The morning of the hearing on her request for a permanent protection-from-abuse order, Erica Bryant, 31, tried the door of Philadelphia Family Court and found it locked.
She stood there, squinting at the various signs and court orders taped to the glass door, until a deputy sheriff ambled over and informed Bryant, in a muffled shout, that the courthouse was closed.
“It’s now a question mark, as to when is my hearing,” said Bryant, who had taken the day off from her job at a health-insurance call center, a risky move since she’s still in her 90-day probationary period, and driven into Center City from West Philadelphia. “What do I do in the meantime, because I misplaced my paperwork? And when will my case resume?”
Bryant was one of a steady trickle of people showing up for matters related to protection from abuse, custody, and child support who said they’d received no notice from the court that hearings were canceled. She had tried calling, but the court’s outgoing voice message made no mention of closures. She figured something as important as PFA hearings would be essential. "People are fearful for their lives,” she said.
On May 15, Family Court outlined its plan for resuming operations, but even some lawyers are still confused. So, advocates say, there will be even greater challenges for the vast majority of people who navigate the system with no legal counsel.
“I’m very concerned about the access-to-justice issue, both in the 2½ months when we’ve had no access, and then the lack of clarity as to what happens next,” said Sarah Katz, who heads Temple University’s Family Law Legal Clinic. “How are litigants going to know the ways they can file? What’s the plan to get the word out to the public?”
Court will resume some operations June 1, but many hearings that were already scheduled through Dec. 31 are canceled. The court building will remain closed, so in-person filing won’t be possible — nor will access to the help center where self-represented people used to be able to obtain basic information and filing forms. Although Family Court leadership has outlined a system for email filing, there is not the type of electronic filing system seen in every other court in the county.
A court spokesperson, Martin O’Rourke, said it has been well-publicized that court was closed. “Every media outlet covered it,” he said. “Everyone knew that the city was closed.”
He said notice of canceled and rescheduled hearings are currently being sent by mail, and outreach is being conducted by phone or text. New dates will be issued in the order in which they were originally scheduled. And, some types of hearings, including those related to PFA orders will resume in June, he said. The court system is also working to replace its case-management system, bringing electronic filing to Family Court for the first time.
For now, Randi Rubin, who is chair of the family law section of the Philadelphia Bar Association and a partner at Klehr Harrison, praised the court for being as nimble and responsive as a massive institution can be in the face of a pandemic. Email filing, she said, is working for now. And some cases are being resolved by telephone conference in a matter of weeks, far more quickly than a hearing would have ever been conducted — giving her hope that the post-pandemic courthouse will actually be a more efficient place.
“We’re starting to get to a place where we can provide information to our clients about what’s going to happen in the coming months,” she said.
For those without representation, though, reopening court without a physical courthouse will pose significant challenges, Katz said.
For instance, scheduling a video hearing, she said, "assumes people’s consistent access to technology — computers and phones. I know my clients don’t always have consistent access to those things.”
To address some of the gaps, including the closure of the courthouse help center, the nonprofit Philadelphia VIP is working with Philadelphia Legal Assistance and the Philadelphia Bar Association to launch a new attorney consultation program. "Clients without any legal counsel are having a hard time finding out what they should do after the court reopens,” VIP attorney Todd Nothstein said. This is meant to mitigate some of that confusion.
In addition to all the cases that were in the queue before the pandemic, there are new, COVID-19-induced crises to address, he said. Some parents are withholding custody because of disagreements about what’s safe social-distancing behavior. Another parent lost work in the pandemic and could no longer afford her rent. But her co-parent objected to her relocating. That would normally be decided in court, Nothstein said, but “the shutdown left her with not much to do."
The court closure has also meant that temporary PFA orders have been left to stand without full hearings, for months in some cases, with varying effects.
Alan Richardson, 58, of North Philadelphia arrived at court holding a copy of his temporary order against an alleged abuser, who still lives in his home, with a number jotted on the back. That, he said, was the incident number from when he had called the police over an alleged violation of the order. The police told him to bring that to court so he could argue for her eviction. “But there is no court,” Richardson said, unsure what his next steps would be.
Despite recent orders outlined by the court, even those who do have lawyers have little clarity on how or when their cases will advance. Megan Watson, of the firm Berner, Klaw & Watson, said her cases in New Jersey continued more or less uninterrupted, including hearings via Zoom and communicating via email. In Philadelphia, “here we are [in late May], and no one knows what the hell is going on.”
In-person parental visits remain suspended for all of the more than 5,000 kids in placements in the child-welfare system, even though federal authorities have warned of the harms of such blanket bans. About 120 families previously had supervised visits inside the courthouse, and O’Rourke said there is currently no plan to resume those visits, given the public-health challenges.
One of Watson’s clients went from frequent visits with her child to Zoom meetings only during the pandemic. “There’s no recourse,” Watson said. “And it’s not just my client. It’s every single person in that system.”
Similarly, for those hoping to get access to the court to regain custody or visitation with their children, the delays have been painful.
Shawn Williams, 46, of West Philadelphia can attest to the pain of that separation.
He showed up for court one morning in May. He said he hasn’t seen his 12-year-old daughter for more than a year because of a custody battle that’s been stalled in the pandemic. Through the locked courthouse door, he pleaded for help.