Reflections on a Visit to Family Court

rupturecollage

In-class collage depicting “rupture” by Emily Bailin (2013)

This year, I’m taking a course called “Youth, Media and Educational Justice” (YMEJ), description is below. The course is taught by a teaching team consisting of my advisor and mentor, Dr. Lalitha Vasudevan, another mentor and professor at Teachers College, Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, three amazing doctoral students (and friends), and Melissa Wade, who serves as a liason for the Child Welfare Court Improvement Project.

Here’s YMEJ’s description:

This course is a yearlong, participatory learning seminar that will provide an interdisciplinary approach to three areas of study as they intersect in the lives of court-involved adolescents: youth, media, and educational justice. A significant percentage of young people in urban contexts and beyond are under some form of court-mandated supervision, largely in the form of incarceration, probation, or foster care. Portrayals of these youth permeate popular and academic texts and shape educational practice and policy in subtle and explicit ways. Thus a main goal of the course is to develop an approach to the practice of educational justice through participatory research and active participation between graduate students and court-involved youth to complement the wide range of texts that will frame the course. This seminar will offer students an opportunity to engage with the ideas in these texts through course discussion, hands-on workshops, and the publication of a whole class multimedia text at the end of the academic year that will contribute a new set of narratives about the intersection of youth, justice, and educational justice. Course texts that will be drawn from various areas of inquiry – the arts, media studies, philosophy, anthropology, literature, sociology, law, and literacy studies.

We have spent the last six weeks thinking and talking a lot about notions of home, family, community, care, rupture, and silence, considering what these ideas mean to us and what they might mean to youth and adults involved in the court-system. One of our requirements during the month of October is to visit Family Court (where Melissa works), also known as Part 90. Below is the reflection piece that I wrote for our class blog. It’s been a while since I’ve posted on my own blog, but I felt it important to share about some of the recent experiences that I’ve had, share what I’ve been spending my time and energy thinking about. My eyes and heart have been opened to this population of young people that we, society, really know little about so I hope that this is just the first of a series of posts that will contribute to raising awareness and starting conversations about a population that is largely overlooked and misunderstood.

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October 11, 2013

This past Wednesday I visited Part 90. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to sit down and attempt to get my thoughts out until now (Friday afternoon), and while I’m regretting not being able to write immediately following my visit, I honestly am not sure if I would have been able to articulately and meaningfully reflect on my visit (as opposed to recording somewhat less subjective and inferential field notes of what I saw and heard). So, while I may not be able to recount every detail of the hour and a half that I spent in Family Court, this post is more about sharing and getting out some of the emotions and thoughts that have been swimming through my head for the last two days.

I arrived on the 9th floor a few minutes after 9:00am on Wednesday. Melissa let me know she’d be up from her office in a few minutes. I wore black heels, black pants, and a black blazer. Walking into the waiting room, the benches were already quite full – there were more women than men and they were all people of color. I felt out of place and was all of a sudden very aware of the color of my skin, of my hair, of my clothing. I stood at the entrance to the waiting room, resting against the entryway, but felt strange standing when everyone else was sitting and I didn’t want my stance to be misconstrued as being afraid to walk further into the room or to sit down. At the same time, I didn’t want to intrude on an unfamiliar space where I was the other, where I didn’t know the codes to even attempt to switch between them. But after a few minutes, I sat down on a bench near the entrance, asking a middle-aged man in a blue NBA Starter jacket if he minded that I sit with him. He looked at me and waved his hand toward the seat. After I sat, I looked up and around, many eyes were on me. I was an outsider. While I could have been mistaken for a lawyer or related professional there for a case, I knew that I wasn’t. I knew that I was instead coming to observe; to watch people—parents, grandparents, perhaps some children—along with lawyers, representatives from the Administration for Child Services (ACS) and foster agencies work to determine the fates of children whose parents, unable to care for their children at the moment, had voluntarily placed them into the New York State foster care system.

Suddenly, I was overcome by a string of emotions as a number of words, phrases and images came flooding into my mind: home, family, care, rupture, silence. We have mulled over these ideas for the past six weeks and while I have been able to engage with them and reflect on them through writing, media making, and performance art in class, I realized I’d only been able to imagine what these ideas and circumstances might mean and feel like. But at this moment in the Part 90 waiting room, I felt the weight of it all. I felt guilt for never needing to question what “home” is or what it looks like. I felt sadness for children unable to be with their parents, and parents unable to be with heir children. And I was sitting on a bench, watching them. I took a deep breath and reminded myself of why I was there, why it is important for me to be there and to know about the proceedings of family court, while working to unknow my own assumptions and the mainstream narratives related to the foster care system.  

A few moments later Melissa arrived and we headed into the courtroom, a small space lit predominantly by fluorescent bulbs. Even though there were three or four big windows that allowed me to see bits and pieces of the outside world—some sky and surrounding office buildings, it felt overwhelmingly sterilized. We sat at the far end of a long bench in the back of the room, the only seating available besides the tables and chairs used by the clients, lawyers, and representatives from ACS and the foster care agency. The judge, accompanied by a court clerk, sat opposite from us behind a large desk that reached almost the full width of the room. On the far right of the desk were manila folders bulging with hundreds of sheets of paper, rubber bands wrapped around most of them to contain the information, contain the cases.

I sat through 4 cases, no children were present, just parents and guardians. In between hearings Melissa and I were able to speak with the judge. We asked her questions, got more details about particular cases, and heard her voice some of her frustrations with lack of information, faults in the system, etc. Melissa was also able to explain a great deal more about how family court and the foster care system work. Out of respect for the people whose hearings I witnessed (and because I wrote this post to reflect on my experiences and feelings from Wednesday morning), I am choosing to not share specific details about the cases. But speaking with Melissa and gaining a small amount of first-hand knowledge of this court system, it is clear that there are many holes, cracks, and injustices that occur by virtue of involving the legal system with matters concerning children’s lives. My biggest takeaway from the morning is that we as a society talk very little and know even less about the foster care system, adoption, family court, and court-involved youth. My visit to Part 90 solidified the rationale for having a course like YMEJ and why I am a part of it this year. I’m grateful for this experience and hope to return to Part 90 for more observations this fall. We’ve spoken a lot over the last six weeks about the power of visuals, of sounds, of text, of media making—my time in family court and the time I’ve taken to reflect since have solidified the importance of learning, discussing, and experiencing in multimodal ways.