NEW YORK — Daphne Culler whispered the words from the courtroom visitor’s bench, so quietly practically no one could hear.
“Just relax,” she said.
Culler, her face impassive, never broke eye contact with her daughter, who sat across the room at the witness table.
The 15-year-old, who was accused of assaulting a shop owner, mumbled each answer. Twice the judge told her to speak up. Her demeanor alternated between anxiety and annoyance at the repeated questions, a quick smile sometimes flashing across her face until the next question called her to attention.
When the defendant’s attorney announced that the next witness wasn’t in the courthouse, the judge postponed the proceedings and called for another hearing date. Two court officers took Culler’s daughter through a side door of the courtroom. She would spend two more weeks in custody, waiting for her next day in court.
It’s a cliché that the wheels of justice turn slowly, but in spending a day at family court in Brooklyn, it can seem as though the wheels aren’t turning at all. Judges hold hearings that often last just minutes and advance the case only by degrees before adjourning. Delays are frequent.
The process moves slowly as children linger in jail and their parents take off work to be there for them. Except when they don’t. It’s a system that operates by its own logic, and parents say it can be frustrating when they’re suddenly thrust into it.
After her daughter’s hearing, Culler, cursing under her breath, filed out of the courtroom with the attorneys. Minutes later the prosecuting attorney tried to talk to her in the waiting area.
“You’re trying to put my daughter in jail,” Culler yelled at her. “I don’t want to talk to you.” Culler asked that security take the attorney away.
“My daughter’s sitting in jail, and they keep adjourning it,” Culler said as the prosecutor retreated down the hallway. She said the prosecuting attorney only cared about putting her daughter in jail because she could.
Lisa Grumet, chief of policy and planning at the New York City Law Department, the government body that prosecutes juvenile delinquency cases, would not comment on specific cases.
Speaking generally, she wrote via email, “Placement is a last resort, but may be appropriate in some cases based on the nature of the youth’s conduct, the youth’s needs and best interests, and the safety of the community.”
“Placement” means prison and other facilities in which convicted juveniles can end up.
Tamara Steckler, the attorney in charge of the juvenile rights practice for The Legal Aid Society, a non-profit organization that offers free legal services to the poor, sees it as her job to keep juveniles out of jail.
“It’s not different than representing an adult for us,” Steckler said. “Our role remains exactly the same, which is to provide criminal defense services to that client.”
More than 12,300 people under the age of 16 were arrested in New York City in 2011, the last year for which data is available. Most of those arrested, unless they’ve committed or are accused of committing a crime serious enough to be tried as an adult, end up in juvenile delinquency proceedings in family court.
Like the other two judges who hear juvenile delinquency cases in Brooklyn’s family court, Judge Michael Ambrosio hears anywhere from 40 to 60 cases a week, including hearings, conferences and trials.
Each case is allotted time in roughly 30-minute blocks, but the schedule may be broken for any number of reasons. Defendants don’t turn up. Translators are unavailable. Attorneys haven’t been assigned.
Over the course of the afternoon session, a parade of young people, each flanked by two court officers, passed before the judge. As the juveniles stood with shoulders slumped, the judge checked in each case on the status of a parent in the courtroom.
Some cases were delayed when a parent wasn’t present. Parents aren’t required to show up, but Steckler said that officers of the court like to see signs that parents are supportive of their child.
For one 15-year-old accused of trespass, his mother had been present for the morning session. By early afternoon, when her son stood before the judge, the mother had left to go to work.
One mother did make it to the courtroom, but her daughter didn’t. The girl, 16, had run away from home while waiting for her court date. Judge Ambrosio issued a warrant for the girl’s arrest and told the mother to alert the court if the girl turned up. The mother said she would.
The expectations between the court and parents can be complicated.
Jacqueline Rosado brought her daughter to court to satisfy a warrant calling for the appearance of the 14-year-old. The warrant was issued after her daughter didn’t show up to school. Rosado confronted her daughter, and she said the two then got into a fistfight.
When Rosado showed up to court that morning, she said she expected someone in the system would help by offering counseling services. Instead, as her daughter waited in custody, Rosado said she spent five hours at the courthouse, but only five minutes in the courtroom.
Rosado felt the system cared more about moving through cases than helping parents like her struggling through a labyrinthine system they have no idea how to navigate. She said court officers asked her only whether she wanted to bring her daughter home or whether her daughter should be put in foster care.
“So where’s the help?” Rosado asked.
Other parents in the courtroom shared Rosado’s frustration.
At the end of the day, the court released Rosado’s daughter back into her custody. Standing with her attorney, Rosado waited for her daughter’s release in the hallway outside the holding area.
After a day sitting around the courthouse, her frustration was evident.
“The way the system is run,” she said. “It’s like it’s being run by the kids.”