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  • A View From The Bench: Chief Judge Joseph Lauria, NYC Family Courts

    by Jacob M. Appel

    Many of us, wondering how we ever manage to raise even one or two children, look upon the parents of the Dionne quintuplets or the McCaughey septuplets with utter awe; we find those who work with classrooms of fifteen or twenty children to be worthy of sainthood. So what could be more amazing than a man responsible for the upbringing of thirty-two thousand children? Maybe that he relishes the roles. Or that he’s trying to give each child individualized attention. For Joseph Lauria, Chief Administrative Judge of the New York City Family Courts, has taken upon himself the daunting goal of raising 32,155 children and building 32,155 families.

    The diversity of cases in the family courts adds to this challenge. Among those youths being brought before the judges Lauria supervises are victims of abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquents who have been arrested for minor criminal offenses, persons in needs of supervision (PINS cases)—children who have not yet committed crimes but are deemed “out of control”— and those children voluntarily surrendered by their parents to the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). Two thousand seven hundred case-workers in the field handle the initial investigations and then forward those cases needing judicial review to the family courts. Family court judges oversee paternity suits, issue restraining orders against abusive parents and spouses, and officiate at adoptions. And it is this unwieldy system to which Lauria is determined to bring a human face.

    “We need to think of these children as the children of families,” explains Lauria. “Not as docket numbers. Not as statistics. This goes beyond being user-friendly or family friendly. We need to take a proactive stance and be involved with at-risk families before parents are separated from children. A little more attention at the beginning of the process will probably keep many children out of foster care.”

    Lauria notes that New York State Chief Judge Judith Kaye has made the family courts one of her top priorities—both in terms of time and the allocation of resources. As a result, he has been able to reduce substantially the amount of time that children spend in the foster care system; the maximum stay has been cut from 6.7 years to 4.4 years in the last half decade. Lauria has also been the moving force behind an effort to promote “service above and beyond the call of duty” among his colleagues; this year many of his judges gave up a Saturday to voluntarily preside over two hundred adoptions in order to expedite the process of building families. He is also actively involved in a “model court” program designed to put his ideas regarding preventive justice into practice.

    Mayor Koch appointed Lauria to a ten year term on the court in 1989; he was reappointed by Mayor Giuliani last year. Before coming to the family court system, however, he worked primarily in the field of criminal law, first as a defense attorney and later as a prosecutor handling murder cases. Yet Lauria’s humanitarian streak appears most prominently when he discusses alternatives to his legal career: “If I weren’t working in the family courts, I’d be doing something out in the community. I’d probably be serving meals in a soup kitchen.” And that’s the approach he brings to each of the 32,155 children under his charge. #

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