendly. Parents should have some place to put their kids while they’re there. Mediation should be promoted.
There’s clearly a lack of mental health services that are strong and robust. In the city in the world where there are probably more qualified mental health providers than anyplace, it is an odd disconnect for me. Our judges know so well how many of the young people and parents before them need access to good mental health services.
I would figure out how to spend some money – not for everyone, but some have very serious mental health issues. How do we make that connection more readily? That’s a very important money issue.
HZ: Is there a question I haven’t asked that you feel I should have?
RR: I do think Close to Home [which brings some young people placed in juvenile justice facilities to New York City, in or near their home communities] is a great thing for children and families. It is a small enough number of kids and agencies, it is changing dramatically the way kids are going to be rehabilitated once they have had some involvement in some sort of crime. It’s a big deal. I’m very hopeful about it.
HZ: It’s my understanding that kids who are found to have committed lesser offenses will the youth who participate in Close to Home.
RR: Yes. Juvenile offenders will be going upstate still.
I do want to add: Family Court may not be making decisions of Constitutional proportions, but I can’t imagine a more important decision for a parent and a child. Figuring out how to schedule cases so that judges can give those decisions the time that they need, so judges can hold full evidentiary hearings–that’s something the Court needs to work toward.
As a judge, whether an agency came in for a removal [of a child from the family home], or asking for a release to the parent, the judge learned so much about the case holding a full hearing on that first day of filing.
In many cases, childrens’ services has the parent there. It’s a critical juncture in a child protective case, and the court in my view benefits enormously by holding a real hearing. I don’t think everybody agrees with me on this.