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For those seeking justice in Staten Island’s cramped Family Court, the decade closed as it began: with unfulfilled promises of a new home that would be accessible to all.
The nearly century-old, two-story courthouse on Richmond Terrace has no elevator, making it nearly impossible for anyone who can’t climb stairs to reach courtrooms on the upper floor.
People with mobility issues are often relegated to makeshift “courtrooms” in a parking lot trailer that’s been in use since 2010. If people have to get to even just the first floor of the main building, they have to be escorted by court officers to a stairless back entrance, which is fenced off with a gate.
“Between accessibility, security, efficiency, privacy, it fails on a number of levels,” said attorney Daniel Greenbaum, head of Juvenile Practice in Staten Island for the Legal Aid Society.
John Ocean, 63, sat with his family in the second-floor waiting room of Staten Island’s Family Courthouse, his red cane propped up beside him on the wooden bench. It was his fifth time at the courthouse since moving to Staten Island three decades ago, and he had just made another slow climb up the steep marble stairs after needing to use the restroom on the ground floor.
He said he never knows what part of his body will hurt most on any given day, but he knows he won’t be able to walk the courthouse steps up forever.
“I might get to the point where it really hurts to come up here and I might want to say something: Y’all should put an elevator in that building!”
In 2010, court officials promised a relocation to more spacious, renovated quarters at the Supreme Court building down the street, once that court moved into its own new building.
Supreme Court moved to its new space in 2015 — but only a fraction of Family Court hearings have since moved into the vacated building, which also houses Surrogate’s Court.
Since then, the court’s caseload has become only heavier, going from 9,943 in 2015 to 10,947 in 2018, according to OCA. Part of the growth is because most 16- and 17-year-olds charged with crimes now have their cases heard in Family Court instead of criminal courts due to New York’s 2017 “Raise the Age” law.
The situation is so dire that last year local politicians wrote to Chief Judge of the State of New York Janet DiFiore and Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Director Elizabeth Glazer pleading for a new Family Court tower — an idea first agreed upon by court and borough officials in 2017.
“To date, we have received no update or construction timeline from the Office of Court Administration or City Hall,” wrote Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon, Borough President Jimmy Oddo, state Sen. Diane Savino and Assemblymember Charles Fall.
The state Office of Court Administration did not respond to inquiries from THE CITY about the plans.
Christina Brandt-Young, a managing attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, said that the city’s makeshift solutions are inadequate and don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“It violates the law to make it harder for people with disabilities to access the services in that building,” said Brandt-Young, whose nonprofit has worked with Staten Islanders who stopped going to the courthouse completely.
“We’ve absolutely heard stories from people who were so frustrated that they gave up.”
Greenbaum described his organization’s child welfare and juvenile justice clients contending with no-win choices.
A mother and daughter who both relied on wheelchairs had their child welfare case heard in a trailer parked outside. Since both couldn’t fit their wheelchairs into the space, the daughter had to make a choice: walk on her hands into the back of the courtroom, or not accompany her mother to the proceeding.
She decided not to participate.
A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, Colby Hamilton, said that the agency is currently working with the city budget office and state courts to fine-tune plans that will rely on a projected $206 million out of the city’s existing court-construction budget.
“Government buildings should be accessible to all New Yorkers, especially the halls of justice,” said Nick Benson, a spokesperson for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which manages court facilities.
Family Court, meanwhile, has continued to try to accommodate people with limited mobility in its small and fragmented facilities, now at three separate locations across St. George — one of which has cost the city $800,000 annually in rent for more than a decade, according to DCAS. The other two locations are owned by the city.
In 2018, officials converted a records room on the ground floor into a courtroom to provide an alternative to using the trailer outside or a scaling a flight of smooth marble stairs.
“I mean, those stairs are terrifying,” said Greenbaum. “Even when you don’t carry something. I’ve slipped down them a few times because they’re lovely marble. And if you got your nice little leather soled shoes on you can take a slip.”
Lawyers and court staff noted thats cases scheduled for the second floor sometimes move downstairs when a need for an accessible room arises — or they just have to wait, even if that means adjourning for a later date.
The constant scramble puts a heavy burden on court officers, their union leaders contend.
“People who come to the court are not happy campers to begin with, and then you give them a sh—y facility, that’s dirty, that’s overcrowded and with no seats for them to sit in, it just raises the level of their anxiety and we have to deal with that problem,” said Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association.
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