It was just another tragedy in family court.
A young crack mother, desperate to conceal her pregnancy, had locked herself in a tenement bathroom and given birth to a three-pound boy. As she pushed, he fell to the floor and broke his skull. The mother abandoned him, like she had two previous babies. All were born addicted to crack.
“Can we do anything about this woman?” asks Judge Judith Sheindlin, her voice taut with anger. “I know she’s on the streets, but can we stop her from populating half the planet?”
A social worker flips through the mother’s file and shrugs.
“Maybe we could get her to carpet the bathroom floor next time,” he says acidly. “That’s one idea.”
In family court, nothing is too outrageous. Everything that can go wrong with an American family plays out on its stage daily, in a grim pageant of dysfunction: Battered infants. Sexual abuse of teens. Ugly custody fights. Kids who rape at 10 and murder at 11. A world spinning out of control, mocking the legal system that seeks to contain it.
This is where the future unravels--in a dreary, 11-story building that offers little solace to the young and bureaucratic headaches for adults. Like its counterparts across the country, the Manhattan branch of New York’s Family Court is supposed to protect children and reform delinquents. But it’s a bitter, ingrown place, a rat’s maze of regulations where kids are processed like sausage and even cynics rage at the system’s grinding indifference.
For some, the tension leads to burnout and sleepless nights. Yet others, like Sheindlin, try to make a difference. After 20 years in family court, she still brings intelligence, compassion and healthy skepticism to a job that seems all but impossible. She’s also raised five children, and her desk drawers are crammed with letters of thanks from parents who say she did the right thing for their kids.
But all this energy comes with a price. Sheindlin provokes scathing criticism from lawyers, defendants and child welfare advocates, who complain that she is needlessly cruel and sarcastic, a loose cannon in the halls of justice. Someone who should be muzzled, if not retired from the bench.
Maybe it comes with the territory.
“There’s a sense of utter hopelessness here, and you can’t let it get to you,” says Sheindlin, the court’s supervising judge. “You get the distinct feeling of people disintegrating, or on the verge of it. And there’s only so much you can do to help.”
Sometimes, you can’t do anything at all. Seconds after learning of the crack mother, the judge signs an order stripping the woman of her parental rights. Then it’s on to the next case: Another addicted baby, left for dead by a crack-head parent. Another glimpse into the urban abyss.
The crisis of collapsing families is a national problem, hardly unique to Manhattan. Yet Sheindlin’s highly personal crusade to bring order out of chaos has assumed folkloric proportions in America’s largest juvenile justice system. To those who know her well, she’s one of a kind.
“In New York, the juvenile justice network is gone. It’s shot,” says Peter Reinharz, who heads the prosecutor’s office in family court. “But don’t tell that to Judy. It would probably only make her angrier.”
Tart, tough-talking and hopelessly blunt, Sheindlin runs her court with an impatience that borders on rage. And the ground rules are simple:
“I can’t stand stupid, and I can’t stand slow,” she snaps. “I want first-time offenders to think of their appearance in my courtroom as the second-worst experience of their lives . . . circumcision being the first.”
She usually succeeds. Yet her brash tactics have sparked opposition at City Hall, and Sheindlin--a mayoral appointee--might one day lose her job for purely political reasons, according to friends and enemies alike. There are critics just waiting for her to tumble off her throne.
“That lady,” sighs one awed youngster, “is a monster.”
Standing 5 foot 2 and weighing 95 pounds, Sheindlin packs a verbal wallop that can stun the unwary. Woe to the poorly prepared attorney who wanders into her court, or the punk in Reeboks who thinks he can pull a fast one on the woman in black. She gives them all a thrashing to remember, sounding more like Shirley MacLaine with a gavel than some run-of-the-mill judge.
“Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining!” she yells at a teen-ager who claims he began peddling drugs after a death in his family. “Nobody goes out and sells crack because Grandma died! Get a better story!”
To a bewildered lawyer, who is slow to frame his case, she shouts: " Yutznik! I’m not stupid, and your questioning is foolish! We’re not poring over the Talmud here!”
Bullying and often rude, Sheindlin scorches people with insults, leaving them speechless. On some occasions, she pushes lawyers aside and takes over the questioning of witnesses, to speed a lengthy hearing along.
It’s all part of the game in family court, which plays by different rules than other branches of the judicial system. Judges, who deal principally with children under 16, have more leeway in trying cases. Technically, it’s a civil court, even though some young offenders are as vicious as any adult criminal.
