Hawaii’s Family Court of the First Judicial Circuit is a place no one wants to go, and a place we couldn’t live without. Writer Jana Wolff gained special access to the court to shed some light on what happens inside.

Though thousands of families in our community are affected by what happens there, Hawaii’s Family Court is basically invisible: Many of its courtrooms are off limits, its litigants are anonymous and its records are restricted. Now that Family Court has moved from a drab building in Honolulu to a brand new one in Kapolei, it’s much brighter inside; but most of us are still in the dark about what goes on there.

Because Family Court deals specifically with juveniles and families, the law requires strict confidentiality in many of its cases. But a confidential court need not be a secret one. That’s the view of Senior Judge Frances Q.F. Wong, who, just before she retired after 23 years as a full-time judge, granted special permission to Jana Wolff on behalf of HONOLULU Magazine to take a look inside Family Court of the First Judicial Circuit.


Thanks to her, here’s a peek.

Editor’s Note: The names of all parties—except for judges—have been changed. Additionally, since this article went to print, Judge Karen Radius has retired, but continues to be actively involved in Girls Court.

Juvenile Justice

“Hats off; gum out.”

With that, a bailiff ushers into the courtroom a boy named Matt, who, in a T-shirt, board shorts and slippers, could be any other local 16-year-old—except that the flock of adults in business attire who are filing in behind him suggests this kid’s in deep kimchi.

“Please rise,” says the bailiff as the black-robed judge sweeps in and sits behind his raised desk, and those assembled announce who they are—deputy prosecutor, deputy attorney general, therapist from the Department of Health, probation officer, the minor and his mom. Two big guys, one in a tan sheriff’s uniform and one who looks like a bouncer—stand quietly in the back of the room, adding to the sense that this may not end well.

It doesn’t. Matt admits to cruising with an 18-year-old friend and jumping out of the car to rip off a brand-new backpack from a younger boy walking home from school … but Matt is fuzzy about where he got the crowbar that was under his shirt and neglects to mention what the prosecuting attorney eventually reveals: that the one-way fight with the obviously traumatized 12-year-old victim was posted on YouTube.

The judge prefaces his ruling with a warning and a wish for Matt’s future. “If you can’t do it for yourself, son, do it for your baby girl,” he tells the teenage dad, whose marching orders include a letter to the victim, $180 restitution, a psych evaluation and a sentence at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility. At that, the now-crying teen gives his mom the stuff in his pockets and a long hug before being led out in ankle chains by the sheriff.

Drama and Trauma

Family Court is a one-stop shop for all kinds of misery: a place for families who hit and abuse; for kids who are addicts and prostitutes and criminals (and victims of each); for parents who can’t stand each other; and for mentally ill people who are a danger to themselves and others. Referred to metaphorically as the ER of the Judiciary Hospital, Family Court is a place where no one wants to go and a place that we couldn’t live without.

Judge Linda Luke, who has been at it for more than two decades, is quick to acknowledge that the best she and the other family court judges can do is to triage—to stop the bleeding of thousands of Hawaii’s troubled families and failed relationships. When you consider that there is a caseload of nearly 30,000 each year in the Family Court on Oahu, and only nine full-time judges assigned to hear cases, you start to understand why, with 10 to 20 cases on a typical morning calendar (not including trials), a judge might have only 10 or 15 minutes to hear from both sides and decide the fate of a family in crisis.

“This isn’t the Judge Judy show,” assures Judge Karen Radius, who, after 17 years on the bench, knows that there is no such thing as an instant solution like those you see on TV. “Problems don’t happen quickly and they don’t get resolved quickly.” With situations as dire as whether children will be taken from their parents, or which parent gets custody, or whether patients have to stay in the hospital against their will, family court judges can’t let speed trump good decisions. That’s why they spend at least an hour prepping for every hour they are in court, facing a pile of files at the end of each day to review for the next.

Even though the parties raise their right hands and swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, some of the gritty tales they tell inside each of the small courtrooms seem too painful or perplexing to believe. “I’m not creative enough to make up what I see every day,” says Judge Michael Broderick, whose weekly calendar includes 60 to 70 cases of varying kinds: domestic abuse, paternity, guardianship, adoption and involuntary civil commitment.

When Love Turns Livid

A husband headbutts his wife for selling his stuff on eBay; a mother of twins uses beer bottles and the kids’ toys to beat her husband; a grandmother is worried about the safety of her grandson, whose dad has 25 aliases and multiple convictions for drugs and theft; a woman is being stalked by her ex-boyfriend; a young man wants to keep his younger brothers away from the father who abused him; a divorcing wife can’t meet her friends at the dog park because of mutual restraining orders with her husband, who knows that whoever shows up first is the one who gets to stay.

