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An Open Letter to the Honorable Judge Alan M. Rubenstein

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Your Honor:

I am writing to express my displeasure with a recent experience in your Bucks County Common Pleas courtroom, where I was in attendance on 12/1/2006 in my capacity as a caseworker. I had hoped to testify on behalf of a client of mine, who was appearing before you in a child support matter. I am withholding her name because I intend to make this letter public and wish to respect her privacy. The outcome of the case isn't why I am writing, what is material are the editorial comments you made during the trial, which I felt displayed a level of callousness that was offensive to me as a professional who works with disadvantaged families.

In fact, I work with perhaps the most disadvantaged families; those that are homeless, at high risk of homelessness or are in a housing crisis that leaves no other option but to revert to Philadelphia's shelter system. The agency I work for prevents family homelessness by placing clients in permanent housing, using a network of landlords we have built relationships with that are willing to rent to the kind of tenants we refer. We work with the family after move-in, providing follow up supports to insure stability. Our success rate is very high; about 85% of our clients remain housed after one year.

The particular client of mine whom you encountered certainly doesn't appear to be a model citizen on paper. She is an ex-offender who spent the better part of ten years in and out of prison, primarily due to circumstances related to her drug addiction. Her last prison stay was for an armed offense that carried a substantial sentence. While she was incarcerated her children moved in with a relative in Bucks County who is on welfare, hence the support order against her. The support accrued while she was behind bars and she has quite a debt to pay back. Her payments since her release from prison have been spotty, which is why you remanded her to prison for contempt.

I was told by the public defender that represented her that I would have a moment of your time in court to explain her situation. You did not allow me that moment. I would like to take it now. I want you to understand why your comments offended me so deeply, and that requires hearing more about my client than you were willing to hear in court.

My client spent a year and a half after being released from her last prison stay homeless, moving from one unsafe and tenuous housing scenario to the next. She was not surprisingly unemployed during that time because her offender status made finding legitimate work very difficult. She was connected to no social services upon her release from prison (sadly, most prisoners aren't), but eventually found her way to my agency on her own. She asked us to help her find a home.

During this period of very stressful transience she remained clean and sober and did not resort to criminal activity to get money. She built positive relationships within her local church, where she spent much of her days in Bible study. She stayed off the streets and engaged in constructive behaviors. We were able to house her using an understanding landlord who was willing to rent to her despite her history. We were willing to advocate for her because we believed that she was a woman changed, who wanted to do everything within her power to stay on the right path. We still believe this.

Her church gave her part-time employment off the books as a maid. She had space in her apartment for one of her daughters and her newborn granddaughter to move in with her. She was housed and stable and fit to be a mother again so we were ready to begin reunification proceedings with the Bucks County welfare department. Returning her children to her would have taken any further financial burden off Bucks County. We contacted a job training agency with a stellar success record that was willing enroll her despite her ex-offender status. We considered all of this to be a tremendous series of forward steps on her behalf. We worked with her very hard to get her to this point.

We only became aware recently that she was spotty with her support payments, which was partly due to the fact that she now had rent and utility payments to make. She was doing her best to make ends meet with very few resources. We were in the process of developing a budget for her that would allow her to make her payments on time when the letter arrived from Bucks County with her hearing date on it.

The first question you asked her during the proceeding was why her support debt was so great. She admitted to her incarceration. You asked her what she was incarcerated for and when she told you the tone of the trial immediately shifted. From my vantage you looked visibly disgusted. Maybe I misread your facial expression. It appeared to me that you made up your mind about the outcome of the hearing upon learning of her criminal history. It seemed that your line of questioning after that was intended to further cement your negative impression.

You asked her if she was working and how much she made weekly. She told you that she found work recently and made very little off the books, working as a maid at a local church. At that point you laughed derisively and said, "That's the American Way, isn't it?" and "What kind of church would do that?" I would think that in the Court of Common Pleas you would come across people working under the table quite regularly, but maybe you've never heard of such a thing. Also, I would think you would be more familiar with the role the church plays in the black community in Philadelphia, especially with troubled individuals. For an ex-offender, this type of neighborhood nepotism is oftentimes the only available avenue to some small economic success. It's a good place to start for someone with nowhere else to go. Some work is better than none, or at least that was our position on the matter.

I'm not sure why you felt it necessary to add such harsh commentary considering how small the dollar figures involved were. I'm assuming it's the petty illegality of non-taxed part time work that bothered you. It's hardly a case of tax evasion worthy of notifying the IRS about, but that's just my opinion. I would like to recommend some reading to you: Living Underground: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. It's a new book by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh (Columbia University) that accurately describes the realities of under the counter employment in severely disadvantaged urban areas. I think it will prove enlightening.

At this point in the trial you remanded my client to prison for 90 days. The public defender attempted to intercede and introduce me as a caseworker that would verify her homelessness during a large part of her delinquency. When the public defender said that my client didn't have a home you said, "She has a home now." My client was hauled from the courtroom in handcuffs and I followed in stunned silence.

She has a home now.

That was perhaps the coldest hearted thing I have heard a man in power say to someone at his mercy. Your words mock the condition of homelessness itself that thousands of men, women and children in the Philadelphia area suffer even as the mercury drops and winter sets in. There are so many layers of impropriety and tragic irony simultaneously at work in that declaration I could make an explication of it that would span chapters. I will spare you. I also won't get into any speculation about your personality and the type of man who gets satisfaction from this sort of boot-heel grinding. I will simply say that it was unnecessary, mean spirited and unprofessional.

In the end, though, you were right, which is to say you acted within the law. She was delinquent, you punished her. If it had amounted to only that maybe I wouldn't have felt the need to write. It was your petty editorializing in the face of one woman's tremendous struggle that is at issue. It's the kind of behavior that I would have thought a judge would be above and it saddens me to learn that this is not the case.

I will say in closing that my client will once again become homeless while she is incarcerated. A tremendous amount of work on our behalf will have been effectively undone. I will assume from your general demeanor at trial that you aren't moved by any of this. I simply hope that in the future you will think for a moment before openly and ignorantly expressing just how unmoved you are by the struggles of the homeless.

Most Sincerely Yours,

Jeff Deeney
Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness
Creators of SafeHome Philadelphia

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Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. He primarily covers urban drug culture and poverty issues and has made recent contributions to both the Philadelphia City Paper and the Inquirer. Read more.
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