Amidst a NYC Family Court Crisis, Marie Van Brittan Brown and Jane Bolin Can Teach Us Some Lessons on People of Color’s Need for Safety and Well-being
Editor’s note: CHN Intern Anu Adetola is a junior studying policy analysis and management at Cornell University. This blog post is in celebration of Black History Month.
Safety and well-being are at the heart of human needs. However, these concepts have not been easily granted to Black and Brown communities throughout our nation’s history and even today. Nevertheless, Black heroes have stepped up to prioritize the safety and well-being of people of color.
Born in 1922, Marie Van Brittan Brown was a nurse and inventor of the home security system. In 1966, she lived with her husband Albert Brown, an electrician, in Jamaica, Queens, New York. Due to their jobs, Marie and her husband worked odd hours, so she would often be alone in her house at night. Aware of the increasingly high level of violent crime, robbery, and aggravated assault in her community, Marie longed for a way to feel safe late at night.
With her husband’s help, she invented a home security system that allowed her to see activity by her front door from a safe distance. The security system included four peepholes, a sliding camera, television monitors, and two-way microphones. Her invention was the first form of home security that used closed-circuit television, more commonly known as “video surveillance.” A sliding camera could look through each peephole, show the person at the front door, and Marie could see the video footage from any television in her house. Using the system’s two-way microphones, she could communicate with the person outside. Lastly, she could lock the door with a remote and immediately alert the police with the push of a button.
Jamaica, Queens, experienced “white flight” in the 1960s, when white middle-class families fled to other neighborhoods to avoid racial integration with residents of color. With many white residents gone, more people of color moved into Jamaica. As a result, Marie lived in a majority Black and Brown community, which often saw delayed responses from the police when they called for help. Marie explained how her technology could be the immediate protection the police failed to provide.
“A woman alone could set off an alarm immediately by pressing a button, or if the system were installed in a doctor’s office, it might prevent hold-ups by drug addicts,” she said. She wanted herself and her community to feel safe, and she believed the home security system could provide that safety. In 1969, Marie and her husband received a patent for her invention. Since then, the home security system has become the model for many security systems that protect our homes, businesses, and schools.
Like Marie Van Brittan Brown, Jane Bolin worked in the 1960s to improve the safety and well-being of people of color. Jane was a woman of many firsts in U.S. history. Most notably, she was the first African American woman to be appointed a judge in the United States. Despite breaking many barriers in her field, Jane remained humble, and her focus never drifted.
As stated in a 1978 interview, her number one priority remained the same: “I’d rather see if I can help a child than settle an argument between adults over money,” she said. Her words illustrate her life-long care for children’s safety, well-being, and human needs. A New York Times article recounts Jane’s life. Starting her life in Poughkeepsie, New York, Jane Bolin was born in 1908, two years before the family court’s creation. Jane’s passion for justice developed from the time she was a child. Her father, Gaius Bolin, was the first Black graduate of Williams College and had his own legal practice.
After seeing pictures of lynching and articles on racial injustice from her father’s NAACP Crisis magazine, Jane realized that other African Americans did not experience the same security that her comfortable upbringing had given her. Jane wrote in a 1978 retirement letter, “It is easy to imagine how a young, protected child who sees portrayals of brutality is forever scarred and determined to contribute in her small way to racial justice.”
Her determination proved to be great and made her the first Black woman to graduate from Wellesley College in 1928 and Yale Law School in 1931. Despite encountering racist barriers, Jane’s desire for racial justice in America drove her to become the first Black female judge in the United States. In 1939, Jane served on the NYC Domestic Relations Court, now called the Family Court. As a judge, she handled cases involving juvenile crime, non-support of wives and children, battered spouses, child neglect, adoptions, and paternity suits.
During her time on the Family Court bench, she ended the assignment of probation officers based on race and the placement of children in child-care agencies based on ethnicity. Jane stated, “When I came in, the one or two Black probation officers handled only Black families. I had that changed.” Jane’s job was to ensure that children and families received the resources and protection they needed to improve their family relations. She served as a judge in family court until 1978–a total of forty years. Jane saw the Family Court’s deep racial inequities, so she dedicated her life to making changes that granted greater equality for people of color.
Although Jane Bolin made landmark contributions to increase racial equality in the 20th century, today, NYC is experiencing a family court crisis, and people of color are suffering the most. A news report from NBC New York discusses the city’s continual failure to prioritize the safety and well-being of low-income families of color. In 2019, 56 judges were responsible for handling over 200,000 filings each year in the city’s five boroughs. In March 2020, the family courts entirely and abruptly shut down due to the pandemic. As the year progressed, the courts only took on “essential” cases such as child abuse and juvenile delinquency. Child support, adoption, and custody cases and child protection and parent termination rights proceedings became nonessential. Consequently, family courts significantly delayed nonessential cases for more than 9 months, causing litigants to wait up to a year for their next court date. While waiting, the court’s litigants, the majority unrepresented low-income people of color, received little information about the status of their cases nor guidance on how to navigate the court process. The courts offer minimal assistance to nonessential case litigants while they wait, risking their safety.
For example, victims of domestic violence have been reluctant to leave abusive situations because of the uncertainty in their ability to receive child support. Christine Perumal, director of the Domestic Violence Law Project at Safe Horizon, recounted personal conversations with Safe Horizon Helpline callers. In one of the calls, she tells NBC New York, a terrified woman called her while locked in a room after her partner had left the house.
“She said ‘I don’t know what to do. I have no income. I have a 7-year-old child. If I move out can I file for child support?’ At the time, we had to explain to her that she wasn’t able to access the courts for her child support matter to be heard.” Perumal worked with the woman to create a home safety plan, but this is only a temporary solution. The enormous backlog of cases and never-ending delays hurt people like the caller above who can’t escape dangerous living situations because they’re financially dependent on their abusive partners. Black women make up the majority of NYC’s reported domestic violence victims, so they may feel forced to stay with an abusive partner partly because they lack child support. Jane Bolin knew that resources produced security and safety for a family, but today’s courts’ systematic inadequacies have prevented families from feeling safe and heard.
A NYC Bar Association and the Fund for Modern Courts report offers numerous solutions to correct the family court crisis. Currently, the NYC Family Courts’ online system is difficult for litigants to navigate. The courts must see change from Marie Van Brittan Brown’s eyes–she envisioned how technology could promote security and welfare for those overlooked. Nearly 80 percent of court litigants are unrepresented, so NYC family courts must make their website more user-friendly and boost website communication of helpful information and court updates. The NYC American Bar Association recommends family courts adopt NYSCEF: the electronic filing system used throughout the New York State Court system. A more user-friendly website with updates would reduce litigants’ anxieties and stress, and e-filing would increase the number of cases eligible for virtual hearings. Thus, litigants could more quickly receive child support, custody, adoption, and other legal remedies to improve their family relations.
“Those gains we have made were never graciously and generously granted. We have had to fight every inch of the way–in the face of sometimes insufferable humiliation.” Jane Bolin’s words remind us that the fight for racial equality in family courts will not fall into our hands–we must raise our voices against the silence of complacency.