In the five counties that make up New York City, recent data indicate, there are well over 100,000 petitions a year in Family Court on matters related to child custody, support, and visitation. The majority of the petitioners are female, members of a racial minority, and with low levels of income and education. Most of them are also navigating this complex system without representation by any lawyer.
To assist this vulnerable population, attorneys from DWT’s New York office are participating in a Volunteer Attorney program that provides free, on-site, walk-in assistance at Family Court.
“For many litigants it’s the only time they’ve been to court,” says DWT associate Camille Calman, who started volunteering with the program last year. “It’s intimidating and frustrating and it’s about the most important thing in the world—their children.”
Under the program, attorneys who have completed the court-provided training take a monthly shift at one of the city’s five Family Courts. Litigants are first seen by a Family Court staff attorney who gathers information about their needs, then refers them on to the volunteers.
The consultations are varied, and no longer than thirty minutes. “Sometimes it’s just ‘Go to the fifth floor and fill out a form and give it to the clerk,’” says Calman. “Sometimes we’re offering more practical guidance about what they should do to establish their rights: ‘Keep a diary so you know how often you’re giving money to your spouse.’ Some people are seeking custody. Some want their own support order changed because they’ve lost their job. Sometimes it’s more like psychological counseling. It’s a good opportunity for us to take some of the impersonality out of the system.”
Since it launched in 2006, the program has attracted participation from a wide spectrum of New York law firms and corporations. In addition to Calman, a half-dozen other DWT associates have taken part or are in training to do so.