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 Lessons From Family Court


Judge Richard Ross 

(A longer version of this work was previously published in audio CD form and is available from the author.)


CHAPTER TWO: Indecent Behavior

CHAPTER THREE:  Violence At Home

CHAPTER FOUR: Ripping Apart Families




          Remember the “Life Is Hard and Then You Die” T-shirt?

          You don’t? Sorry, I’m old.

          Buddha said: “Life is suffering.” I doubt he received licensing fees from the T-shirt people. His expression of this greatest of truths was too grim. We Americans don’t like grim. The T-shirt is more ironic, catchy. 

          It wouldn’t matter to me which version our society accepted if only it would. Judges would have smaller caseloads. For sure, compared with the good old days, most of us are better fed, sheltered, clothed, transported, and doctored. Work is not so brutal. We live longer. As citizens, we enjoy a plum pudding of rights and opportunities. Entertainment and toys abound. No matter how strong the skeleton, however, the soul remains fragile. Day to day and hour to hour, peace of mind, contentment, and a satisfying spiritual life remain elusive. Of course, it was ever thus. More troubling to me is my sense that there are fewer seekers. Instead, many who appeared in my courtroom seem to expect felicity to find them.

          An important effect of our enormous gross domestic product and the skillful marketing of the American Happiness Franchise is that we become irritated, even outraged, at the bumps and rolls of life’s uncertain voyage. I am not referring here to normal sharp reactions to major jolts such as the death of a loved one or a serious illness. Rather, I find adults more and more unable to achieve balance and perspective when significant yet transitory episodes such as divorce, loss of employment, or financial crisis come upon them. Even little things – the behavioral quirks of partners and family members or the boundless energy and ordinary misbehavior of children – too often cause a failure of patience and composure.

          One expects these unreasonable emotions in juveniles only. The summer rose of extended adolescence must fade. Excessive fondness for it causes individuals as well as societies to become silly and to lose the ability to concentrate on much besides the trivial. Worse, to the extent that one fails to accept life’s inevitable vagaries and troubles, one copes less effectively with the unknown, uncontrollable, and unfair.

          Lucky me, I got to be a Family Court judge. Imagine having work you love, a job that is important, always interesting, and challenges you to give your all every day. That is what I fell into years ago when an administrator in the New York court system who had political influence took a liking to me and decided to find me a place on the bench.

          “Buy your robe, the job’s yours,” he told me one day. “And get ready to work. Now you’re going to find out what public service really is.”

          It was terrific is what it was. The stimulation and satisfaction of a judgeship  rendered inconsequential the mental exhaustion and the pressure of responsibility. I’m blessed as well with a wonderful wife and a son who is beyond compare. He was born as I approached the lee side of middle age. Lucky me is right.

          The wonder of a Family Court judgeship is that the road chosen can be whatever one wants it to be: a dead end, a featureless long stretch of interstate highway, a predictable two-lane road home, or a challenging tough chunk of off-the-road terrain. Asking parents deep questions, exploring tough issues with them, interviewing their children – in my judicial career these yielded unexpected responses and revealed perplexing situations. Nevertheless, I learned that it is worth taking the risks to get involved with people.

          That education was a process. At first I knew too little to have much awareness of the choice of passage, then I resisted stepping on to the right path. Here is a tidbit of insider information: Judges in busy urban courts are taught that production counts. A judge may have a reputation among staff, the bar, and court administrators as one who moves the calendar quickly and disposes of lots of cases, as one, in other words, who gets “good numbers,” or in courthouse parlance, is a “heavy hitter.” On the other hand, some judges are said to run their courtrooms like “roach motels:” the cases go in but they never come out. Court staff love heavy hitters. As one clerk told me during my first month on the bench, “Judge, this court has too many cases for you to spend much time on any of them. Just cut through them. Otherwise, we’ll be here all night. Think of it as meatball surgery.”

          A good meatball surgeon in the New York City Family Court reaches final disposition in at least thirty percent of the cases on the daily calendars. Below that rate, certainly below twenty-five percent, a judge risks drowning in the caseload pool. Call me Dr. Ross. I was the meatball surgeon par excellence. My disposition rate for several years was one of the highest in the city, well above thirty percent.

          One night I gave a colleague a lift home from work. This was prior to my transfer to Manhattan, when I was still sitting in Bronx Family Court.

          “How was your day?” she asked me as I drove down the Grand Concourse.

          “Busy. I did sixty-four,” I said, referring to the total number of children in the cases on my calendar that day. “Got rid of more than half.”

          “I’ve heard you’re really fast.”

          Her tone was neutral but the comment made me uneasy.

          “Well, I don’t know how else to stay ahead of the game,” I said.

          “Did you do any good for anybody?”


          In the two years since my appointment no judge had asked me anything like this and now here was this judge with twelve years on the bench and a solid reputation who was taking an interest. I gave her an honest answer.

