If you want to get a fix on what’s gone wrong with the American family and the American city spend some time, as we did recently, in New York’s family court. And be a witness to the ways in which law and disorder works. Or doesn’t. Stay long enough, you’ll see it all. The battered child, the crack mother, the ten-year-old mugger, the burned out social worker, the nitpicking lawyer. All of them sloshing through the well-meaning swamp called, The Child Welfare System. And you’ll find, presiding there, Judith Sheindlin, Judge Judith Sheindlin. And if you find her a little bit shrill, a little bit testy, she’d be very pleased. Unless he’s in a hosptial, he’s to be in school. Clear, sir? This is not a legal game, counselor. This witness may not have a terrific memory, but I’ve got a very good memory, sir. Do you have a lot more quetions? – No, you’re honor.
Good. Well, what do you want me to give him, a testimonial dinner? Thank you very much. Step out. She’s a five-foot-two package of Attitude with a capital-A. And pity the young lawyer who dares to question the judge’s judgement. Well, are you suggesting, Ms. Gutierrez, that if I placed him on probation, he would never go visit his mother? Are you suggesting that? – No, judge.
So let’s be real. To those that confront her, she is the evil queen in a lace-collar. If that’s too hard for you, sir, I guarantee you I will put you someplace where you’ll be in bed at nine-o-clock and at school every day. That’s where the rest of your friends are. And she deals with legal procedures with a scalpel. So, your objection’s noted, it’s overruled, have a seat. – Your honor.
No, no. Listen to me. This is not a tea party. You make an objection, I rule. The players in this theater of misery are the judge, lawyers, case workers, addicted parents, and cast-away children. You make a fool of me again, sir, by not doing what you’re supposed to do and I guarantee you it’ll be a very sorry day. Do we understand each other?
– Yes. He responded to his parole, to his father in conjunction … Unlike criminal court, there is no jury. Those present are supposed to work out a solution that is supposed to be in the best interest of the child. It is never easy. This baby was born drug-addicted and if you keep using drugs, the other baby’s going to be born drug-addicted. And I’m telling you right now, you’re not going to be taking this baby home from the hospital because the commissioner’s not going to let you. And when she feels that the best interest of the child is to scare the living day-lights out of him, she does not shy away. Now, for you Joey, I want you to stand up. Because I have a few things to say to you. I am dismissing this case, sir, because the law says that I must. That doesn’t mean you’re innocent, sir. That doesn’t mean that you weren’t involved in both of these robberies that night. That just means that they weren’t able to prove it. We understand each other, sir? – Yes. That little boy, the thirteen-year-old boy who was sitting right here, you were trying to scare the hell out of him? Correct. You think you did? I don’t know, but I try. Now, do you think you really scared him? I scared him not only by what I said to him verbally, but by the fact that when he was originally in the court, he was arraigned by another judge and he was told to go to a particular program, an all-day school. And he didn’t go. I said to him, we’re not playing games here with you. This is the rule. You were told you were going to be paroled if you went to the alternatives to detention school. You didn’t go to the school, you go to detention. And if we’re going to make orders, we have to be prepared to enforce them, otherwise everybody laughs at us and thinks that we’re full of b- baloney. Right? And baloney is what she hates. But lectures, she likes a lot. Likes to give them. And when a caseworker seems to be dragging his feet, there is the threat of nuclear response. Sir, you don’t want me to have palpitations, do you? – No. I’m very bad when I get palpitations. You have to see to it that this visitation takes place. It’s very important that this child gets to see his mother and grandmother. And the longer he spends not seeing his family, the more difficult it’s going to be. Is that a fair statement, sir? – Yes. Well then, let’s just do it. The goal is to get them to do the right thing. Nobody who comes into my court room, who’s done the right thing, is afraid. They’re afraid if they come in and they do the routine thing which is just giving me a lot of rhetoric and gobbledygook. Either one of two things are going to happen: either they’re going to say, I want off this case, I’m never going back there before that monster again; or they’ll say, the next time I come in, I better have done my job better. Do they ever mouth-off at you? Rarely. – Indeed. Robert Little, the commissioner of the Child Welfare Administration, had some choice words about the judge, up until the cameras started turning. Then, this: She’s always been very cordial and you know, we get along well, as far as I know. You get along personally, but I don’t think your agency gets along well with the judge. Well, she talks to me a great deal about things that need improvement, as do a number of judges. And we attempt to make the necessary adjustments. Why must a caseworker have three supervisors? We have an initial supervisor, one, that is essentially a back-up to the unit supervisor. The unit supervisor has a manager, a case protective manager, who supervises a number of units. And very often, these two supervisors and this caseworker, have another supervisor. – That’s four so far?
Right. They are represented by a child welfare attorney who practices here in the court. Five?
– Five. Now, they get this one child, usually there’s more than one in a family, but let’s say they get this one child. And the city decides: We are going to subcontract the care of that child to a private-care-agency. I know the business. There are many of them. But it’s a private agency. That private agency has a caseworker, a supervisor, that supervisor has a supervisor, and minimally, that agency also has a lawyer, that we all pay for. Now we are paying for nine people – for one child.
