Passion and Purpose: From Family Court to the Field Center

August 17, 2020

By Hon. Flora Barth Wolf (Advisory Board Chair):

When Hannah Rawdin invited me to write a personal introduction, I was flattered – and just a bit intimidated. But, as Hannah explained her intention to offer a series of pieces about members of the Field Center family, hoping to bring us together by sharing our stories, I agreed to go first. Just after I retired, I received an invitation to lunch from Rich Gelles, Dean of SP2 and head of the Field Center.  Lunch included a good grilling by most of the Faculty Directors and led to an invitation to join the Advisory Board. So, began another learning adventure.

Growing up, as I did, in Washington, D.C., in a politically active family, there wasn’t much chance that I could avoid the family trait of public engagement. My father wrote editorials for the Washington Post, largely about civil rights and civil liberties. My mother worked as a volunteer librarian in a D.C. public school and, later, for the ACLU. When I was ten, my mother set my grandmother and me out to collect “Dollars for Democrats.” As a senior in high school, I spent hours picketing at Glen Echo Park to integrate the swimming pool. The die was clearly cast.

Inspired by my seventh-grade history teacher, I decided early on, that I, too, would teach at the junior high level. Four very happy years of college and a one-year Master of Arts in Teaching, including a semester of student teaching, and I found myself in an eighth-grade classroom in an inner city Junior High, pathetically underprepared.

The next few years were filled with marriage, a move to Philadelphia, babies, and retirement from teaching. Before my second child was born, my husband was diagnosed with cancer and our world took a major turn. Although much of the next seven years revolved around his illness, there was also time for fun, for travel, for children and dogs, including one who gifted us with eleven puppies, soon the size of elephants. We also were deeply engaged in politics and civil rights, both with our friends and through my husband’s work as founder of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

The year my husband died brought the Rizzo Recall, an effort to remove the deeply racist mayor of Philadelphia. The Recall failed but it set me on the path to law school. I got into Penn Law by the skin of my teeth – or the grace of the Dean – from the waiting list. And, three years later, I was an actual lawyer! For the next ten years, I worked in the City Solicitor’s office, trying cases, writing briefs, and counseling a sometimes-unwieldy client.

The 1990’s brought an active campaign to encourage more women to run for Judge in Philadelphia. A friend and I decided, perhaps on a dare, to apply for the Bar Association recommendation. She lost interest quickly but I decided to give it a go. Campaigning for judge in Pennsylvania is a partisan, political undertaking. Although I was not endorsed by either party, many Democratic politicians let me join their ward meetings, beef-and-beer fundraisers, and other events. Importantly, I was supported by an amazing group of friends and relations. In November, I had many helpers at the polls, including my daughters and some of their friends, who encouraged voters to “Vote for her. She’s my mom.” And it worked.

In January, 1992, I began my career as a Judge on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, where I would serve for two terms or twenty years. Hands down, it was the best job I ever had. Also, the hardest.

Initially, I sat in Domestic Relations Court, hearing Protection from Abuse cases, followed by Support and then Custody cases. After about two years, I badly needed a change of assignment and managed to move to the Trial Division. There I learned a whole new universe of law and skills.

My next move was a return to Family Court. A friend had become the Administrative Judge of the division and I had the opportunity to hear cases involving the abuse and neglect of children. Custody cases sometimes involved finding the least bad choice among really sad family situations. In Dependency Court, the City, through its Department of Human Services, was often alleging that children were not safe at home and seeking to remove them from their families.  I learned quickly that most cases involved poverty, that many were triggered by mental illness or substance abuse, and, generally, that I was seeing the most vulnerable members of our community. I also learned that removing children from their parents created its own set of problems. Foster care and adoption, while sometimes essential, failed more often than they should. Social workers and agency caregivers, while generally well-intentioned, were overworked, under trained, under resourced, and burdened by their own biases, preconceptions and limited options.

An important aspect of my time on the Court was my involvement in Judicial education. Soon after I moved to Dependency Court, I had the opportunity to visit the Chicago Family Court with a group of lawyers, social workers and administrators from our Court. We had a valuable exposure to a different system and an even more valuable chance to talk among ourselves about the strengths and weaknesses of our own system. On our return, we continued to meet. We also began a series of training and educational programs for people working in the Court.

At the end of my second term, I decided to retire and explore what retirement might offer. In the next few years I remarried, we moved, and we took some great trips.

Retirement allowed me to regain the political voice I relinquished when I became a judge. After the election of 2016, my husband and I gathered some shell-shocked friends in our living room to consider what we might do. That brunch evolved into a registered PAC, called Change PA, focused on raising money to support Democratic candidates for the state House, running to flip red seats to blue. In 2018, we raised enough money to support six candidates – and five of them won. This year we have raised enough to support eight candidates in addition to our incumbents.

My other favorite post-retirement project has been the revival of the Library in an elementary school, which had sat unused since elementary schools lost their professional librarians. I assembled a group of volunteers who opened the Library four days a week, reading to children in Kindergarten through fifth grade and helping them select books to sign out and read.

I look forward to great things for the Field Center and hope that you will join with me in addressing the most pressing issues of our time: racism, poverty and the reinvention of our child welfare system.

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