Cases soar as recession batters wallets, psyches

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / December 15, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

A middle-aged man with a graying beard wrung his hands and stared at the floor in a packed Boston courtroom last week before facing the judge. “There’s no way I’ll have $11,000 by the end of the month,’’ he said flatly. “There’s just no way.’’

Across the aisle, his former wife stomped in anger and told the judge their two children would have to drop out of college if he didn’t make good. “What am I to do?’’ she said. “He hasn’t produced one dollar. One dollar, your honor!’’

Even in the best of times, such bitter personal quarrels daily fill the dockets in family courts, where the most private of troubles are laid bare. But judges and other court officials say family and parental disputes heard in the state’s family courts jumped by 5,000 last year, fueled by the worst recession in decades.

Requests for reduced alimony and child support payments have surged, and the emotional toll of lost jobs, slashed pay, and uncertain futures appears to be driving an increase in other family problems.

“People are increasingly agitated, and it’s incredibly emotional,’’ said Paula M. Carey, chief justice of the Probate and Family Court. “They are out of work, struggling to keep their homes, and all of that takes a toll. Every day, in every court, you can see it.’’

The same economic turmoil that has prompted more families to seek judicial relief has also made courts less equipped to provide it. Steep budget cuts have left the family courts roughly 40 percent understaffed. There have been cutbacks in court-appointed guardians and probation officers who try to mediate disputes before they are brought to judges, increasing judges’ caseloads and creating delays. Financial constraints have forced more clients to represent themselves, which has tended to further slow proceedings.

One day last week in Courtroom 2 of Boston’s Edward W. Brooke Courthouse, more than 50 cases came before Judge Joan Armstrong - an unrelenting succession of single mothers pleading for more support, some fathers saying they can’t pay, and couples grimly agreeing their marriages were beyond repair. Some had lawyers with expensive suits and leather briefcases by their side; others stood alone. Most traded accusations. Few found common ground.

Looming over nearly every case was the heavy weight of financial distress, and parent after parent described for the judge an economic situation hanging by a thread. As the day began, stacks of thick folders were piled high on the judge’s desk, and in quick succession a mother won permanent guardianship of her daughter, a 19-year-old with Down syndrome; an elderly woman in a shawl, after gazing imploringly at the ceiling as though for guidance, won her motion to extend by a year a restraining order against her former husband; a woman requested a hearing on reducing her child support payment. Then two lawyers clashed over back alimony a woman said she was owed.

“He hasn’t paid a dime since October,’’ said the woman’s lawyer, Edward Dombroski. “She’s being driven to bankruptcy by this man.’’

Armstrong scheduled a session for Dec. 21 and urged the man’s lawyer to make sure his client attends.

“I would advise him to make a payment between now and then or be prepared to write a check that day,’’ she said.

A young man, carrying a backpack as if on his way to class, asked the judge to allow him overnight visits from his infant child, who is in custody of the child’s mother. The mother, a baby-faced single woman, said the young man didn’t have a crib at his apartment. The judge said she would allow the visits once the young man acquired one. They thanked the judge and, in a rare display of good will, left the courtroom together.

The next case, a heated clash over visitation, was more typical. The father of an infant boy asked the judge if he could visit more often. The child’s mother said he scarcely saw the baby as it was.

“He never comes to see his son,’’ she said, her voice torn between anger and disbelief. “He says he’s coming, then he doesn’t show up. I just can’t have my son around him.’’

Noting that the father is on probation, Armstrong said she would need to look into his legal status before making her decision. The father looked defeated. The mother hurried out of the courtroom.

The string of hearings was interrupted only long enough for the judge to sign some papers and glance at the next case. As she did so, the courtroom remained still.

A frightened-looking woman who spoke no English said through an interpreter that her spouse had beaten her in the parking lot, violating a restraining order, and she asked for him to be arrested.

A woman whose husband had left her after 17 years tried to recoup $5,800 he allegedly took from their joint checking account. A mother of three, she still didn’t want a divorce, her lawyer said.

Most complaints were brought by women over their children. But one father with custody of his two daughters, 12 and 8, said their mother shouldn’t be allowed to see them. Sometimes she didn’t pick them up on Fridays as scheduled, he said. When she did, she sometimes didn’t bring them home until Monday afternoon, keeping them out of school.

“Every weekend it’s the same thing,’’ he said. “She shouldn’t be able to see them until she gets her act together.’’

The mother did not attend the hearing, and the judge scheduled a new session.

Next came a weary-looking woman, who told the judge the father of her children owed $55,000 in back child support and had consistently ignored previous orders to pay and appear in court. Since 1997, according to court records, he had paid less than $1,400 for his two children, 13 and 10. The judge issued another summons.

“Maybe this one will work,’’ she said.

“Maybe,’’ the woman said.