Dozens of parents, activists testify to abuses before Senate family court oversight hearing
Two Senate committees listened to hours of emotional testimony Wednesday from parents, activists and legal professionals in a special hearing about family court reform.
The high-profile New York cases of Thomas Valva, Kyra Franchetti and Katherine Kassenoff have thrust the issue into the spotlight in recent years.
Parents and activists have called for reform for years and the hearing, held by the Judiciary Committee and Committee on Children and Families, provided a long-awaited opportunity for their voices to be heard.
“My son has said, ‘Dad is going to kill us. Mom, help us please,’ said panelist Sai Jimenez, who has an ongoing divorce case in Rockland County Family Court. “Right from the start, the corruption in my case was severe. An ex-parte restraining order was issued against me based on false allegations without any evidence and my husband’s attorney has ties to the judge.”
Dozens of panelists testified about what they say is a broken, corrupt and racially biased system that traps parents who need help in drawn out, expensive and unfair court proceedings.
“Family court isn’t about family. It’s about control,” said panelist Aaliya Ingram. “When I walk into family court, I am aware that I will not be treated as a human being. I am aware that the system was founded on the villainization of moms and dads, especially black moms and dads.”
Seb, Brad Hoylman Siegel referenced the Franklin H. Williams Commission on racial equality in family courts that found a pattern of “dehumanizing behavior” in the system in 2022. Senators also cited a study that found 80% of litigants are unpresented in family court.
“Too many litigants still appear unrepresented, experience unacceptable delays and are subject to unfathomable and traumatic separations,” said Sen. Siegel. “Too many parents also face harassing or prejudicial treatment at the hands of family court judges or employees.”
News 12 receives calls and emails almost every day from parents with some of these same concerns about family court and has reported on alleged problems for years.
Representatives from the New York state Office of Court Administration previously said that complaints are from “disgruntled litigants,” but they testified during the hearing some issues are due to a shortage of staff and resources.
“Sometimes our hands are tied. Mental health is one of those areas where family court doesn’t have the resources,” said the Hon. Richard Rivera, with the New York State Office of Court Administration. “It’s disheartening when you hear that people have had a terrible experience in family court. Nobody wants that but as family court judges, we do a lot, and we face a lot. We hear a lot of different cases, both good and bad. We try our best with what we have.”
The Hon. Anne-Marie Jolly also testified on behalf of the New York state Office of Court Administration.
“The lack of resources increases the delay. We don’t have locations for parents to go to visitation. If for some reason, there needs to be a mental health evaluation there isn’t a location where they can go if they need counseling. Where do they go? They get put on the list and that builds in delays,” said Jolly. “If they don’t have an attorney to represent them and they’re on a waiting game list, how do they manage?”
Activists say cases can take years to resolve in family court while costing litigants their children and their life savings. No-cost, court-appointed attorneys are not always provided and are based on a litigant’s income. Even if they’re awarded representation, court representatives say there’s a shortage of lawyers to handle cases.
“We have a roadmap of what we need to do. We now need to exercise the political will to do it,” said Siegel.
To watch the hearing live, click here.