Family Support Magistrates Offer Guidance for Court-involved Fathers

New Haven Healthy Start hosts a judicial panel to help court-involved fathers and families better understand how the court system works and advocate for themselves.

New Haven Healthy Start Ment's Services Manager Rodney Moore introduces the judicial panel on the Family Support Magistrate Court.

Judicial Panel Hosted by New Haven Healthy Start

New Haven (Feb.8) - Whenever a father stands before him in court, Chief Magistrate Michael L. Ferguson makes sure to ask him if he has anything he would like to say.

"The best advice I can give is to speak up," said Ferguson, who oversees the Family Support Magistrate Court system. "You know your situation better than anyone else. If you don't say your part, we won't know. If you see that things are not going your way, talk to the judge."

The Family Support Magistrate Court is where child support and paternity cases are heard in Connecticut. Many of the men cycling through the court are in poverty, and they struggle to find work because of felony records and other obstacles.
In decades past, the court had a reputation of treating men in violation of court orders harshly, frequently sentencing them to prison for not paying child support.

During a judicial panel hosted by New Haven Healthy Start at The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, the magistrates who oversee the family support cases said that the times, and the system, have changed.

"I know the struggle," said Magistrate Donald R. Green, who grew up in inner-city Meriden. "If you appear before me, you are going to get a fair shot. My job up here is not to put you in jail. It is to get you to obey the orders so you can support your child."

The judicial panel was the latest in a series of judicial forums organized by New Haven Healthy Start to help court-involved fathers and families better understand how the court system works and advocate for themselves.

Fathers and families in disputes over child support, paternity, custody and other cases often appear in court without legal representation and have a limited understanding of the process. This puts them at risk of making decisions that compound their problems and ultimately hurt the children.

Using Court Support Resources

The magistrates urged all court-involved fathers and service providers working with fathers to use the courts support resources. The Court Services Center has resources to help them understand the court rules and procedures. The Center also helps people understand the purpose of different motions and which forms to use for which motions. It also provides space for people to prepare forms and documents.

"We are there to help people navigate the court system," said John Lomax of the New Haven Judicial District Court Services Center.
The panelists also encouraged people to use the Connecticut Judicial website and to seek free legal aid services for more complicated cases.

Asking for Modifications

Fathers in circumstances that prevent them meeting court-ordered payment can have the orders modified. Many don't understand the process, however, and compound their problems by ignoring the order or failing to show up to court appearances. The magistrates urged court-involved fathers to seek the court support resources and advocate for themselves.

"Don't sit on the order. Act immediately," said Magistrate Gladys I. Nieves. "Bottom line, you have to ask for it to change. You have to file the motions. You have to get in front of the judge and say, 'My circumstances have changed. I need a different order.'"

Putting the Child First

The magistrates all said that their first priority is to look out for the interests of the children. They said that they look to see that fathers are staying involved with their children, helping the children's mothers, and working to better their own lives.

Ferguson, appointed in 2011 by Gov. Dan Malloy as the first African American to serve on the Family Support Magistrate Court, said that he is always willing to listen to a father explain his reasons for not paying child support, no matter how long it takes.

"You will never hear me interrupt you. You might not know how to express yourself initially, but if you keep talking, eventually you will get to the reason for why you are not making your payments. If you have a legitimate reason for not making child support payments, say it. I'm not going to put you in jail if you can't make a payment."

It was not always this way. The magistrates and audience attendees recalled the 1990s, a time when magistrates were much more punitive. Now, magistrates make sure fathers standing before them are aware of the many service providers and agencies who can help them find work, training, health care, housing and other needed supports.

"What you did was bring some balance to and sensitivity to the process, and I want to thank you for that," said Shirley Ellis West, an attendee and interim executive director of New Haven Family Alliance, an agency that works with fathers. "It's about the child and it's all of us that make this better together."

You Feel Better When You Do the Right Thing

New Haven Healthy Start Men's Services Manager Rodney Moore works with men to overcome the barriers that come between them and being an effective and supportive father for their children. At the panel discussion, Moore said that he always tries to get court-involved fathers to see the bigger picture.

"A lot of my fathers get frustrated because they don't understand the process," Moore said. "I can help them see that the process is there to make sure that they do what they need to do for their child. And if you do that, you will feel better and you will be a better father for your child."

About New Haven Healthy Start

New Haven Healthy Start was founded in 1997 as a program of The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven to improve birth outcomes and reduce infant mortality and morbidity rates. Fatherhood work has been a part of the NHHS program for more than two decades.