NEW YORK — It was just another tragedy in family court.
A young crack mother, desperate to conceal her pregnancy, had locked herself in a tenement bathroom and given birth to a three-pound boy. As she pushed, he fell to the floor and broke his skull. The mother abandoned him, like she had two previous babies. All were born addicted to crack.
"Can we do anything about this woman?" asks Judge Judith Sheindlin, her voice taut with anger. "I know she's on the streets, but can we stop her from populating half the planet?"
A social worker flips through the mother's file and shrugs.
"Maybe we could get her to carpet the bathroom floor next time," he says acidly. "That's one idea."
In family court, nothing is too outrageous. Everything that can go wrong with an American family plays out on its stage daily, in a grim pageant of dysfunction: Battered infants. Sexual abuse of teens. Ugly custody fights. Kids who rape at 10 and murder at 11. A world spinning out of control, mocking the legal system that seeks to contain it.
This is where the future unravels--in a dreary, 11-story building that offers little solace to the young and bureaucratic headaches for adults. Like its counterparts across the country, the Manhattan branch of New York's Family Court is supposed to protect children and reform delinquents. But it's a bitter, ingrown place, a rat's maze of regulations where kids are processed like sausage and even cynics rage at the system's grinding indifference.
For some, the tension leads to burnout and sleepless nights. Yet others, like Sheindlin, try to make a difference. After 20 years in family court, she still brings intelligence, compassion and healthy skepticism to a job that seems all but impossible. She's also raised five children, and her desk drawers are crammed with letters of thanks from parents who say she did the right thing for their kids.
But all this energy comes with a price. Sheindlin provokes scathing criticism from lawyers, defendants and child welfare advocates, who complain that she is needlessly cruel and sarcastic, a loose cannon in the halls of justice. Someone who should be muzzled, if not retired from the bench.
Maybe it comes with the territory.
"There's a sense of utter hopelessness here, and you can't let it get to you," says Sheindlin, the court's supervising judge. "You get the distinct feeling of people disintegrating, or on the verge of it. And there's only so much you can do to help."
Sometimes, you can't do anything at all. Seconds after learning of the crack mother, the judge signs an order stripping the woman of her parental rights. Then it's on to the next case: Another addicted baby, left for dead by a crack-head parent. Another glimpse into the urban abyss.
The crisis of collapsing families is a national problem, hardly unique to Manhattan. Yet Sheindlin's highly personal crusade to bring order out of chaos has assumed folkloric proportions in America's largest juvenile justice system. To those who know her well, she's one of a kind.
"In New York, the juvenile justice network is gone. It's shot," says Peter Reinharz, who heads the prosecutor's office in family court. "But don't tell that to Judy. It would probably only make her angrier."
Tart, tough-talking and hopelessly blunt, Sheindlin runs her court with an impatience that borders on rage. And the ground rules are simple:
"I can't stand stupid, and I can't stand slow," she snaps. "I want first-time offenders to think of their appearance in my courtroom as the second-worst experience of their lives . . . circumcision being the first."
She usually succeeds. Yet her brash tactics have sparked opposition at City Hall, and Sheindlin--a mayoral appointee--might one day lose her job for purely political reasons, according to friends and enemies alike. There are critics just waiting for her to tumble off her throne.
"That lady," sighs one awed youngster, "is a monster."
Standing 5 foot 2 and weighing 95 pounds, Sheindlin packs a verbal wallop that can stun the unwary. Woe to the poorly prepared attorney who wanders into her court, or the punk in Reeboks who thinks he can pull a fast one on the woman in black. She gives them all a thrashing to remember, sounding more like Shirley MacLaine with a gavel than some run-of-the-mill judge.
"Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining!" she yells at a teen-ager who claims he began peddling drugs after a death in his family. "Nobody goes out and sells crack because Grandma died! Get a better story!"
To a bewildered lawyer, who is slow to frame his case, she shouts: " Yutznik! I'm not stupid, and your questioning is foolish! We're not poring over the Talmud here!"
Bullying and often rude, Sheindlin scorches people with insults, leaving them speechless. On some occasions, she pushes lawyers aside and takes over the questioning of witnesses, to speed a lengthy hearing along.