Family Relations Court
(Editors Note: This article is from Womankind of April 1972. A CWLU member describes a typical session of Chicago's Family Relations Court and how women fare in its proceedings.)
Some marriages are said to be made in heaven. But divinely ordained or not, when family life doesnt work out, the people involved suffer in very downtoearth ways. Those who can afford it usually buy the services of a psychiatrist or counselor to try and save the marriage or help them adjust to its falling apart. Once it falls apart, they can buy the services of lawyers who will battle in their behalf for an advantageous divorce settlement.
The poor, however, often end up in what is known as Domestic Relations Court with a judge to rule on their dispute. When family problems get bad enough and the family members have no other resources, the law provides an opportunity for one partner to try to force the other to either change, pay, or go to jail.
In Chicago, Domestic Relations Court is on the ninth floor of the Police Headquarters Building at 11th and State. This location is convenient for the defendants who also happen to be prisoners in the lockup at 11th and State. The judge is Maurice Lee, a little old man who considers himself very strict. The public defender, the lawyer assigned by the court to people who cant afford to hire one privately, is a sympathetic woman. She betrays some understanding of what her defendants are up against. Even the nicest people, when theyre in that marriage situation, do crazy things she told us.
On the Friday that we visited Domestic Relations Court, most of the defendants were men, charged with failure to support their children. In each case, the charges were brought as a last resort by the woman.
Despite the hostile situation, one couple seemed almost friendly as they stood trial, without lawyers.
Judge: Are you two still together? No? I know youre not married.
According to Mother, he owed $3000 child support which he had neglected to pay over a period of two years.
(to him): How much money do you have on you?
And so he did in a manner suggesting this courtroom episode was quite familiar. They both kept their cool.
Another couple was obviously less experienced. The woman was angry. She said, I told him (her husband) even if its only five dollars, please give it to me. They were married with one child. He was about to marry again but hadnt divorced her yet a divorce costs money nor had he guaranteed her any form of child support. The same formula was applied.
much money do you have on you?
He seemed annoyed, but handed over two fifty dollar bills.
In both these cases, although the judge ruled in the womans favor, the women got very little justice and very little support maybe enough to postpone a visit to the welfare office another month. Still they didnt leave the courtroom emptyhanded.
Other women didnt do as well. One accused husband didnt show up. The judge said, Ill issue a warrant, ma am. In another case, the unwed mother had the misfortune to argue against a lawyer representing the father of her child. The father was a student, welldressed, and with obvious means since he could afford a lawyer. He got off. He who can pay for it receives the most justice of all seemed to be the moral of that story.
The best lesson of the day in Domestic Court came with a case involving a couple in their early forties. For this trial, the defendant, a man, was brought from the lockup in back of the courtroom. His wife had had him arrested because she wanted him out of the house. It was not the first time.
What happened since last time? asked the judge Since last time he was unemployed, drank, and he apparently had hit her and the kids. Thatll be $25 and it will be $25 every time you re arrested.
Guess who paid the $25? Yes, the same woman who had signed the complaint. Both left in disgust.
In theory, and to some small extent in practice, Domestic Relations Court protects the rights of women and children. The Court may provide help in the form of a little money for child support, or it may keep a brutal husband away for a few months. In the long run, of course, the Court helps neither defendant nor complainant because it cannot change the fundamental conditions affecting their lives. It cannot even pretend to recognize those conditions. For example, a man will be judged equally guilty of not supporting his family when her the unemployment rate is 3% or 30%.
For a woman, even winning in Court is a painful and selfdefeating experience. She has had to ask contemptuous strangers, policeman and a judge, to force an intimate relation to meet his responsibilities or change some improper behavior. This is usually impossible for him to do. In addition, there is the Courts assumption about families. A woman with children is not simply a woman with children but an incomplete family. If she and her old man couldnt make their family work because they are personal failures, of course she gets another old man, the Court. Her new family is not likely to be a substantial improvement.