          “I don’t know.”

          “I gave up the numbers game a long time ago, Rick. Ordinarily I wouldn’t say this to another judge, but I have a feeling you might actually have the ability and inclination to learn the job.”

          “Learn the job?”

          “Family Court judges are supposed to make a difference in people’s lives, not just dispose of cases.”

          I said nothing, turning on to the Madison Avenue Bridge and driving into Harlem.

          “I’m not insulting you,” my colleague said.

          “No, no, I didn’t take it as an insult. I’m not sure what you – ”

          “The idea is to get involved with the people. The kids. The parents. Understand the family dynamics. Try to get something to change for the better. Take the time in the courtroom to talk to everybody. Order services. Follow compliance. Keep putting the case on the calendar until the situation is made right.”

          “How do you find the time?”

          “We all have the same number of hours in the day. The idea is not to worry about the numbers. I get as much done as I can, but I don’t let the cases go if the family problems aren’t solved. At the very least a sensible plan for the family should be in place.”

          “You must be exhausted.”

          “Aren’t you?”

          “Of course. Who isn’t?”

          “Exactly. The job wipes you out no matter what approach you take. Might as well do it right.”

          “Doesn’t court administration bother you about your caseload? What about all that staff overtime?”

          “Other people’s problems, not mine.”

          We went along in silence for a little while, stopping at red lights and crossing 125th Street. Then I said: “Well, it’s food for thought.”

          “I sense you’re not having an epiphany.”

          I laughed, but she stayed serious. “Habits on the bench die hard,” she told me. “You’ve already done business a certain way for a couple of years. It takes a real effort to change. And you don’t get back fuzzy feelings from the staff or the lawyers for doing it my way.”

          Unwilling to give up all at once the flattery I was garnering for my facility on the bench, I motored through the cases unchanged for a while. “Don’t kid yourself, every judge is alone in the courtroom,” were my new friend’s parting words to me that night outside her apartment building. I considered the thought melodramatic, but I understood she was pointing the way for me to a higher judicial plateau. Her message stayed with me like a summer cold. After a time, a high disposition rate and non-judicial praise failed to satisfy me.

           So I began to bring myself closer to the people in my courtroom. And having thus approached, a judge cannot safely depart with only a little learning: a stop at the Pierian spring of family problems demands deep drinking. Even so, the thirst for helping children, once experienced, turns out to be unquenchable.

          There’s something more, something special and unique. The peculiar nature of Family Court judging left my son with a gift-wrapped package that I didn’t solicit and couldn’t have imagined for him: a better father. The daily work of attempting to bring about positive change in the lives of troubled families and children over in the end changed me. After thousands of days of directing others to do the right thing, I found myself insisting that I measure up as well. I decided this would be done by applying consistently to Luke the most convincing lessons that my caseload has taught me. Nothing is good if it’s not simple; most of these lessons are straightforward spin-offs of the Golden Rule. For example: Don’t Hit. Spend Some Time. Take An Interest. Listen. Speak Softly. Show Good Manners. Tell The Truth.

          Then add: Have Fun. No Drugs. Alcohol In Moderation Only. Make Love In Private.         

          My father’s mother used to say of parenting: “Children? They grow up in spite of you.” Try telling that to parents involved in the hurly-burly of raising one or more children. The hands-on tasks and errands that parents have to perform to compensate for our children’s immature judgment, physical limitations, and inability to get themselves from place to place, or to care for them when they are sick or injured, are essential, of course. My grandmother was not referring to that. Rather she was saying that we don’t know how to let well enough alone.

          Seeking certainty and greater ease, we affix labels and classifications to our children’s behavior and personalities instead of giving ourselves a chance to accept and guide them as normally needy, complex, unpredictable, and inconsistent (little) people. Having thus boxed and tied ribbons around them, we learn “approaches” and “techniques” for their handling. We apply theories instead of using common sense. 

          Like the Houdinis that they are, however, our children somehow manage to present themselves to us outside our bounds. They are fantastic that way. In the exhausting effort to repackage them, we stop appreciating them as funny, fascinating, magical creatures. Frustrated and worn, we give up – without intending to – the joy and natural authority of parenting.

          Consider all the cases in this book. Think about your childhood and your own children. What it all comes down to, doesn’t it, is this: Children need adults who have a feeling for them. They need that special connection. It’s most blessed when it comes from parents, but in fact any adult will do. A person who understands you. Who is always there. Whose disposition and judgments are benign. A steadfast grown-up friend. My parents loved me, but it was my father’s mother who made the connection to me. She never had to say anything; in fact, she had a poised emotional style. There was something in the way she looked at me. Everything about her said to me: I get you, Rick. You’re something special. Don’t worry about a thing, it’s all going to turn out fine for you. I was somehow aware of the connection as a child, of course, but it was only as an adult, long after she died, one night when I was looking through a box of family photos and came across a portrait of her in a fancy green dress unlike anything in the casual wardrobe in which I knew her, that I understood the depth of our feeling for one another.