For that child. More than half the payments for family foster-care in New York City go to kinship foster-care. A program that enlists relatives, usually grandmothers, to look after abused or neglected children. While many people say it’s an excellent way to keep familes together, others, like Judge Sheindlin say, it’s a way to rip-off the city for big money. And she has a favorite example. [laughter] Well, that was a foster mother who was a grandmother, who had six grandchildren with her, and the children were ultimately removed from her, because they found the children living in abysmal conditions. This lady had been receiving three-thousand dollars a month from the city – The grandmother? From the city to take care of the grandchildren. And when I asked her, what were you doing with the money? Her response to me was, ‘I bought a house in Puerto Rico.’ The judge says, the system of paying a grandmother to be a foster parent, in theory, removing a child from a destructive mother, is an invitation for the whole family to cheat. That money is tax-free. Nobody monitors what’s done with that money. Nobody monitors how it’s spent. I’ve had cases where both parents work for the Child Welfare Administration and their children are in kinship foster-care. It was used like a babysitting service. The judge’s repition of these horror stories has opened her up to accusations that she’s insensitive to the needs of the people she serves. Not least to the problems of caseworkers. The city would not allow its caseworkers to talk to us, so we asked commissioner Little. Part of Judge Sheindlin’s problem with this agency is a caseworker comes in, often as many as three or four, an entourage of three or four people, of supervisors and lawyers. And nobody in that entourage is familiar with the case. I’ve always been open to the judge’s constructive improvements, suggestions, and will continue to be so. But when they do come in like that, she beats up on them. I don’t have any personal observations of that type of thing. But I do get a number of reports that suggest that they’re not held in high esteem. New York City lawyers might feel the same after a session in Judge Sheindlin’s courtroom. Mr. Wilchik, because I run my courtroom, right? – I know you run your courtroom. That’s correct, sir.
– I know all too well you run your courtroom. The tail doesn’t wag the dog. So, all I’m asking you is, do you want me to order new reports or whether we will use the old reports? – Well, I just want to state my position on them. That’s denied.
– My position is … That’s denied!
– that I believe … That is … Mr. Wilchik.
– My client … Mr. Wilchik. – I have many things to go into with my client. You want new reports? You want new reports, sir? – I believe that those are .. Oh! God All-Mighty. – … these reports. And I just … Just tell me what you want. Old reports? Or new reports? And I’ll give you whatever you want. Well, I believe that new reports should be ordered. Good. Order new reports. – because I believe that there are many statements …
Order. New. Good. To Sheindlin, justice must not only be done, and seen to be done, it must be seen to be done, fast. Could you please move on? I have about twenty other cases to do today, counselor. Objections? Forget it. Your honor, I would object. I believe this is beyond the scope – – Just a second. Adopt this witness as her own if she’s going to ask. Okay, let me tell you this, so that you don’t make that objection again. Since you have an objection on the two grounds that I made sit down and don’t interrupt this proceeding again. Sit down. I was making that –
– Sit! Down. You are the standing objection. And if you want to state any other bases for you objection, I will direct that the reporter be here at five-o-clock, because I have thirty other cases to do. And you can come in and put any ground that you want to on the record. Yes, your honor.
– Good. Ms. Liddy had only one more thing to say. Just read her lips: If you missed it, it rhymes with “witch”. I worry that occasionally, because I’m outspoken, that this lady’s not going to be reappointed. We’re not going to give her another opportunity to beat our brains out. We’ll find somebody else who won’t beat our brains out. I mean, come on, we understand what’s happening here. This hand doesn’t know what this hand is doing. Now, we want – All I’m saying, judge. All I’m saying – All I want you to say is that I’ll take care of it this week. You can put families back together again. You can find the right place for a kid who’s in trouble. You can make a difference in the life of a family. And if you see a situation like that and if you’re not willing to commit yourself to breaking a sweat, then you don’t belong in this business. Go to work in surrogates court. Everybody’s dead over there. So much for her judicial colleagues. For twenty years, Judge Sheindlin has worked family court. First in the Bronx. Now in Manhattan. She’s the fastest judge in the system. Nearly three-hundred cases a month. A judicial treadmill. She uses a real one in the gym, where the machinery never talks back. Did you terrorize your own kids the way you terrorize other people’s kids in court? They ignore me. They knew at a very early age how to impose young Jewish guilt on their working mother. So although I tried to be intimidating, I don’t think I was very successful. She’s had two husbands and raised five children. Three of them following her into the law. Adam, a prosecutor on Long Island, said his mother maintained a unique code of justice at home. It’s the court of appeals, it’s even the appellate division. But there is no appeals here. That’s it. – Judy’s Law.
It’s Judy’s Law. That’s exactly what it is. Family dinners are done in the traditional Manhattan way: they’re ordered in. You want to know the recipe? 212 Dial. Food. There are legions of caseworkers and lawyers who would go into shock at these scenes. The evil queen in the role of fairy grandmother. Give me a kiss. Given what you have to deal with every day, the degredation, the abuse, the pain, the suffering, God knows. What does it do to the judge? What keeps me going are those few cases, maybe ten a year, maybe ten a year, and I do a thousand cases a year, maybe ten of them, I can make a real positive difference. That keeps you going. I try to get the best out of people who come before me. I try to give them my best. I try to make the best possible solution very often out of a very terrible situation. I know it’s just a band-aid, but it’s the best possible band-aid I can put on it. You think, ten years from now, it’s going to be better or worse here? Worse. A lot worse.