Jane Spinak is a nationally recognized advocate for children’s welfare and juvenile justice. She co-founded Columbia Law School’s clinics representing families and children and headed up the juvenile rights practice at Legal Aid NYC. She has represented hundreds of children, youth, and parents in New York family court. After more than 40 years she knows the institution well. Today, she is calling for its abolition.
Spinak recently visited Children’s Rights to make her case that the family court has failed in its mission and is an unnecessary institution whose history has been central to the evolution of the family policing system that has separated and destroyed the lives of so many.
From the very beginning family court was entwined with our history of slavery, mass displacement of indigent populations, discrimination, and inequality…intent on fixing children and families who are different; and its practices are consistently punitive when those children and families fail to be fixed.”
Her remarks lifted up key insights found in her new book, The End of Family Court How Abolishing the Court Brings Justice to Children and Families.
A Long History of Failing to Save Children
The first juvenile court was established in 1899 for a good reason: children should be treated differently than adults when they come into court. Social reformers envisioned a “therapeutic” court where judges would serve as benevolent problem-solvers assisting children and families. But this “save children” mandate was rooted in a xenophobic and classist desire to assimilate recently arrived immigrant and urban poor families into middle-class “respectability” through coercion, and when that failed, with punishment.
The early court’s treatment of Black families fluctuated between two extremes—ignoring them entirely or treating them far more harshly than other families. Eventually, the lack of government assistance and support in many states contributed to a huge increase in the number of families living in poverty, particularly families of color. Spinak’s book provides a historical analysis of federal child protection mandates introduced in the 1970s, which shifted decision-making from juvenile court into the complex family regulation system.
The following decades saw the continued expansion of state child protection systems and along with that, the court industry. By the early 2000s, family court was a full partner with state child protection systems, despite the warnings from the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect about the need to move away from punitive investigations and surveillance.
Spinak argues that the idea of a therapeutic court was flawed from the beginning. It led to the emergence of a massive family regulation system that sends families into court not to resolve a legal dispute, but to try and solve problems that cannot be addressed by a court process. And that failure has been recognized for a long time.
The things that we’re saying today, they were saying in 1910, 1920, in 1930. This is not a new thing. They were saying then, how do we get families what they need? How do we deal with bad housing, bad schools, and bad healthcare for these communities so these families don’t end up in the system?”
What Needs to Change
Spinak is not a reformist when it comes to family court. When she began her book, she knew previous efforts at reform hadn’t worked, but she was open to the possibility that family court could be improved. But by the time she finished her research, she concluded that family court has failed in its therapeutic mission and that we don’t need a separate court to take into consideration that children are different and to treat them differently.
So, if family court is the wrong forum to provide families with what they need, and instead blames and punishes them for not somehow managing to care for their children in the way they would like to, what does Spinak suggest we do instead? Her key recommendations include: