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"The Family Court Roles You Never Want To Play" by Anne Jelliff

The Family Court Roles You Never Want To Play

by Anne Jelliff

My friends and I arrived at Albany County Family Court a few minutes after nine and were almost immediately shown upstairs by a court clerk, who arranged for us to go in and view the a court that was in session. The judge, a natural-born instructor, took the trouble to pause between each case, as often as time permitted, so that he could explain to us law students what had just taken place, why another judge might have done differently, or how the prevailing law came to be in its current form. The cases were heard in fairly quick succession, and almost all (with the exception of requests for orders of protection) involved at least one child and, therefore, an attorney for the child.

Here are thumbnail sketches of some of the cases that stood out to me, organized by the type of character they seemed to (unfavorably) exemplify:

The No-Shows

The ostriches in this menagerie, these characters live in denial, hoping that to stay away from court is to escape the reach of the court, its proceedings, and any responsibility it implies.

In the first such case, a man was petitioning to gain custody of three children, two of which are his own biological children, and another one of which is his wife's by another man, but whom he has raised as his own for the past several years. The respondent, the man's wife, did not appear in court and the judge had to try several phone numbers before he was able to conference her in - finally reaching her on her current boyfriend's cell.

The woman complained of health problems that prevented her from seeing her children as much as she would like and asked about the parenting rights she would have if she surrendered custody of all her children to her husband. The judge briefly discussed a few "concerning" incidents, apparently involving one or more of the children, which resulted in orders of protection being put out against the wife for attacking family members, including her own grandmother. The attorney for the children advised the judge that all three of the children preferred to live with the petitioner and that in the attorney's opinion the court should grant the petitioner full custody and give the mother limited parenting time and allow this time only under supervision of either the father or the father's mother. The court granted the petition.

Another no-show case was over a petition brought by a mother who wanted the court to restrict her ex-husband's parenting rights since he has "an untreated alcohol problem" which is adversely affecting their child. The woman said that she makes plans with the father, drops the child off as arranged and then routinely gets a call either from the child who is frightened and wants to be picked up or from the father who says he can't care for the child properly because he is drunk.

The father did not come to court today, and when the judge conferenced him in on the phone, the man said that he was not prepared for court since he had not been able to find himself an attorney. The judge accused him of being disrespectful to the court in choosing not to show, and threatened to have him picked up and brought in by police escort, a prospect that seemed to get the father's attention. The father had little to say in response to any of the judge's questions, and here again the attorney for the child recommended that the court grant the petitioner's request. The court did so, suspending the father's parenting time with his son until he has seen a counselor. The court also appointed an attorney for the father, warning him to be in court on the next date.

The Finger-Pointers

These actors are simultaneously the most entertaining and the least pleasant of all characters to have to watch, because they obliviously make such fools of themselves.

One of these cases involved a man petitioning to receive full custody of his daughter on the grounds that he had only seen her twice (for an estimated total of 30 minutes) over the past eight months because, he claims, he has been too busy working all the overtime necessary to pay the child's mother the stipulated amount in child support. When the judge asked how the father could justify upsetting the little girl's whole life by removing her from her mother's care and sending her to live with a parent whom she has barely seen at all in the last year, the father's response started out as an invective against a system of justice which would force a man to support his own child by the sweat of his brow, and seemed to move toward a discourse on the evils of society in general. But the judge quickly redirected the vein of conversation and restated his question.

The father then began a colorfully-flavored recital of the faults and failings of his daughter's mother - a recital that was enlivened still further by several terrific interjections from the opposite end of the table (stage right) where the child's mother was seated in person. She apparently took strong exception to having herself described in this way and openly expressed relief that she had been wise enough never to marry the petitioner despite his repeated offers. The issue was finally resolved when the judge, with substantial help of the attorney-for-the-child, settled on times and dates that the father should begin his parenting time, and warned the father that he was not to think of asking for custody again until after he had been consistent for a while in spending time with his daughter.

The Human Vermin

Of all characters to be found in Family Court, I naturally disliked these the most because they have "forsaken all natural affection" and have chosen to abuse or neglect their own children, the very people they should most want to protect.

The case we saw that seemed to fit squarely in this category entered the court in full company (I counted eight including the mother, the father, the father's girlfriend, the mother's boyfriend, the mother's sister, the grandmother, and others who were not identified) - all noisy, shuffling, gaggling creatures who found their respective seats with as much ruckus as possible.

The petition had been brought by the children's grandmother, who asked the court to award to her the custody of the children on the grounds that the children were being both neglected and abused while in the care of the father and his girlfriend and of the mother and her boyfriend. The judge, on finding out that it was not a "consent case," denied the grandmother's petition and advised her that it is not the place of the court to take custody away from parents without following the correct procedures set down by law. The correct procedures would include, he said, notifying Child Protective Services (CPS) and having them conduct an investigation, which could ultimately lead to the result the grandmother wished.

The attorney-for-the-child told the court that CPS was involved but had not yet conducted an in-depth investigation. According to the facts she found so far, though, the attorney believed there was reason to be very concerned and wanted the children to be removed from their parents' homes as quickly as possible. The judge simply reiterated that even though this outcome might be the result of a proper investigation, it should be arrived at by the correct route, and that the court could not overreach its own authority when there are clear guidelines established by the legislature.

Throughout all of this, the parents, sitting in the place marked for respondents, said almost nothing. Their significant others, however, were not so discreet. The father's girlfriend confined herself primarily to sighing dramatically and rolling her eyes at pertinent moments. But the mother's boyfriend is of the "jackass" variety: loud and braying - I'm sure you have met the breed. He muttered barnyard epithets under his breath during the entire proceeding (since he was seated directly behind me, you will understand that I received the full peanut-gallery effect). When the judge announced that he was dismissing the petition, the boyfriend bellowed a triumphant laugh, and openly gave the grandmother what is known among polite people as the "single digit salute." The grandmother, tearful and distressed, left while consulting with the attorney-for-the-child on her best course of action.

Critic's Conclusion

When the court broke for lunch, the judge invited us all up to his bench so that he could show us how family cases are filed, what the documents look like, and how the records are managed from his perspective. He favored us with his frank opinion on several of the people who had appeared before him in the last few hours and expanded on his reasons for the decisions he made. He then sent us off with copies of his latest articles on Family Law and his best wishes for our success at law school. All in all, our visit to court was very interesting and inspiring, and we all appreciated the time the judge took to explain the court system and to encourage us in our legal careers.

Anne Jelliff is a 3L at Albany Law School. Among other things, she serves as the Executive Editor for the Albany Government Law Review and Vice-President of Albany Law School's chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Publication of her article about the jurisprudence of Justice Anthony Kennedy and its ties to his Catholic faith is forthcoming in the Albany Law Review.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 12, 2012 10:03 PM.

The previous post in this blog was "'Experiencing The Future': A Conference In Boston Offers Radical Answers For The Crisis In Legal Education" by Brian Farkas.

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