These days, New York City judges decide whether children should be separated from parents found to be abusive and neglectful and what to do with youth who’ve committed crimes over video conferencing calls. They manage courtrooms with public interest attorneys who are suing over inadequate pay, and a justice system called out repeatedly for coming down hardest on the people of color who fill the dockets.
Overseeing family court in New York City’s five boroughs is now the job of Administrative Judge Anne-Marie Jolly, an 11-year member of the state judiciary and longtime staff member of the sprawling court system.
Since Nov. 1, Jolly has been managing daily operations of family courts in the five boroughs that handle cases including child abuse and neglect, child custody, domestic violence and juvenile delinquency issues.
Jolly — who was raised in Queens by her mother, a Haitian immigrant — replaced Judge Jeanette Ruiz, a one-time social worker and child welfare agency official who retired after six years heading the family courts. Jolly was born in 1965 but declined to specify the month.
She earned her law degree from Albany Law School in 1990. She worked as a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society, holding various positions within the juvenile rights division in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Jolly to the family court bench in 2010 and she was reappointed in 2011. Since 2015, she has served as the city’s deputy administrative judge of the family courts.
In a public statement announcing Jolly’s appointment, Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks said “she is a proven leader whose expertise, creativity and resourceful nature, along with her deep commitment to child welfare issues, have been great assets to the New York State Court System and the children and families served by our family courts.”
Jolly confronts a host of urgent matters in her new post.
In July, members of the New York City Bar Association sent a letter to her predecessor, Judge Ruiz, describing the family courts as suffering an “unprecedented backlog of cases, including matters in which parents await the return of their children while others wonder when their adoption will be finalized.”
That same month, lawyers who represent parents in thousands of child abuse and neglect proceedings filed suit, claiming they have been inadequately compensated for decades, causing them to carry too many cases and violating the constitutional rights of children and adults to “meaningful and effective legal representation.”
Last year, the court system came under scathing critique in a review of racial bias conducted by former Obama administration Cabinet Secretary Jeh Johnson. His report to Chief Judge Janet DiFiore involved interviews with 289 individuals and concluded there is a “second-class system of justice for people of color in New York State.”
Johnson laid out 13 recommendations in his 103-page report, stating the measures are needed to correct unfair conditions that disproportionately impact Black and brown New Yorkers. Family Court is among the high-volume courts described as “dehumanizing,” and involving a “demeaning cattle-call culture.” One judicial officer “admitted that proceedings are often too rushed when judges are making decisions about removing a child from his or her family.” Others said “the atmosphere of Family Court is often dominated by concerns about security, with little to no consideration for its effects on litigants.” The presence of armed officers in Family Court, the report found, “contributes to the impression that it is yet another institution that ‘polices and controls’ people of color.
In an interview with The Imprint, Judge Jolly did not go into specifics, but said she considers maintaining equity in the courts one of her top priorities. Under direction from the chief judge, she added, there’s no tolerance for prejudice.
As COVID-19 struck in March 2020, New York City’s family courts scaled back routine hearings, handling “essential and emergency matters” through phone and video appearances. In May, 16,000 employees of the state courts returned to courthouses. But for clients of New York City’s family courts, most hearings remain virtual.
Now, in online court appearances that would be almost unthinkable just two years ago, parents fighting for custody of their children, and teenagers being moved to yet another foster home, are instructed to keep their computers and mobile devices charged prior to hearings, and to make sure they are seated in well-lit rooms and have good internet or phone connections. Litigants such as foster parents call in from kid-filled homes, and teens placed in residential facilities are advised to “try to find a quiet place where no one will interrupt you,” and to “use earbuds or headphones, if you can,” to improve sound quality. “Look at the camera, not the screen, when you speak,” the court advises on its website.
In a 45-minute Zoom interview with The Imprint, Jolly discussed her priorities under these unprecedented circumstances and how she plans to tackle challenges now before the family court.
The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What did you learn from working at Legal Aid, what kind of perspective do you have from your time working there that you’re bringing to your work as a judge?
Everyone brings their own experiences and their lens when they’re doing jobs based upon their previous experiences. What I learned, I think, is how to listen to young people. Respect young people. I think there was a long time that people tried to be protective and overprotective of children. Saying no, we can’t expose them to that. They’ve been exposed to so much already and we need to listen to their voices. There’s no way you can do this work without listening to the voices of the young people.
