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.