Published on July 18th, 2014 | by K. E. Leong1
K.E. LEONG on Crying in Family Court
Family Court is hell. Family court before a long weekend is a special kind of hell. I know all this. But still. I couldn’t have been prepared.
Here’s how family court works as a walk-in: you go to the clerk and you hand in your carefully formatted documents and exactly outlined exhibits to prove your obsessively edited declaration to be true, and then you wait for the commissioner to call your name. And while you wait, all the other family court cases parade in front of you like daytime court TV. The lack of privacy is mortifying and fascinating.
And then this happened. A family and their two lawyers get up. Everyone is there, the petitioner and the respondent and their team of people to back them up, and in front of us all they debate the division of their estate and who should represent the children—the two surviving children. One boy, twelve years old, whose name happens to be the name that was almost chosen for my son—died. And there is a wrongful death accusation against the father. The mother is crying in court silently when the judge tells her she can leave if she wants. This must be hard, the judge explains to her matter-of-factly, but we have to talk about all the legalese. And indeed, that must have been hard. For the judge. The mother crying like that. Reminding all of us how human and real this is beyond the laws cited, the lawyers fighting over loopholes. Good for her though, the mother stayed. She made a joke through her crying that she shouldn’t have dropped out of law school. No one laughed.
I don’t remember what the commissioner’s ruling was for that family except that it came out like a scolding. The court went into recess. I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the face for a long time.
When court was back in session I was the first to be called. You’re representing yourself. She said it like it annoyed her. She took a second to flip though the first few pages of my 98 page document and then announced to us all that she has to reject it. It’s the wrong motion. Wrong form. You have to go to trial for this. Next.
Trial. Two years ago I started just that process. It took a year, and more than half of my public school teaching salary. When it was all over – the constant conflict, monthly court dates, a monster family court evaluation, declarations frantically typed and edited during my lunch breaks – the court finally removed a clause here, added stricter clarifications there, and I felt relieved and a little like justice had occurred. And then, as soon as I signed the papers, I became the most violently ill I have ever been in my life. Vomiting from the pit of my soul and delirious with fever for two straight days. And then nothing. Release.
Go to trial again, she says. Oh sure. No problem.
I think about that mother in court before me, crying, the judge telling her, essentially, to leave. I think about her son. I think about all those people crammed into that courtroom with their papers in hand, their family emergencies heavy in their throats, their nicest courtroom clothes on, their hope stretched across their desperate faces that this judge would just read what they’ve written, would understand whatever it is that brought them there to stand in front of everybody and beg for justice on the day before the 4th of July.
I think about all the children at the center of probably almost all of those cases. As parents, we are urged by the Court, strongly, not to bring our children with us. I wonder if family court might feel a little less like the DMV if all those commissioners calling out NEXT didn’t just have to push aside the single mother standing there without a lawyer, her forms mixed up, and instead had to brush off the actual six-year-old boy with his blond hair in his eyes, whose future and whose frightening history is being laid out in front of her. You can leave if you want to. And for a second I had thought it was empathy.
I hope if that commissioner has children or grandchildren; that she was with them for the fireworks, enjoying her day off, eating picnic food and feeling grateful for their safety after seeing the worst of what Seattle families have to offer all week long. I hope this woman is a human being when she is not at work. I hope she has moments when she wonders about the children she’s impacted, the crying mothers. I hope she hesitates – if not for me, then for someone else at some other time – before calling out NEXT in front of everybody.
With liberty and justice for all of us who can afford a lawyer and get our paperwork together. Happy 4th of July.