Photo Credit: Marc Gronich
Pictured, former Court of Appeals Justice Howard Levine of Schenectady and awardee Martin Guggenheim.

Whether you talk to judges, state lawmakers, or people who find themselves in the bowels of family court, you will hear the echo, “the system is broken.” Judges say some tweaks are needed as a fix, the public maintains a major overhaul is needed, and state lawmakers are listening to these concerns as if they had never stepped foot in a family court building to observe a court proceeding.

In 1962, the legislature created the Family Court and the Family Court Act. For the past several months, the idea of repairing the system has meandered through the New York State Bar Association, State Court of Appeals, legislative hearings, and the family court judicial community.


“The common refrain remains that family court judges, practitioners and employees are overworked and devalued,” Nassau County Judge Ayesha Brantley (D – Hempstead), 44, told a Senate panel during a recent hearing. “Family court judges are at risk of becoming targets of harassment, threats and physical harm. I’ve become immune to the critiques and insults that litigants levy at me, often online. My defenses have been shaken upon receiving notification of credible threats of physical harm. As judges, we are left to fend for ourselves in defending our family from harm from disgruntled litigants. In recent years, we’ve seen increased penalties imposed for harming agents of law enforcement, transit workers and even airline employees.”

Family court judges often handle cases centered on mental health and forensic evaluations, individual and family counseling, parental training, substance abuse and treatment, supervised parents, anger management, ordering batterers intervention, sex offender treatment, respite care, eliminating gang intervention, parent coordination and mediation.

“We rely on agencies such as the Office of Children and Family Services, county probation departments, the Department of Social Services and New York City Child Protective Services [CPS] to conduct investigations, supervise and house youth, create service plans and furnish reports to the court,” Brantley, the only family court judge who would go on the record, said. “Family court judges share the frustration of litigants when the adjudication is impeded by a lack of social services or concede their position because they are being crippled by the financial burden of obtaining necessary services or counsel.”

Brantley, who is also the president-elect of the New York State Family Court Judges Association, which boasts a membership of 200 judges including elected and appointed family court judges as well as county, civil, criminal and court judges designated to sit in family courts, was speaking at the Senate hearing in that capacity. Regardless of which hat she was wearing to testify, her insights were compelling and offered a picture no other person testifying could have had. Going to the website would allow anyone for no charge to get Judge Brantley’s address, age and home phone number as well as possibly a cell phone number. Going to the county board of elections, anyone can file a Freedom of Information Law request for her nominating petitions to find out her home address and who her supporters are. Brantley finds this intrusive and a danger to her family and herself.

“Judges are made vulnerable by the ease with which litigants can procure their personal information and biographical data. Publicly posting and sharing personal contact or address information of a judge without his or her expressed consent should be a strictly prohibited act and codified in the law,” Brantley said. “The court system would benefit from receiving additional funding to assist judges in having personal information removed from the Internet and public records as well as hiring additional court officers to provide protection for judges in the courthouses and in the community, if necessitated by a judicial threat.”

New York Chief Judge Rowan Wilson addresses the New York Bar Association before the Howard A. Levine Award for Excellence in Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare was awarded to Martin Guggenheim of Merrick, Nassau County.

“The family court is the most under-resourced part of our system and it has been that way for a very long time. The other is that the family court… is the place where the courts and the ancillary services can make the most difference,” said New York’s top judge, Rowan Wilson, the chief judge of the Court of Appeals.

“There’s legislation to get us more family court judges; we’re pushing to get more resources of all sorts to support the lawyers who practice in family court to get their compensation up, to provide ancillary services and I hope in a couple of years I can report that we made some real progress in our mission.”


Guggenheim Honored, Offers Comments

On October 17, the New York State Bar Association honored Martin Guggenheim with the Howard A. Levine Award for Excellence in Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare. Guggenheim, 77, has taught for 50 years at the New York University [NYU] School of Law.

Levine, who is Jewish, was appointed in 1993 by Governor Mario Cuomo to sit on the state Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. He became the 200th jurist to sit on the Court of Appeals since it was founded in 1846. Levine, 91, retired at the end of 2002 and joined a prestigious white shoe law firm in Albany. His judicial career began in 1970 when he was elected to the Schenectady County Family Court, a position he held until 1980.

A heap of praise was bestowed upon Guggenheim as he received his award.