In this world, plaintiffs are known as “complainants” and defendants are called “respondents.” Sentences are known as “dispositional orders.” The softer language reflects the philosophy behind the court, revised in 1962 to reflect a more compassionate approach to juvenile justice.
But New York--and America--have changed since then.
The hubcap-stealing kid of the ‘50s is today’s gun-toting gang member. Sex abuse and child battering, once hushed up and handled in chambers, have become routine items on the calendar. The concerned parents who once accompanied their children to court are now too busy or have disappeared altogether.
Meanwhile, the support programs that are supposed to protect children--and society--are in disarray. More than 50,000 children have overloaded New York’s foster care network. And the system is rife with stories of abuse.
In her pressure-ridden job, Sheindlin coordinates the actions of nine other jurists along with hundreds of attorneys, probation officers and a swarm of social workers. It’s a high-profile assignment that could lead to a step up the judicial ladder, and some family court judges approach their $90,000-a-year jobs with caution, conciliation and tact. They take great pains not to offend anyone.
Sheindlin tore up that script long ago.
“Judy’s a tough customer because she speaks her mind more than most people here,” says Reinharz. “The fact is, nobody pushes her around.”
An elegantly dressed woman of 50, Sheindlin periodically holds up court proceedings to tell off-the-wall jokes. At times, she sounds more like a stand-up comic than a judge, and the courtroom erupts with laughter. Sometimes it’s the only defense against a world that defies the imagination.
“You practice triage in this court,” Sheindlin says. “If out of 1,000 cases you can make a difference in 25, then you extend yourself. There’s no way I could take all of it home with me each night. I’d go crazy if I did.”
Numbers are part of the aggravation. Since 1985 the Manhattan court has experienced a 110% rise in its annual caseload, the largest jump in the city’s five boroughs. Included in the 1991 total of 31,182 cases was a 300% rise in parental abuse and neglect filings; a 300% growth in custody disputes and a 100% gain in robberies, assaults and group attacks by juveniles. There was a 50% growth in sex crime cases.
Yet human error--a missed appointment by a lawyer, a lost memo by a caseworker--also has fueled the overload. Every day, hundreds of cases are continued, prolonging disputes that cry out for quick solutions. Meanwhile, new filings flood into the system, causing judges like Sheindlin to handle from 40 to as many as 100 cases per day.
No one said it would be easy when Sheindlin took over the supervising job. But after 10 years, her style has begun to grate: A 1992 citizens’ report on the court noted that attorneys beg her to simply listen to them. Although the comments were largely flattering, they also described Sheindlin as intimidating, terse and patronizing.
As in this exchange, during a recent child custody hearing:
“I resent the court shouting at me!” yells an attorney when Sheindlin orders her to sit down and be quiet. “I resent it very much!”
The judge rises to her feet and fires back: " We don’t argue with me ! So sit down! Is that what I have to do to get you to shut up?”
More serious attacks have come from minority leaders and social service advocates. In recent years, Sheindlin has tangled with them over kinship foster care payments and other family support services.
Under kinship foster care, grandmothers and other relatives who adopt children in their family get the same money from the state as do foster care providers. The program has grown in response to New York’s crack and AIDS epidemics, which have resulted in more than 21,000 children being abandoned by their parents.
It’s also been a windfall: Instead of receiving $110 per month from welfare programs, guardians get $386 a month per child. Mayor David Dinkins and others support the $180-million program, but Sheindlin thinks it’s often a scam.
“I don’t believe in this fiction that grandmothers should get paid to adopt a granddaughter, while the mother continues to live in the house, because that’s not what families are all about,” she says. “I still believe in the idea that families are supposed to take care of their own.”
Those views drew fire last year when Sheindlin addressed a city forum and told the story of Grandmother X: A woman got foster care funds to take care of her daughter’s kids, but spent the money on a house in Puerto Rico.
“I was offended by what she said,” says Megan McLaughlin, who heads the mayor’s task force on foster care. “And I know other people felt the same way. Is this the way a judge is supposed to talk about poor people?”
Soon afterward, McLaughlin sent a letter to the head of family court, calling for Sheindlin’s dismissal. The message carried an unspoken political warning: Assuming Dinkins is reelected this year, he will decide whether to reappoint Sheindlin to the bench when her term expires in 1994.
