Abolishing Family Court

Politics Supreme Court Wade's World

            Marble Falls      Abolish the police, abolish this, abolish that, became slogans that were easily misinterpreted and often created blowback to advocates trying to create change.  All of which made me wonder what Columbia University Professor Jane Spinak might be thinking in proposing to abolish family court, and that’s what we talked about on Wade’s World, as we discussed her new book, The End of Family Court:  How Abolishing the Court Brings Justice to Children and Families.

It’s easy to summarize the bottom line of the book, and Spinak’s conclusion after forty years in the family court trenches:  the court has never worked and every effort to fix it has failed, so we have no choice but to step back and start over.  Sounds harsh, but if you have ever talked with families like mothers on welfare trying to keep their children with them, you know that more often than not there is no abuse involved, and the neglect is another word for poverty.  Or, if you have ever sat there with the families, those accused, their advocates, and maybe their lawyers before a judge dealing with juveniles and looked around and noticed the room was overwhelming filled with minorities, it was hard to miss how racialized the system has become.  In these conversations and settings, it is clear that there are real problems, and nothing being presented seems remotely like a solution.  Especially, when in one case, it means the state taking over custody and the children being sentenced to foster care. And in the other, what we used to call reform schools, and now call juvenile detention centers, are just prisons with another name, yielding the same results in ruined futures.

Spinak looks deeply at the history and the court cases from the Supreme Court on down that have tried to redirect or reform the system.  The early 20th century reformers thought this system would end delinquency, which seems absurd today.  They also wanted to somehow manipulate immigrant and Black families in a supposedly informal “therapeutic moment” filled with social workers and managed by a judge into a bourgeois cookie-cutter concept of American citizenship.  Various presidential level commissions and reports were clear almost from the beginning that it wasn’t working.  The system’s judges, bureaucrats, and professionals would claim that everything could be cured with more resources or more formal legalism or whatever, but the results were always the same, if not worse, as the judges became a political force more powerful than the juveniles facing them before the bar.

The bulk of the cases involve “status crimes,” which is really sort of misbehavior on steroids.  Girls were disproportionately accused more than boys for these minor infractions in the face of the dominant mores and culture, and of course the system was racialized from the beginning.  Eventually, the right to counsel was won, but the fiction that a judge would know best continued.

Spinak’s argues for abolition to underscore how broken the system has become.  Concretely, she wants to remove such status offenses from the courts completely.  She wants to change the minimum age of presentation.  She wants a clear definition of abuse versus neglect.  She wants there to be community prevention, rather than court intervention.  Perhaps most importantly, she wants to use the money spent now on this system to provide “targeted assistance” to families so that they can try to achieve harmony and sustainability.

Is there any chance of real reform here?  Maybe.  There are some signs in some jurisdictions of change.  Talking to Spinak, it would seem her real hope in raising the flag on family court’s abysmal record of failure is that people and politicians in local communities will take a hard look and then find the will to implement sweeping change, so that we have a system that actually serves families and children, and not the opposite.