“Marty founded the family defense clinic at NYU in 1990 and is the foremost expert in family and children’s rights,” said Richard Lewis, president of New York State Bar Association upon introducing Guggenheim. “The family defense clinic was the country’s first clinic to train law students in how to represent parents at risk of losing their children to the state’s custody. It also introduced a team approach where lawyers, social workers and other advocates work with parents in and out of the court to help ensure the children remain in their families’ care.”

Guggenheim has always been a critic of the family court system.

“I’ve never been happy with the family court or the so-called child welfare system from the day I began practicing law in September 1971,” said Guggenheim, a resident of Merrick, Nassau County. “It is the legislature, the political arena, that has forced people of good will to strive to improve the lives of children living in poverty. They can only do it by labeling parents inadequate. The inadequacy of the overwhelming number of parents I have worked with in 50 years is poverty. The solution is to deliberately deny them. It is a disgusting picture that I feel obliged to share. Whenever a system is serving only people living in poverty it is going to treat them abysmally. That’s what we do every day and even the chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals can’t do very much about it.”

Guggenheim also has plenty of solutions for the problems plaguing family court.

“I’ve never seen the legislature as doing something genuinely good for children in New York. We impose on single parents an expectation of taking care of their children that wealthy parents know full well that it is impossible to do without a village,” Guggenheim told The Jewish Press. “We need a different understanding of the responsibility of the understanding of people who have enough to eat and to live well and how to share it better with people who lack that. There is a recognition that children are not adults and that their behavior needs to be judged accordingly. That’s a real difference over the past 20 years. There have always been judges who are sympathetic.”

One top judge, however, sees the problems outlined in this article as much ado about nothing.

“We are trying to change the culture. I don’t see family court as a mess. I see it as a place where there are extremely hard-working smart judges who are trying to do the best that they can,” Joseph Zayas, the chief administrative judge of the New York State Unified Court System, the highest-ranking administrative position within the New York state judiciary, exclusively told The Jewish Press. “There are not enough attorneys representing the indigent litigants that appear there. It’s a confluence of factors that are causing some delays in these cases. Part of it is not enough judges, part of it is not enough lawyers who are hired to represent these parties and that creates delays because you can’t move forward with the case and these lawyers are not getting paid enough. There is this thing called the great resignation. People want to take different jobs where they can work from home. There are facility issues such as in the Bronx where we feel the city should be building us a new courthouse.”

Zayas said only some tweaks are needed to fix the system.

“For me, this is not about fixing family court. It is about giving the family court the resources it needs to do the job and elevating its stature. From my perspective, the judges are doing a wonderful job and we need some fixes in place that will make it better.”

Zayas also said the issues plaguing family court have been an ongoing problem for many decades.

“In family court, we are there to handle traumatic situations that are happening in New York’s families. You have to think of it that way. The people who are coming in are coming in with some difficulties and some trauma. Sometimes the trauma is from domestic violence. Sometimes it’s from mental health. All of these things. It’s not so easy figuring out these problems that have been knocking at our doorstep for decades and decades and decades,” Zayas said.

“I think once you resource and create more judgeships, once you create more providers, once you create more lawyers; those three things right there are going to go a long way. At the same time, we are collaborating with the governor’s office to just reimagine how family court could be different.”

But the heads of the state and city agencies in charge of family issues, the state Office of Children and Family Services [OCFS], and the New York City-run Administration for Children’s Services [ACS], did not attend the Senate hearing. That ticked off at least one state Senator.

“We won’t, however, be hearing from OCFS or ACS. They were both invited but both [agency heads] declined to show up to testify. That’s a shame because issues at OCFS and ACS are a big part of the problem and it will be much more challenging to reach solutions without their participation,” said Senator Jabari Brisport, (D – Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn), chairman of the Senate Committee on Children and Families.

“We must acknowledge that a big part of the problem here is the New York state budget where New York state has failed our families. Too many judges are overwhelmed and are cast into the role of social workers. When the additional burden is placed on judges who don’t have the time or resources to fill that role, terrible mistakes are made with terrible consequences. When families experiencing poverty are met with a court summons instead of support it is the children who suffer most.”

At least one state senator agrees with Zayas’s approach and wants to be methodical before acting.