“They accuse me of being anti-black, and that’s crazy,” she says with irritation. “I just don’t like dishonesty, waste and incompetency, OK?”
She also hates bureaucracy, even though Sheindlin is part of the system. In a celebrated case, she took up the cause of a Russian emigre mother who lost custody of her child to an Orthodox Jewish family. The woman had been placed against her will in a mental hospital, and the judge eventually reunited her with the boy.
In a radical departure for family court judges--most of whom let attorneys present the facts--Sheindlin investigated the case herself, digging through files and past testimony. She had a hunch that the mother had been wrongly hospitalized and was a fit parent. More important, she believed that child-welfare advocates were protecting their own interests, and not the boy’s.
“The Jewish group was furious, and one woman said that appearing before me was worse than being at Dachau,” recalls Sheindlin. “But she didn’t give me some records I wanted, and I threatened to put her in jail. I said, ‘Give me the records, or come to court with a toothbrush.’ So she got the message.”
Could the case have been handled more politely?
” Mea culpa, " the judge says, hurrying to her court. “But I can’t spend my time just being nice. I gotta run. Right now.”
From the moment she could crawl, Judy wanted to run. And she usually got there faster than the other Brooklyn kids. It was in the blood.
Born in 1942, Sheindlin and her brother, David, grew up in a comfortable, middle-income home. Her parents were fairly conservative, but they encouraged their daughter to pursue a career. And she didn’t disappoint.
Judy was in a hurry, graduating from high school at 16 and getting a law degree from New York University at 21. She got married soon afterward and began raising two children. But suburban life bored her to tears.
“I told my family one night that I was either going to spend every other day with a psychiatrist, or I was going to work,” she recalls. “They were stunned, but that was that.”
Using contacts from law school, she landed a post as an assistant prosecutor in family court. Ten years later, in 1982, she was appointed to the bench by Mayor Ed Koch. By then, she had divorced her first husband and married Gerald Sheindlin, a New York Supreme Court judge.
Along the way, she also raised three stepchildren. Today, Sheindlin lives in a Park Avenue apartment, goes ice skating to cool off and works out frenetically whenever she gets the chance.
“You’ve heard of Type A, darling? I’m Type A-plus,” she tells a visitor. “I condensed my 60-minute workout into 30 minutes. No sweat.”
Given the nature of her job, an obvious question arises: How different is Sheindlin the judge from Sheindlin the mother? Does she run her family like her court?
“There are similarities,” jokes Adam Levy, 24, a lawyer and one of Sheindlin’s children from her first marriage. “She was strict but caring. She always knew when I tried to pull a fast one on her, and it rarely worked. She always had a sense when people weren’t telling the truth.”
His mother inflicted all punishment, adds Levy, “but she wasn’t always so much in control. During her first marriage, I think she was more acquiescent, more subdued. But then she decided that she didn’t want to be that way anymore. She wanted to take control of her life. And she did.”
It led to a painful divorce, but Sheindlin’s course was set. She believes her personal experiences--marriage, career and children--have given her valuable insights on the bench: Like knowing when to crack down on kids and when to listen. When to intervene in a crisis and when to stand back.
“We’ve got families in turmoil,” she says, scanning the morning papers piled high on her desk. “We’ve got a new generation of grandmothers who are 30 years old. Children who are dying in foster care homes.”
You could go crazy thinking about it. Or you could go to work.
“Gotta go,” she announces. “I’ve got a world falling apart here.”
In Manhattan, the breakdown starts early.
Before she even reaches her courtroom by 9:30 a.m., Sheindlin is grumbling about Baby Girl Doe, a 3-year-old found abandoned in a housing-project basement. Nobody came forward to claim the child, and the judge can’t persuade TV stations to carry the story.
“This is a city of 7 million people, and nobody lifts a finger for this girl,” she says. “Somebody out there knows her. It’s nuts.”
Sheindlin dons a black robe, straightens her hair in the tiny cubicle that passes for her chambers and strides into court. It’s a small, dimly lit room with a horseshoe of orange swivel chairs bolted to the floor. The baseboards are peeling, an occasional cockroach scurries down the wall, and car alarms shriek up from the streets below. Within minutes, the room is bustling.
“You, sir, take off those sunglasses!” Sheindlin orders a teen-age father, who has come to court in a child-custody dispute. “And take off that baseball hat while you’re at it, too. I mean it, mister. No hats in court!”
