January 16, 2008 (NEW YORK) – New York City Family Court could better serve child welfare if the court were held more accountable, the system made more transparent, and connections strengthened with communities, said Professor Jane Spinak in a hearing before New York City Council.
The hearing, held by the General Welfare Committee on January 10, marked the two-year anniversary of the murder of seven-year-old Nixzmary Brown of Brooklyn, New York. Jury selection began that week in the trial against Brown’s stepfather, who allegedly beat the young child to death.
The Brown case spurred reform to the Administration for Children’s Services, the agency responsible for protecting New York City’s children from abuse and neglect. The impact of those changes is limited, advocates say, without improvements to the Family Court system, whose purview includes child protection, foster care and custody issues.
At the Jan. 10 hearing, Spinak shared recommendations developed at recent conferences on Family Court co-sponsored by the New York County Lawyer’s Association (NYCLA) and Columbia Law School. These include requiring the court to develop an effective data collection and reporting system, improving methods for choosing and evaluating judges, holding full evidentiary hearings, and ensuring cultural competence of judges, attorneys and law enforcement personnel.
Spinak, the Edward Ross Aranow Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, voiced support for additional Family Court judges, a measure called for by Councilman Bill de Blasio in order to ease caseload, and for merging Family Court with the New York State Supreme Court. Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye has repeatedly proposed this change, Spinak noted.
Finally, Spinak asked the City Council to send a representative to a new task force formed by NYCLA, which will determine how to implement changes in the Family Court system.
Spinak directs Columbia Law School’s Child Advocacy Clinic, which currently represents adolescents aging out of foster care. She is a member of the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children and has recently completed her term as the founding chair of the Center for Family Representation, the first legal advocacy organization in the country established to represent parents in family court proceedings.
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