-Written by Nicole Accurso, class of 2013
I imagined it would be something that you would see on Judge Judy. People coming in, without lawyers, bickering back and forth about insignificant matters. And just like that, the judge would rule in favor of one party, and quickly dismiss them both. As a criminal justice major, I should have known better, but then again I have never truly experienced the civil side of the justice system. My internship at New York County Family Court this past summer really opened my eyes to such issues. A few of my expectations were confirmed; however, I also learned a great deal in those eight weeks.
Located in downtown Manhattan, New York County Family Court is a large gray building comprised of eleven floors. The court employs judges, referees, lawyers, court officers, clerks, and administrative personnel, while also housing various agencies, such as Child Protective Services. Family court matters include cases of custody, orders of protection, and juvenile delinquency, just to name a few. The courthouse is divided into parts, as each part deals with different issues. They do this because there are far too many cases for one or two judges to handle.
During my time at New York County Family Court, I was placed in Part 48, which heard custody battles and orders of protection cases. I sat next to the referee (who is almost like a judge), which was awesome to say the least. I got to see everything happen from a judge’s point of view, instead of someone just in the “audience.” I observed trials, took notes, helped the clerk call the cases, and did research on laws and policies. I loved watching each case, because although they involved the same central issues, each one was so different. There was a story behind every person that came in, and I had the chance to read about them in the petitions and listen to them when they spoke. Some of the cases ranged from being funny to downright bizarre. But most of the things I heard in family court were extremely saddening. I remember during orientation on the first day, one of the judges told the interns that people come to family court fighting for the two things that are most important to them: their money and their children. Boy, was she right. I’ve never seen such passion and high intensity in one setting before.
As cliché as it sounds, this experience made me realize how lucky I am to have a great family, wonderful friends, and my Villanova education. Many of the people I encountered faced family problems, suffered from poor living conditions, and lived in constant fear of losing what they hold dear. I witnessed twelve-year olds being led into court in handcuffs, and their families seemed not to care what happened to them. I sympathized with these children and realized that their life circumstances and troubles at home contributed to their delinquency. There were also people who walked in who I sorely disliked (to say the least) because they beat their children or raped their wives. These instances made the whole experience more real for me. And after the first day in family court, I understood that family and civil matters were in fact nothing like Judge Judy, but far more widespread and serious.
Internships are great ways to gain experience and make connections. They are incredibly valuable to one’s future. This fall, I’m participating in an internship in Philadelphia at the Pretrial Services Warrant Unit. Instead of seeing what happens in the courtroom, I am exposed to everything that happens before trial, such as the investigations process. I know that both internships, combined with the classes I’ve taken at Villanova, are allowing me to develop a holistic view of the justice system, while also giving much more meaning to my major.
*note: this story was published in the Fall 2012 Interactions newsletter.