Queen's Family Court: A Room of Our Own
Chances are that someone—a lawyer, caseworker, foster parent, or family member—has told you how important it is to attend your foster care hearings in court. After all, court is the place where important decisions are made about your life, like where you live, whether you’re getting the services you’re entitled to, family visits, and so forth.
Unfortunately, many teens in care miss out on this opportunity to voice their wants and needs. Too often, they don’t think they have a role to play in court—even though the decisions made there have a huge impact on their lives. Nadica Robichaux, 20, has an all-too-common experience. “As far as I remember…I was never encouraged to go to the permanency planning hearings,” she said.
But one NYC family court is trying hard to make the court experience better for teens,—and get them more involved in their cases. A year ago, Queens County Family Court opened up a special room on the 4th floor overlooking a park. The room’s called Teen Space, and I currently work there as a peer advocate.
No adults are allowed except Teen Space employees. It’s a place reserved especially for teens in care (ages 13 to 21) so they can get information and relax, away from the usual court drama, while they’re waiting for their case to be heard. And even more important, it’s a place where they can learn to advocate for themselves in the courtroom—something that doesn’t happen as much as it should.
If you’re waiting for your court case in a place that looks like an institution, it’s hard to feel empowered. Unlike the dull white walls and hard benches in the main waiting areas of Family Court, Teen Space has murals drawn by youth. There are floor-to-ceiling windows, comfy sofas and chairs, computers, and friendly, smiling staff.
Before Teen Space, teens often spent all day sitting on uncomfortable seats in crowded waiting areas with no privacy, where they might encounter family members they didn’t want to see. It’s noisy in those waiting areas, and tensions are high, so it’s easy for teens to feel anxious, sometimes even hopeless, by the time they get into the courtroom. Inside Teen Space, kids get the message that they are the most important player in their case.
“A lot of teens feel as if what they say doesn’t matter, so they don’t speak up in court,” said Jessica Schachter, the supervising social worker who runs Teen Space (she’s my boss). “It’s just like if someone thinks their vote won’t count, they won’t vote.”
For many years, said Schachter, family courts tended to leave kids out of the process. Judges, social workers, and law guardians made decisions about kids’ futures in the courtroom, whether the kids were present or not. Young people in foster care got the message that law guardians represented their ideas and goals better than they themselves could.
So they stayed quiet in the courtroom, or stopped coming to court altogether. And that taught them that adults always make the decisions for them, that they don’t have any say about their own futures. That’s the wrong message, said Schachter.
“We want youth to be involved in making decisions,” she said. “Because in foster care, if they leave the system at 18 or 21—whether they’re aging out to independent living or going back to a biological family, or being adopted from a foster family—they need to learn those skills, they need to learn how to advocate for themselves, how to become an adult and maneuver through daily life.”
The main goal of Teen Space is to encourage youth to have more say in court and insist on being involved in decisions that affect their lives. It starts with helping them feel more positive about coming to court. That’s why Jessica and I try to make Teen Space a very welcoming place from the moment kids walk through the door. Welcoming and peaceful—which court often isn’t.
“It’s like the Law Guardians versus the Caseworkers in Family Court,” said Robichaux, who gets uncomfortable with the arguments. “When my law guardian requests things for me in court, there is almost always a fight for it.”
It’s tricky sometimes, since the caseworker’s job is to represent what the foster care system believes to be in a teen’s “best interest,” while the law guardian is supposed to represent what a teen says she wants. Those two things aren’t always the same, which can lead to debates over what’s best for a young person. That tension among the adults can be stressful, even depressing.
Many kids feel like court is a punishment instead of an opportunity. Some get so discouraged that they don’t return to court, which is the worst possible scenario.
So when youth arrive at Teen Space while they’re waiting for their court case, we try to make them feel good. We greet them warmly and give them a tour. We show them the refrigerator stocked with healthy drinks and snacks, the computer, the library, and how to get things they need to become independent young adults—like applying for a Social Security card and other forms of I.D., finding a job, applying for college, and signing up for public benefits (housing, food stamps, etc.).
And of course, we answer their questions about court and help them talk through ways of advocating for themselves. “Youth really need someone they can sit down and speak with during the long wait for their case to be called,” said Robichaux. “They need the support and encouragement to stay involved, because if not, they are giving complete control of their life to the system.”
I got involved in Teen Space at the very beginning. Nadica Robichaux and I were members of the Youth Justice Board (YJB), a leadership program for teens here in New York City that investigates problems affecting the lives of youth. Three years ago, when I was 16, YJB started brainstorming ideas for ways to change the family court system to benefit youth in foster care. That’s when we came up with the idea for Teen Space.
A year and a half later, our idea became a reality. In response to the Youth Justice Board’s recommendations, the Honorable Judith S. Kaye, then the Chief Judge of New York State’s Family Court system, created the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children, which helps kids in foster care take a more active role in their permanency hearings.
They contracted with the Children’s Aid Society to run Teen Space, with funding from the Heckscher Foundation, a foundation that supports youth development programs. Now the Commission meets regularly with Family Court judges and the heads of child welfare agencies.
A Job Made in Heaven
When I first heard that they were planning to hire a peer advocate at Teen Space, I thought working there would be a match made in heaven, since I’d been involved in the idea from the very beginning. The Youth Justice Board recommended me for the job, I did an interview, and they hired me.
Now I have the opportunity to enhance our original idea by trying to bring more youth into Teen Space and encouraging them to speak up about their cases. I know how hard that can be. I wasn’t always a proactive, outspoken young person.
But different adults saw potential in me and they pushed me so I could reach my full potential and advocate for myself rather than waiting for someone else to handle things for me. Most young people, especially the ones in foster care, just need someone to believe in them and motivate them to do better. That encouragement happens in Teen Space.
If Teen Space in Queens becomes a success, it could spread to other family courts throughout New York City. Youth in foster care around the country might look at Teen Space and be inspired to do something similar in their own court.
If we, the teenagers of New York City, can do it, then youth all over the country can do it. All you have to do is find other teens who are interested in starting a program like Teen Space. Then, present your ideas to caring adults—foster care agency staff, law guardians, judges, local elected officials—who can help you put together a plan and find funding (it could make a great school project).
After that, the sky is the limit. The Teen Space in Queens would be a great example to use when advocating for your own Teen Space.
And for those of you in Queens who are sitting there reading this article and wondering, “Should I really go to Teen Space?” just stop by and see us. I am pretty certain you’ll come back again.
For more information on Teen Space in Queens Family Court, call (718) 298-0215 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out more about the Youth Justice Board, visit the Center for Court Innovation website at www.courtinnovation.org and click on “Demonstration Projects.” The list on the right-hand side includes a link to the Youth Justice Board.