Sometimes, what’s more disturbing for a judge than issuing a long-term or temporary restraining order (TRO) is evaluating cases in which the parties are requesting dissolution of the order. The mom who drove her car to the edge of a cliff and told her 10-year-old daughter, “Today is the day we’re going to die,” now wants visits with her child and no further action on the TRO. The man who molested his wife’s daughter from a previous marriage wants to dissolve the restraining order on the 3-year-old son they had together. And the young woman whose boyfriend broke into her house and once threatened to kill her now wants to reconcile.

It’s the judge’s determination of what’s in “the best interests of the child” that gives family court judges far more discretion than any other type of judge. Without a jury, he or she has to sort out a chaotic situation fairly, tap into precedent and instinct, and come up with a ruling that might displease both parties in the process. “It is difficult not to become hardened,” says Broderick of what he sees every day, “but I always try to be respectful, and I always try to offer hope—even as I hold people accountable.”

Why do they do it?

The wood-paneled courtrooms are small, even claustrophobic. In each stands an American flag and a Hawaiian flag. Some of the judges keep personal photographs on their desks or nearby, as if to remind them that all is not bad with the world. For Judge Bode Uale, it’s a picture of his grandfather taken at Hukilau Beach in Laie. He refers to it in court sometimes with young Samoan offenders: “Don’t use stereotypes as an excuse. Think of your grandfather and make him—make us—proud.”

Ask any of the family court judges why they undertake this soul-sucking work and unrelenting pace, and their answers, like that of Judge Luke, are unequivocal: “You have to love the court to work under these conditions.” Judge Paul Murakami “wouldn’t work anywhere else … anywhere I’d be removed from real people.” Broderick puts it simply: “As long as I’m a judge, I want to be a family court judge.”

If the desire to make a difference gets well-respected lawyers to don the black robe as family court judges, seeing the changes that people can make is what keeps them there. “Sure, Family Court is a microcosm for the ills in our community,” acknowledges Judge R. Mark Browning, “but it’s also a place where miracles happen.” In his 14 years on the bench, he’s seen families reunify once the parents get clean and sober; he’s seen divorce settlements in which the exes put their kids first; he’s seen siblings serve as guardians to their younger brothers and sisters and has heard their parents ask for forgiveness. And, as head of the Juvenile Drug Court, he’s seen kids graduate high school and pursue lives that once didn’t seem possible.

Roller-coaster lives

Though the stories are different and the cases vary—from divorce to domestic violence and from juvenile delinquency to child abuse—drug addiction is a common thread. That puts Family Court on the front line in the war against crystal meth.

Another reason for the uptick in cases that land in Family Court is the high percentage of babies born out of wedlock each year in our state (40 percent), particularly the children born to teenage children. In spite of efforts to resist such a sad inheritance, some kids get swept into the vicious cycle of poverty, crime, abuse and addiction, and gain early membership in the system.

For all of the upheaval in the lives of troubled families (and maybe because of it), a noticeable number of infants brought into Family Court by their struggling parents have names like Serenity, Sunny and Song—all poignant in their hopefulness. The reality, though, can be more like a hamster wheel of accelerating wrath. In his divorce courtroom, Murakami regularly encounters the human urge for revenge. When parents seem to hate each other more than they love their kids, “Everyone loses,” says the judge. The biggest losers, of course, are the children.

That’s why Judge Karen Radius admonishes parents whose kids have been taken by Child Protective Services (CPS) and then returned to their homes: “Roller coasters belong in theme parks, and kids don’t need that ride.” To the 28-year-old alcoholic mom who doesn’t know the last name or whereabouts of her baby’s father, the judge grants a little more time to clean up her act, but warns, “Your kids are not ping-pong balls; they deserve a life without drama.”

The same is true in setting visitation schedules. Twenty-two-year-old Terrence pulls out of his backpack a small trophy like the ones kids get at the end of soccer season. This one says “Best Father,” and he proudly displays it on the courtroom table for the judge to see. Malia, his ex-girlfriend, would like to take away the gift she once gave Terrence, but then she’s in paternity court to take away as much as she can regarding custody, visitation and child support for their 18-month-old son, Shawn.

As the sordid details of their lives are uncovered, the decisions get more consequential: dad has threatened mom’s new boyfriend; mom was once in Kahi Mohala for overdosing; dad was once in Kahi Mohala for threatening suicide; mom has lost her job; dad works only part-time; mom’s been late for visitation 14 times since the last court appearance; dad has smoked weed; mom has smoked weed; both mom and dad love Shawn with all their hearts. And dad has three other children with three other women. At the conclusion of this sad saga, the judge grants the mother sole custody; grants the father three days of visitation per week; assigns both parents child support payments based on minimum wage; and refers the case to CPS.

Mobile justice

 

While thousands of people come into Family Court each year, the court goes out to others. Each week, a judge, bailiff, court clerk and sheriff pile into a state-owned car and head to the Judiciary’s secure Detention Home facility, to the Hawaii State Hospital in Kaneohe and to The Queen’s Medical Center, where a makeshift courtroom is set up in a nondescript conference room so that individuals in these facilities can get a hearing.

