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Hawaii Family Court

Hawaii’s Family Court of the First Judicial Circuit is a place no one wants to go, and a place we couldn’t live without. Writer Jana Wolff gained special access to the court to shed some light on what happens inside.

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Photo: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

Though thousands of families in our community are affected by what happens there, Hawaii’s Family Court is basically invisible: Many of its courtrooms are off limits, its litigants are anonymous and its records are restricted. Now that Family Court has moved from a drab building in Honolulu to a brand new one in Kapolei, it’s much brighter inside; but most of us are still in the dark about what goes on there.

Because Family Court deals specifically with juveniles and families, the law requires strict confidentiality in many of its cases. But a confidential court need not be a secret one. That’s the view of Senior Judge Frances Q.F. Wong, who, just before she retired after 23 years as a full-time judge, granted special permission to Jana Wolff on behalf of HONOLULU Magazine to take a look inside Family Court of the First Judicial Circuit.

Thanks to her, here’s a peek.

Editor’s Note: The names of all parties—except for judges—have been changed. Additionally, since this article went to print, Judge Karen Radius has retired, but continues to be actively involved in Girls Court.
 

Juvenile Justice

“Hats off; gum out.”

With that, a bailiff ushers into the courtroom a boy named Matt, who, in a T-shirt, board shorts and slippers, could be any other local 16-year-old—except that the flock of adults in business attire who are filing in behind him suggests this kid’s in deep kimchi.

“Please rise,” says the bailiff as the black-robed judge sweeps in and sits behind his raised desk, and those assembled announce who they are—deputy prosecutor, deputy attorney general, therapist from the Department of Health, probation officer, the minor and his mom. Two big guys, one in a tan sheriff’s uniform and one who looks like a bouncer—stand quietly in the back of the room, adding to the sense that this may not end well.

It doesn’t. Matt admits to cruising with an 18-year-old friend and jumping out of the car to rip off a brand-new backpack from a younger boy walking home from school … but Matt is fuzzy about where he got the crowbar that was under his shirt and neglects to mention what the prosecuting attorney eventually reveals: that the one-way fight with the obviously traumatized 12-year-old victim was posted on YouTube.
The judge prefaces his ruling with a warning and a wish for Matt’s future. “If you can’t do it for yourself, son, do it for your baby girl,” he tells the teenage dad, whose marching orders include a letter to the victim, $180 restitution, a psych evaluation and a sentence at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility. At that, the now-crying teen gives his mom the stuff in his pockets and a long hug before being led out in ankle chains by the sheriff.
 


Families, attorneys and advocates can spend hours waiting for their cases to be called.

Photo: Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams

Drama and Trauma

Family Court is a one-stop shop for all kinds of misery: a place for families who hit and abuse; for kids who are addicts and prostitutes and criminals (and victims of each); for parents who can’t stand each other; and for mentally ill people who are a danger to themselves and others. Referred to metaphorically as the ER of the Judiciary Hospital, Family Court is a place where no one wants to go and a place that we couldn’t live without.

Judge Linda Luke, who has been at it for more than two decades, is quick to acknowledge that the best she and the other family court judges can do is to triage—to stop the bleeding of thousands of Hawaii’s troubled families and failed relationships. When you consider that there is a caseload of nearly 30,000 each year in the Family Court on Oahu, and only nine full-time judges assigned to hear cases, you start to understand why, with 10 to 20 cases on a typical morning calendar (not including trials), a judge might have only 10 or 15 minutes to hear from both sides and decide the fate of a family in crisis.

“This isn’t the Judge Judy show,” assures Judge Karen Radius, who, after 17 years on the bench, knows that there is no such thing as an instant solution like those you see on TV. “Problems don’t happen quickly and they don’t get resolved quickly.” With situations as dire as whether children will be taken from their parents, or which parent gets custody, or whether patients have to stay in the hospital against their will, family court judges can’t let speed trump good decisions. That’s why they spend at least an hour prepping for every hour they are in court, facing a pile of files at the end of each day to review for the next.

Even though the parties raise their right hands and swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, some of the gritty tales they tell inside each of the small courtrooms seem too painful or perplexing to believe. “I’m not creative enough to make up what I see every day,” says Judge Michael Broderick, whose weekly calendar includes 60 to 70 cases of varying kinds: domestic abuse, paternity, guardianship, adoption and involuntary civil commitment.
 

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