Outside, bailiffs yell out cases on the docket like vendors selling hot dogs at Yankee Stadium: “Ruiz, Jones, Perrera, Thompson, Washington!” Inside, recording clerks type furiously as Sheindlin begins a long day of cases--53 to be exact--that will last until 6 p.m.
The morning starts slowly but picks up when she approves the settlement of a sex case: A teen-ager is accused of sodomizing a younger boy, but the victim’s family doesn’t want him to testify. Under the deal, the first-time offender agrees to enter therapy.
“Let’s go!” says Sheindlin, clapping her hands. “Keep it moving!”
Lawyers rush in and out, hurriedly whispering to clients before the judge takes over. Each case is a blur of motion and noise, an eruption of legalese that’s quickly explained to families as they’re hustled out of the room.
The parade halts when Mercedes Perrera steps forward.
Child welfare officials contend that the grandmother whipped three of her grandchildren with a belt, and they want to remove them from her care. A police officer, an emergency-room nurse and a caseworker have all testified that they saw raised welts on the children’s buttocks, backs and arms.
But none took photographs of the wounds, as required in a case of suspected child abuse. Sheindlin is astonished.
“How can you forget that?” she demands.
“I . . . I didn’t know,” the nurse stammers.
When the grandmother testifies, she denies hitting anyone. Sheindlin cuts her off and orders bailiffs to bring the children to court by 3 p.m.
Impossible, says a caseworker. Can’t be done, protests a child welfare attorney. Five hours later, at 3 o’clock sharp, the children file into the courtroom.
“I want you to tell me the truth,” Sheindlin says gently to one of the girls, a 12-year-old with enormous brown eyes. “Who hit you?”
“My grandmother,” the girl answers quietly. The other two children tell a similar tale, and the prosecutor beams.
Yet Sheindlin isn’t finished. She takes over the questioning and learns that the children want to leave the foster care home where they’ve been for three weeks. Although their grandmother frightens them, they want to live with her and believe she’ll calm down.
“This woman is guilty of excessive corporal punishment,” Sheindlin says. “But these children want to go home, and we’re not in the business of breaking up families. So I’ll allow it if the grandmother will accept a caretaker in her home, to reduce the pressures on her. OK? Let’s go.”
Toward the end of the day, the juvenile delinquency cases are heard. First up is Mark H., a 15-year-old who viciously beat an elderly subway attendant. He served 18 months in an Upstate detention facility for that crime but was arrested for armed robbery soon after returning to his old neighborhood. He shows no emotion as he stands before the judge.
“I’m sending you Upstate again for 18 months, and the next time it might even be longer,” she says angrily. “Understand, mister? You’re not such a smart guy.”
The cases pile up: 30 by noon, 40 by midafternoon. By 5 p.m., when other judges have begun wrapping up the day’s work, Sheindlin is still plowing through the files, one by one. Her voice becomes strained and tense.
“Let’s go!” she tells the bailiff. “Let’s bring ‘em in!”
Does any of it make a difference? Sheindlin and other judges like to think they’re dispensing the wisdom of Solomon. But they rely on gut instincts, often not knowing the full story of children in crisis. They usually operate in the dark. And that may be the worst tragedy of all in family court.
Late in the day, the final cases are heard, and one of them involves Jose Acosta, a dark-haired man in his 20s who recently did 31 months for grand theft auto. As the building empties out, he’s in the lobby holding his infant son, Jose Jr., and yelling at him to stop crying.
“Shut up!” he says angrily, smothering the child’s face with his fist. “Shut up, I mean it! Right now!”
Minutes later, he’s standing before Sheindlin, trying to win sole custody of the boy from his maternal aunt. The mother is in jail on a drug bust, he explains, and he hasn’t seen her in months. Acosta looks cocky and impatient, a bored young man in a black leather jacket, and the judge is not impressed.
“I see frustration on your face,” she says icily. “But there’s only one innocent person here, and that’s the little boy who’s crying outside.”
Acosta is stunned, yet holds his fire. Sheindlin looks at him warily, then grants the man continuing custody, pending a city investigation.
He quickly walks out of the courtroom to pick up his son and go home. To get this woman off his back.
But the judge stops him with a final warning.
“Do the right thing, Mr. Acosta,” she says with a hint of fury. “If you don’t, I will.”