Hidden in the maze of hallways at Queen’s is a meeting room that sits right next to a bathroom, so that court proceedings are punctuated every few minutes with the sound of flushing. The mentally ill patients escorted into the room seem to be in one of two states: agitated or out of it.

Twenty-five-year-old Keoni is agitated, and a misspelling he sees on the certificate that his public defender reads aloud only adds to his restlessness, though he listens intently as his mother tells the story of a good boy who once had a classified job with the military, lots of friends and a nice place to live in Washington, D.C. That is, until his life unraveled and he moved back home to Hawaii with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. On nights when the demons are scaring him, Keoni comes into his mom’s bedroom—her singing and praying seem to help. But when he locked them both in there one day and went into a rage, she was the one who was scared. Keoni was taken to Tripler in restraints.

After hearing testimony from the treating psychiatrist and from the patient himself, the family court judge rules that there is sufficient risk of Keoni hurting himself and others to warrant up to 30 more days as an inpatient (or shorter if his medications have stabilized his condition). But the judge also tells the young man: “I am very encouraged by the way you handled yourself today and by the fact that you have goals for your life … it’s not something I see much of in this type of case.” With that, Keoni is whisked out the door and sent back to a place he can’t wait to leave.

A Bright Light

If delivering a baby is the most positive reason to be in a hospital, adoption is the best reason to be in Family Court (unless it’s contested). The afternoon session set aside for adoptions—complete with lei, cameras, collared shirts and, get this, smiles—is a welcome counterpoint to the parade of horribles that fill most other court calendars.

Two blissed-out parents walk into the courtroom with their 5-month-old son, their adoption attorney, and a cheerleading squad of two grandmothers and a family friend. They’ve already signed the two inches of paperwork, gotten releases from the birth parents, secured clearance from the Department of Human Services (DHS) saying they aren’t child abusers, and requested that the name of the infant be changed. When the judge ultimately grants the court’s approval, there is clapping, crying and picture taking. If only all cases were this way.

The next child seeking to be adopted is a 14-year-old boy. Daniel’s mother is in the courtroom, and so are the maternal grandparents he’s been living with since his birth. They all agree that adoption would be in Daniel’s best interest, not only because his mom is moving to the Mainland, but also so that he can be the beneficiary of his grandparents’ Social Security and Medicare. “Plus,” adds Daniel’s grandma, “we love him very much.” Before granting the court’s petition for adoption, the judge makes certain Daniel’s mother understands that, with the termination of her parental rights, her son becomes her brother.

Nine people file into the courtroom next, most of them children. The DHS social worker explains that the foster parents want to adopt a 4-month-old, special-needs baby named Jazmine, whose birthparents are sitting nearby, holding hands. This is not the first time the couple has relinquished a child to these foster parents … it’s the third. (And the last, as the ice-addicted mom decided to have a tubal ligation after this delivery.)

A Second Chance

 

The juvenile system recognizes that children are not yet fully responsible for their actions, so they should be allowed to make mistakes without being permanently crippled by them. This is based on the enlightened theory that a relatively small amount of resources  devoted to solving a child’s problems now will result in a far lower cost to society in the long run.

This different sort of justice is especially noticeable in two programs designed for at-risk teens: Hawaii Girls Court and Juvenile Drug Court.

Girls in the juvenile justice system have needs that are not being met by a system designed for boys. Judge Karen Radius and her all-female staff at Girls Court are determined to stem the tide of female juvenile arrests (which, in Hawaii, are 12 percent higher than the national average). Adolescent girls are as likely to be offenders as they are victims, and Radius is as likely to be issuing sanctions as hugs. One of the first of its kind in the nation, Girls Court is a success, both by the numbers—47 percent reduced recidivism; 60 percent reduction in runaways; 63 percent reduction in arrests—and by the immeasurable gratitude for second chances.

On Friday afternoons, Judge R. Mark Browning presides over Juvenile Drug Court, where he checks in with each of the teenagers and members of their families who are in the program. He keeps the kids on track with a combination of structure—community service, drug treatment, therapy, home detention, youth prison—and support: “I’m not gonna give up on you, bro; no way, never.”  Probation officers ride the kids hard as they work through the four-step program (which, though rigorous, has a long waiting list). Graduates of the Juvenile Drug Court program have to have earned their high school diplomas or GEDs, and most go on to college.

Both of these programs can point to excellent outcomes. But to what extent Family Court overall is saving kids and families in Hawaii is impossible to measure. Up against the most noble objectives of Family Court are the painful limits of idealism … and no one knows this better than the judges, attorneys, social workers, advocates and therapists who work there every day. For them, Judge Bode Uale sums it up best: “We try to make awful things a little better.”                        

Jana Wolff is a published author and ghostwriter of five books and more than 100 feature articles.


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