As we enter year two of the COVID-19 pandemic, what are the biggest challenges the Family Court is facing right now?
There are some pros and cons of the consequences of the pandemic. Some of the pros are that we’re able to do some of the work virtually. And if that continues to benefit the court users, then we want to hold on to that. We are trying to figure out if we should keep things virtual and how to determine whether or not cases should be held in a hybrid fashion or be fully in person.
We want to ensure that we don’t go back to business the way it was, with having people be in the courthouse if they don’t have to be in the courthouse. They don’t lose time traveling. They don’t have to pay for child care. They don’t lose pay. You know, a lot of the individuals who work, if they don’t go to work, they don’t get paid that day. So how does that help them support their child, how does it help them keep their housing? Whatever it is that they need to do. So whatever we can hold on to, we’ll hold on to.
What are some of your main priorities coming into this position?
One main priority is to increase our use of alternative dispute resolution, specifically mediation. We have pilots in place in which we screen out certain cases that might have a history of domestic violence, which might be the best case for mediation because you want everyone to come in a level playing field and not have somebody have an advantage over another, or have a power struggle.
The courts recognize that in custody and visitation cases, we feel as if they should all be mediated, before you even get to see a judge, the courtroom should be the last resort. With the number of cases that we have it just seems logical that we could set up a system, where virtually everyone would participate in mediation, and the likelihood of resolutions is pretty high.
So if we could set up systems to ensure that people at least tried mediation, and find other ways to resolve their issues, it’s going to be more successful versus a court order. It would relieve and lower the case load, but it would also afford parents an opportunity to address issues, in what feels like a less controversial manner. You know, let’s relax and take a step back; when you’re in a courtroom, you’re tense. It’s unknown what’s going to happen, but everyone wants to be heard. And in a mediation setting, everybody gets heard.
What was your reaction after you read the recommendations that expand bias training, adopt a new social media policy, strengthen the process for bias complaints? Have the city courts addressed these inequity issues sufficiently?
There has been more accessible education available to lawyers, children and parents who are in family court. If they’re feeling harassment, or if things that have been posted that are inappropriate, actions will be taken swiftly. I have to say I was not surprised about the recommendations, nor the outcome. I’m really grateful for the recommendations, because they’re concrete. And the expectation is that every single person who works in the court owns this. It’s wonderful that it’s coming from the top down, and it’s coming from the bottom up. And people know it’s not acceptable.
But I also can’t deny that we need more resources. I think it’s a national problem. We have had an increased number of people who have retired from the court system. There have been efforts made with the Office of Court Administration to address these issues. But that’s going to take some time, the recommendations are in our face. I will not reject or be blind to them. There’s more work to be done. Our chief judge issued a review of the Johnson report and what’s been implemented since then. So we’re taking the necessary steps and probably will take a few steps forward and maybe take a few steps back and just keep plugging away.
The pandemic has been extraordinarily difficult for the family court system, and there’s been efforts to adapt to virtual hearings and case delays. But how do you respond to those who say not enough is being done?
We just have to keep doing the work that we’re doing. We can show them the data. We issued over 63,000 orders of protection. We finalized almost 600 adoptions, we fully adjudicated almost 23,000 support matters, 3,000 guardianship petitions, almost 15,000 child abuse and neglect petitions and 3,000 paternity matters. Also 24,000 custody and visitation petitions and 8,500 permanency planning hearings. We were working, we are working.
You know there were hiccups in the road, this pandemic was not planned. We didn’t have equipment, we weren’t able to give equipment to all our staff to work at home. We were all looking for the same things at the same time. We couldn’t possibly know how many laptops we needed. I will accept the fully informed criticisms and learn from them. I will not disregard the practical suggestions that are offered to improve what we’re doing. It would be foolish for me to say that I know how to solve everything by myself, but I am well supported and will reach out to ask for support.
What are you hopeful for? What positive changes do you hope to see in the family court?
I want to continue our collaborative communications internally and also work with committed advocates and agencies who are committed to our work.
Everything can’t be fixed right away. It’s going to take some talks, because it didn’t just build up. And this pandemic has thrown a wrench into everything, and for everybody personally and professionally.