          I looked at the picture and began to cry. To weep, actually. I cried, off and on, for hours, finally understanding how much I missed her and had depended on her love for me.  

          Anybody who gets that feeling as a child from an adult is going to be okay then and later in life, too.

          In the most difficult of moments with Luke, my grandmother’s connection makes it easy for me, if I can just remember to feel it. Perhaps some disagreement –  it certainly seems important right then, doesn’t it? – has gripped me and Luke. There he is across the room, or in my face, or lying in bed glaring up at me. He looks like me, sounds like me, behaves like me, for goodness sake. How can I have missed that? Can’t I take better care of myself –  of Luke – than to let this little issue get out of hand?         


          Some years ago I made a horrible discovery while bringing The New York Times into the apartment from the hallway where it is delivered to my door each day. In my robe and bare feet, I was headed towards the dining room, separating the paper into sections to read with my morning coffee. Ordinarily I leaf through the sports pages first, but that day a headline on the first page of the Metro section – “Manhattan Man Held in Fatal Beating of Two Year-Old Son” – brought me to full attention.

          A parent or other caretaker kills or injures a child: Family Court judges react to the news with quickened pulse and shortened breath. Was it in the county where I sit? Do I recognize the names from court? Was it one of my cases? Did I permit the child to live with the accused? I read the Times story. The answers to the four questions were yes, yes, yes, and yes.

           Twenty months after I had released baby Carl into his father’s care, the toddler had failed repeatedly to move his bowels on command during potty training. His father smacked him several times in the head, knocking him off the toilet to the floor. An hour later Carl was dead.

          Numb, I walked to the bedroom where Laura was stirring.

          “You’re not going to believe this,” I said to her.


          “A kid I sent to live with his father two years ago was killed by him. It’s on the front page of the Metro section.”  

          Laura sat up in bed.

          “Oh, Rick.”

          Everyone had predicted that Carl’s father would take good care of his son – the City’s caseworker, the child’s lawyer, me. In the paper, neighbors were quoted expressing shock. He had seemed a steady sort of man, devoted to his son and apparently doing a good job raising him. Eighteen months prior to my order giving the father custody of Carl, another Family Court judge had awarded him legal custody of his two daughters, Carl’s five year-old and ten year-old sisters. The lifestyle of the girls’ mother, a drug addict, was as unstable then as it was when Carl’s case came before me. Carl was ten months old when I awarded his father custody of him. Before that, he was a foster child. At his birth, the City of New York had placed him in foster care and filed a child neglect case against his mother because she was using cocaine. Carl’s father was not living with her. He was not charged in the neglect case and requested custody of Carl.

          Here is what the first report of the New York City Administration For Children’s Services (then called the Child Welfare Agency) told me about Carl’s father: “The father wants to care for his son. . . . Both children [the daughters] under the care of the father appear healthy and well cared for. The older child is an ‘A’ student and very smart.”

          I waited a while before making the custody award because the family needed a larger apartment. After the father found one, I received another Child Welfare Agency report, which said: “The father has been caring for these two children [the daughters] alone with no signs of abuse or maltreatment. The Child Welfare Agency is confident that the father will exhibit the same kind of care to Carl. . . . Based on the situation and functioning of the family at this time, the Child Welfare Agency will not hesitate to request that the custody of Carl be released to the father.”

           Now Carl, not yet three years old, was dead.

          Soon afterwards, my pain and curiosity led me, among other things, to request copies of reports about the family that might have been available at the time of the earlier custody hearings regarding Carl’s two sisters. It turned out there were several such reports that were not given to me, or made reference to, at the hearings I conducted in Carl’s case. I found six random drug test results on the father from the two-month period just before he was awarded custody of the girls. Four were negative; two were positive for cocaine. Carl’s father, it turned out, had a history of entering drug rehabs.      

          After killing his son, he found himself in prison for a long stretch, by all reports devastated.


          I think about little Carl a lot. For one thing, I feel that I bear some measure of responsibility. Perhaps that is unreasonable on my part, yet there it is. More commonly, though, I think about him when parents, relatives, and other caregivers get worked up over something regarding their children.

          Carl’s father was no scary monster, unlike others who kill their children and appear before judges remorseless. He wept and wept in my courtroom when New York City’s case to remove his two daughters from his legal custody found its way to me. He swore to me that he had been off drugs for a long time, but who knows?

          He got it in his head one night that his son had to be potty-trained right then.

          He stopped staring down into the crib.

          The caseworker didn’t tell me about the drug history. Or never learned about it.

          I didn’t ask, or think to look at the time, for the prior reports from the cases involving Carl’s sisters.


          Precious little babies.

          Hold that thought.


                                                                             THE END

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