From Mom to Not in Seven Minutes: Inside Family Court
A woman in a white puffy coat and her lawyer sit at a blond-wood conference table on the left side of the courtroom. On the right, a lawyer for the city and a caseworker from the city’s child protective agency fill a twin conference table. A lawyer for the child who is the focus of the hearing sits at a small side table, barricaded by stacks of folders and binders.
The judge sits at the center of a low, wood-paneled dais. Her court attorney, two clerical workers, and a pair of armed, uniformed court clerks populate the front of the courtroom, under the “In God We Trust” emblazoned in brushed-metal capital letters on the wall, as the court reporter quietly taps out the record. The woman is in court to formally terminate her parental rights—to “free” her 8-year-old son, who has spent most of his life in the foster care of another woman, for adoption.
Papers are shuffled and submitted to the judge for scrutiny. Lawyers stand up and sit down again. The mother is asked if she understands everything that is happening in the court: “This surrender document is final and irrevocable. You can never take it back,” the judge says, slowly and clearly. The woman says she understands. Another woman, rising from her bench in the small gallery section, is the child’s foster mother, with whom he’s lived for six of his eight years. She says she wants to adopt the child; she says he calls her Mommy.
The woman in the puffy coat keeps her eyes fixed forward. (The child’s father came inebriated to one earlier court session and has not returned for this proceeding, which will, in absentia, end his legal fatherhood.)
Seven minutes after the hearing is called to order and the participants sworn to tell the truth, the matter is concluded: The boy is freed—no longer the child of his biological mother—and will be adopted by the foster mother, who wants him. The child himself is absent from the courtroom and, quite possibly, silent in the case. It is not clear whether the judge spoke with him at all. His young age means that his consent was not required. The boy’s biological mom zips her coat and strides out of the courtroom, boot heels clicking on the tan linoleum tile: No tears, or none visible. The lawyers gather their papers and belongings. The clerk calls, “Next case.”
Blood ties broken, new ties forged, in under 10 minutes. Next case.