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Q&A With Hon. Betty Weinberg Ellerin (Ret.)

Advocate for women and children in the justice system continues to make a difference in her community

Last fall, the New York State Court System dedicated a new children’s center in the name of Hon. Betty Weinberg Ellerin (Ret.), a JAMS mediator and arbitrator.

The Hon. Betty Weinberg Ellerin Children’s Center will provide drop-in care for children whose caregivers have court proceedings in the criminal, civil and housing courts.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr., Chief Administrative Judge for New York State Courts Lawrence Marks, and Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for New York City Courts Deborah Kaplan hosted the dedication.

Justice Ellerin recently spoke about the center and her lifelong advocacy for women and children in the justice system.

When did the idea of a children’s center first come to you? 

The idea goes back almost 40 years. For some years, I was the chair of the National Association of Women Judges’ National Task Force. I was also the recipient of many articles and ideas about increasing women’s participation in the legal profession and generally making the system more palatable for women. And one of the things that came up was the plight of poor women, particularly when they were litigants.

One of the articles that I read back then, which really stuck with me, showed how many poor women would miss court appearances because they had no money to hire a babysitter. They had no one to leave their children with, which would frequently have dire consequences.

Eventually, several nurseries were established throughout the state of New York. How did they first come into existence in New York? 

Judith Kaye was then the chief judge in New York, and she decided to set up a committee on women and children. One of the co-chairs of that committee called me. She was a lawyer who had appeared before me when I sat in criminal court in New York, and asked if we could have lunch. At our lunch, she asked me, “Do you have any Ideas?” I said, “Yes. One idea is to have nurseries or spaces in courthouses where litigants can leave their children when they have court appearances.” She took out her little black book and wrote that down, and that was the start of children’s waiting rooms throughout the state.

What eventually happened to them? 

They were going pretty well throughout the state. But in 2007, the state had a budget crunch. And guess what was affected immediately? The children’s centers. I went to see the chief administrative judge to plea that those centers be funded. She promised they would be a top priority as soon as the budget crunch was alleviated. Unfortunately, she left the system not too long after, and the funding for those centers was not restored.

But, in any event, somewhere along the line, mentioned that “The district attorneys get forfeiture money.” So a light bulb went off.

That’s when you approached Cy Vance about reestablishing a children’s center? 

Yes. I got on the phone and asked, “Cy, can I come see you?” When I saw him, I said, “Listen. This is a need that directly affects cases in your jurisdiction as well as in the civil court and the housing court.” To me, that was the most important court. Can you imagine missing an appearance in housing court and being evicted? And we’re talking about people who can’t afford help or can’t find a babysitter. He immediately said, “We do have the forfeiture money, and we do take on some good projects, which we fund for three to five years.” So I of course said, “Oh, five years for starters will be great.”

In any event, he put one of his top people on it. Two years later, amidst the pandemic, I got a letter indicating that a check was being sent for the construction of the children’s center and that the district attorney’s office would fund it for three years. So I let out a scream [laughs].

How can the center benefit the entire justice system?

There used to be cases where, because there was no place to leave a child, a litigant would miss a crucial court appearance or parents would bring their babies into court. What do you do with a baby or young child when you’ve got to go into a courtroom? So that would hold up the proceedings. Parents who did not appear also held up the proceedings. A children’s center enables the system to proceed in a much more orderly, efficient and fair manner.

Are there other ways you’d like to see courts help caregivers and their children besides having these centers?

Our court system is frequently called upon to provide solutions for societal problems outside of its jurisdiction, which is primarily to be a fair and impartial arbiter of the disputes brought before it. However, recognizing that many cases that come into our courts, such as drug cases, domestic violence and other abuse cases, and cases where mental illness is a factor, among others, require specialized knowledge and treatment, our courts need the expertise and assistance of various social service and other specialized agencies to assist in resolving these troublesome cases. I must add that despite the trauma and deleterious impact of the pandemic on our court proceedings, our chief judge, Judge DiFiore, has found ways to expand the scope of such ameliorative aids.

What did it mean to you to have a center named after you?

I was absolutely floored. It’s truly a great honor. Actually, when the chief administrative judge called me and said, “The Chief Judge and I think it should be named after you,” I said, “No. Cy Vance gave the money. It really should be named after him.” So he said, “No. We think it should be named after you.” I didn’t fight too hard, to tell you the truth [laughs]. I guess the idea and the pushing for it were worth something.

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