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Family Court Chief Justice Jeremiah S. Jeremiah Jr. will soon be leaving his position as he has announced his retirement. The Providence Journal / Kathy Borchers
Michael Brady was in Family Court last summer. Actually, he wasn’t in a courtroom. He was in the chambers of Chief Judge Jeremiah Jeremiah, which is where the court’s business is sometimes conducted.

And Brady had one of those Family Court moments.
“He [Jeremiah] tells me I’ve got two hours to get the $4,000 or he was going to call DCYF and have them come and take my kids.”

Brady says he drove to New Bedford, borrowed the money from a friend, and drove back to the court.

It was a momentary fix, not a resolution. It gave Brady some breathing room but not much. He was still left to wonder if he’ll go back to prison.

Jeremiah has announced he is retiring after 23 years as head of what is probably the most secretly run court in Rhode Island. His retirement makes this a very good time not just to find a replacement from outside Family Court, but to make reforms to a court that does too much of its business out of public view and allows cases to go on and on to no one’s benefit but the lawyers.

Family Court is a world unto itself up on the fifth floor of the Garrahy Judicial Complex. There is no real oversight. Seldom do reporters cover Family Court sessions because the personal misery of the people who show up there is not news. Unless someone prominent, such as a former Supreme Court chief justice, is caught in the embarrassing fallout of a divorce proceeding, the court’s work moves along with little public notice and at a pace dictated by its judges, magistrates and lawyers. People going through some of the worst times of their lives too often find that the court only compounds their troubles rather than resolves them. Many end up spending years and tens of thousands of dollars pursuing a final solution that seems to come close, and then slips away time after time. They show up, there’s a continuance. They show up, one of the lawyers can’t make it. They show up, the court makes fun of them.

Three months ago, I talked with Denyce Rocchio, who has spent years in Family Court dealing with her ex-husband on matters of child support, visitation, custody and restraining orders. She has taken time off from her nursing job to attend court sessions that get her absolutely nowhere. But on Dec. 18, she became part of a Family Court classic, a judicial circus that astounded and amazed.

Rocchio was in court for yet another hearing on child support. The proceedings apparently got a little testy. When Magistrate Armando Monaco called her forward, she thought she was going into his chambers. Instead, he told her to sit in his chair at the bench. “You be the judge today,” he told her.

Then, says Rocchio, Monaco started throwing papers around and asking, “What would you do?”

It was stunningly childish. It certainly wasn’t typical. But it was further indication that Family Court judges and magistrates do as they want because they can.

And people like Michael Brady get caught in a draining, frustrating, seemingly endless round of continuances, delays, contempt citations, judicial bullying and, sometimes, time at the ACI.

His case comes down to a question of balance. He has been left completely disabled by heart attacks and arthritis. He says he used to make a lot of money in the mortgage business. Now, at 52, he says he makes $1,593 a month in Social Security disability and $85 in food stamps. But the court is still demanding that he continue paying $236 a week in child support for his now 17-year-old son by his first wife. He says he has been waiting for a hearing on his motion to modify the support payments based on his sharply reduced income. As long as that hearing isn’t held, as long as the old support order stays in effect, he will continue to be in contempt for non-payment. The money isn’t there, he says. Time at the ACI will not make it magically appear. It didn’t the first time he was sent there and it won’t if he’s sent a second time, or a third.

At one point, he says, an employee of Family Court came to his house in Providence and pointed out things he should sell to meet his child-support obligations.

Listening to Brady as he prepared breakfast for his two very young children was listening to another story of Family Court in which the simple need to bring everyone together, present all the facts and come to a practical and fair solution is never quite met. Bits and pieces are dealt with instead. The billable hours go up. Another session is scheduled.

One guy I know became so angry and frustrated with the way his child-support case was going that he called the judge at home to complain. The judge took offense. She said such contact wasn’t allowed. A couple of state troopers came to see him to reinforce the prohibition on phone chats with Family Court judges.

Two weeks ago, the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action suit charging the state Truancy Court, created by Jeremiah and run from Family Court, with operating in secrecy and violating the constitutional rights of children and their parents. Among the charges was that children were being threatened with confinement in the Training School for missing classes.

Obviously, change is needed in Family Court. People in the Rhode Island court system have acknowledged that for a long time. Transparency and accountability would be good.

Brady was back in court two weeks ago. It wasn’t about child support this time. It was about his wife’s request that their children be required to visit her. His wife, whom he is divorcing, is in the ACI on robbery charges.

“I don’t want my kids going to the ACI,” he said. “I don’t think it’s good for them.”

A Family Court magistrate ordered that the children, 27 months and 15 months old, be taken to visit their mother in prison.

“I like to think that’s my court, too,” said Brady, looking back on his still unfinished business with Family Court.

A lot of people probably think that way at first. Then, maybe in the fourth or fifth year of return visits, they might not think that way anymore.

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