Everyone should spend a day in family court. Not participating, but observing. I did today. Unintentionally. The case for one of our kiddos was up for review in a distant county. And, in this court, you are luck of the draw. Arrive at 8, stay till your case is called. Even if that’s the end of the day. And today, it was.
But the time sitting on the wooden bench in the smelly, hot windowless courtroom wasn’t a total loss. Court is open, meaning that cases are heard in front of a public audience. Dirty laundry is aired before the people. And when you’re sitting there, you don’t have a choice but to listen in.
And maybe we all should. I learned a number of big lessons today. Let me share a few.
I learned about privilege. I grew up in a stable household. There were few worries, and few things I lacked. I came to realize that my suburban middle class life is privilege. Many of the people I observed were stretched financially, lacking educationally, worn socially and tormented by drugs and inadequate healthcare.
I learned about depravity. More than once today, the rear door opened and a person lumbered in, bound by chains. Different races, different ages, different genders with a common thread among them- the committing of heinous acts against children. It was a grotesque and unsettling. A reminder that people are capable of incredibly horrendous things.
I learned about class divides. Many appearing before court today brought supporters and loved ones. Some were called to speak or even give sworn testimony. Their stories made clear that our society is rife with class divides. To me, racial differences today seemed secondary to socio-economic differences. Generations in the same family without access to the opportunities that I take for granted.
I learned about pain. One case tore my heart. A young couple was in court due to what was deemed a tragic accident that had led to a child no longer on the earth. Accident or not, wasn’t up to me to determine. What I saw. What I know the hushed courtroom saw was pain. Pain in their eyes, their hearts and pain in their family members.
I learned about compassion. Twice today there was joy. Tears of happiness from two very different parents who achieved a monumental goal: reunification with their children and the ending of their court drama. The law doesn’t make that easy, so it was rare and wonderful to join with the entire court staff in giving the parents a long and deserved applause for their reunited family.
I learned about imperfection. It doesn’t take a full day to see a broken system. An imperfect approach to justice is easily evident. I saw a defendant appointed a lawyer with no time to prep for the immediate hearing. I saw a distracted judge miss pivotal points due to distraction. I watched a witness needlessly excoriated while providing critical testimony. And I experienced unfairness in the case we were there for.
On this side of life, we’re not have a perfect and just life. But one thing that we can do is be aware of the imperfections. Sitting in court is an immensely beneficial opportunity to be aware of my own privilege and the shortcomings of our society. It’s always good to step out of your comfort zone and see another part of life.