“Family court is a difficult court system because of just the sheer volume of cases and needing more resources and more judges. It doesn’t dismay me. Does it frustrate me a little bit? Yeah. I don’t think we need to go in and just completely change the system, blow up the system,” Senator Rob Rolison (R – Poughkeepsie), the ranking member of the Senate Children and Families Committee told The Jewish Press.

“Let’s understand what we’re going to find out. Then let’s see how we could put the family court system on the path to a better place. I have always been of the opinion, let’s not allow the perfect get in the way of the good.”

One assemblyman, who served for seven years on his local Community Education Council 31, including a stint as president, has an entirely different way of looking at the situation.

Assemblyman Sam Pirozzolo, an optometrist by profession and former school board member, said education is the best solution to easing the high volume negatively impacting the family court crisis.

“You need to prevent these people from entering that system and winding up in front of a judge. The way I see that happening is through a proper education,” Assemblyman Sam Pirozzolo (R – Castleton Corners, Staten Island), a member of the Assembly Children and Families Committee, told The Jewish Press.

“I would say shame on you for saying we need more lawyers instead of saying we need a better education system so we don’t need these lawyers. I’m going to pooh-pooh the attorney saying you need more attorneys when the solution lies in preventing people from needing an attorney. If that puts the Legal Aid Society out of business then so be it. If people had an education, a proper education that is guaranteed by the constitution of New York state, they probably wouldn’t be in that place.”

In 2018, the state Legislature raised the age of responsibility from 16 or 17 to 18 to automatically be eligible to be prosecuted as an adult. This put a further burden on an already overwhelmed family court system because the 16- and 17-year-olds were shuffled out of criminal court to family court.

“As a legislature, we need to think about putting some money into the issues that we see in the family court because it’s volume,” said Senator Anthony Palumbo (R – New Suffolk, Suffolk County), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. “With the implementation of Raise the Age, we now have even more cases going to family court. These judges have their hands full. We need to figure out a way to give them the vehicles to make this world a better place and to protect children. There is no special formula.”

The stories at the Senate hearing told by those impacted by the family court system were heart-wrenching if you believe what they said.

“Family court doesn’t solve problems for our families. It only creates new ones,” said 38-year-old Aaliya Ingram, a resident in the Kensington section of Brooklyn. She told the story of her daughter being taken away from her by ACS because the child missed too many days of school and the principal of the charter school the girl was attending was mandated to report this to the authorities at ACS.

“The principal heard me out but she said she could lose her license for failing to report the absences to ACS. Mandated reporting makes professionals afraid to slow down long enough to consider what is actually in the best interest of the family. Instead of asking how she could support me in making sure my daughter could attend school, she reported me. At the beginning, I thought that family court would be the place where my family would be protected. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that family court is not about family; it’s about control. There is a lot of talk about diversity efforts in the courts but I will tell you that my judge was a Black woman and it didn’t change a thing. The issue is that our humanity is not recognized by the court system. One of the most effective ways to reduce the size of the system is by eliminating the mandate to report.”

Alexis Warnic, 24, testified she was taken away from her family and spent four years in the foster care system, from ages 14 to 18. She has two children of her own who were taken by the authorities at Child Protective Services because her newborn was lying on a bed and not in a crib. Warnic was accused of not giving her baby proper medical attention and did not receive her children back from the foster care system until four months later, on September 22.

“They give CPS too much room to make allegations with no proof,” said Warnic. “Family court is a broken system. If the structure is fundamentally broken, any new judge will just fit right in with the rest of them.”

One influential lawmaker is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal (D – West Village, Manhattan), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, empaneled lawmakers in the upper house to probe the family court crisis.

“The task before us is certainly daunting but we owe it to the families of New York to fix our broken system of family justice,” said Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal (D – Greenwich Village, Manhattan), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Certainly, we have enough reports. We have a roadmap of what to do. We now need to exercise the political will to do it.”

All eyes will be on next month’s State of the State message given by Governor Kathy Hochul on Tuesday, January 9, and her state budget presentation two weeks later, to see how much emphasis she puts on family court matters.


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Marc Gronich is the owner and news director of Statewide News Service. He has been covering government and politics for 44 years, since the administration of Hugh Carey. He is an award-winning journalist. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press and his coverage about how Jewish life intersects with the happenings at the state Capitol appear weekly in the newspaper. You can reach Mr. Gronich at [email protected].