As a board member of Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT), a non-profit organization that helps unrepresented litigants in New York City Family Court, I was proud to help organize a recent panel discussion addressing race and poverty in the New York State Family Court. Moderated by LIFT Executive Director Cathy Cramer, the panelists included the Honorable Edwina Mendelson, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge; former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson; and Proskauer Pro Bono Partner, Bill Silverman. Secretary Johnson is responsible for a recent report on institutional racism in the New York State Court System, where he characterized certain courts, including the Family Court, as providing a “second class system of justice for people of color in New York State.” Bill Silverman co-authored a recent report on behalf of the New York City Bar Association and the Fund for Modern Courts which addressed the impact of COVID-19 on the New York City Family Court and how the crisis laid bare longstanding inequities. Judge Mendelson is responsible for the Court’s justice initiatives.

Despite the critical importance of a strong and independent judiciary, it’s too often that court reform is ignored by public officials and civic leaders. Earlier this week – at the Conference on Judicial Selection Reform hosted by the Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone – I had the opportunity to use my perspective as Chair of The Fund for Modern Courts to speak on the importance of simplifying New York’s antiquated court system.

The conference began with remarks by Congressman Jerry Nadler, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson – who recently issued a report on racism and bias in the state court system. Secretary Johnson referred to the current court structure as “inexplicable,” and described how certain courts, such as the family and criminal courts, are under-resourced and over-burdened. He furthered explained how, in New York, over time there has developed a “second class system of justice for people of color.”

Due to COVID-19 court restrictions, there have been no adoption proceedings over the past 14 months in New York City, culminating in a backlog of children in need.  Although these proceedings are not considered to be “emergencies,” the failure to facilitate permanency on such a wide scale, in fact, poses a threat to the health and safety of children.  As courts are beginning to hear these matters again, and given the tremendous unmet need for legal services, Proskauer is partnering with Mobilization for Justice’s Kinship Caregiver Law Project to provide the pro bono legal support needed to help stabilize families.

Proskauer was privileged to host a panel presentation with Her Justice this month to raise awareness of economic and legal obstacles facing women who are living in poverty in New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel was moderated by Proskauer associate Elizabeth Siegel, a member of the Her Justice Junior Advisory Board, and featured Her Justice attorneys Hamra Ahmad, Anna Maria Diamanti, and Prathiba Desai. With support from pro bono lawyers at Proskauer and other law firms, Her Justice provides family law and immigration representation to women of limited means, most of whom are mothers and survivors of intimate partner violence.

Among other obstacles, the panelists highlighted the many hurdles the public health crisis has caused for low-income women seeking legal relief in family court. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, accessing family court was challenging for Her Justice’s clients because the court required them to appear in person. Clients often had to wait several hours even for a brief appearance, which was particularly difficult and financially burdensome for those who needed to arrange for child care or time off from work. At the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, the New York City Family Court closed except for “essential services” such as emergency proceedings for orders of protection, which are being heard virtually. While the ability to obtain orders of protection during the pandemic is critical for vulnerable women, participating in virtual hearings has created yet another set of challenges for women living in poverty who may not be able to access the technology needed for remote hearings. The lack of access to a stable internet connection and a confidential location to safely discuss sensitive legal issues has proven to be especially difficult.

Delays in New York City Family Court proceedings too often result from an inadequate number of judges combined with a court structure that makes it difficult to allocate judges where they are most needed.  Although these structural faults require legislative and constitutional changes, there are certain steps, according to a

The New York Statewide Central Register (SCR) of Abuse and Maltreatment maintains records of calls, allegations, and results of investigations regarding suspected child abuse and maltreatment. Although these records are not public, many employers and agencies are legally obligated to check the database before hiring applicants and accepting volunteers. Having an “indicated” report on file severely decreases the chances for an applicant to gain employment, as well as detrimentally affects one’s ability to secure housing and apply for government benefits.

Through a recent training conducted by Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS), Proskauer now has the opportunity to file motions to vacate findings of neglect in family court, where called for under the law.  In doing so, you can make a fundamental difference in the lives of poor families.