In July 2015, Hofstra University President Stuart Rabinowitz announced that former New York State Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti would be joining the Maurice A. Deane School of Law as executive director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law and special advisor to Dean Eric Lane.
She officially started in September and began leading a center devoted to improving the treatment and representation of children and families involved with the legal system.
Judge Prudenti’s career on the bench has spanned more than two decades, culminating in her appointment in 2011 as chief administrative judge. During her tenure, Judge Prudenti’s achievements included reducing judicial backlogs, working to increase Family Court judgeships and helping to create a pro bono scholars program that encourages law students to pursue public service.
The HOFSTRA LAW REPORT sat down with Judge Prudenti to discuss her goals for the Center for Children, Families and the Law and how she will use her past experiences on the bench to enrich the Center.
Q&A WITH THE HONORABLE A. GAIL PRUDENTI
What inspired your commitment to families and children?
I think it stems in part from my own family experiences. I come from a very close-knit family. But it also comes from family tragedy. I lost both of my parents within three months of each other when I was a fairly young adult and unprepared for that kind of a shock. That is a pain you never really get over, that never quite leaves you — even if you are in your 30s when you are “orphaned.”
So I have a lot of compassion and empathy for families enduring difficult times. I understand the importance of the family bond, and the pain that results when it is broken, whether it is through death, divorce or other circumstances.
Why did you choose the Center for Children, Families and the Law for the next chapter of your career?
Based upon my experiences as a law secretary, a trial court judge, an appellate judge and the chief administrative judge, I was in a position to provide resources to families in crisis and, hopefully, make their lives just a little bit easier at a tragic time.
Also, as a judge sitting in the matrimonial and guardian parts in Suffolk County and seeing children, their parents and their extended family suffer greatly while going through the experience, I came to realize that if I could help families in crisis during the next part of my career, I would be serving the public good while continuing my own personal mission of trying to help as many people as possible.
Like many attorneys, I became a lawyer and a judge because I wanted to make a difference. I like to think I have in a variety of ways, and I like to think the Center affords me an opportunity to make a difference in a somewhat different way. I am eager to do whatever I can to help make the process a little easier, a little less painful.
Why did you choose the mediation and guardian projects as the Center’s first initiatives under your leadership?
Well, those are two areas where I knew there was a dire and largely unmet need. Since I had been a Surrogate’s Court judge, guardianship under Section 17-A of the Surrogate Court Procedure Act has a soft spot in my heart. It involves people who are developmentally disabled or delayed, have reached the age of 18, and need a guardian. Often, the parents aren’t aware of this requirement or are concerned that they won’t be able to fill that role as they get older.
With this project, we are going to get guardians appointed for individuals who cannot make decisions for themselves — medical decisions, legal decisions, living decisions — and we will also get standby guardians appointed so that their families don’t have to worry about the future.
As for the mediation project, when I sat in the matrimonial parts I saw so many families that, if they had started out with some sort of discussions with professionals — psychologists, financial planners, lawyers trained in mediation — the process would have been much less painful. This will provide another alternative for families who, even though there may be animosity, put their children first.
Mediation can help ease the process of divorce and separation. At the same time, it alleviates some of the burden on the Family Courts, which are totally overwhelmed.
How will each of these projects work?
With regard to the mediation project, we know that separation and divorce are among the most disturbing experiences in the lives of both children and adults, especially if the matter goes to court. I think that, with sufficient resources, the Center can ease that process by helping to mediate disputes so that both sides feel as if they have come to a workable compromise, and by steering these people to appropriate services — whether it is financial counseling for the adults or psychological counseling for the children.
Under this part of our initiative, law students who are specially trained in the art of mediation will, with the guidance of pro bono attorneys and clinical professors, serve as mediators and help people resolve their disputes as amicably as possible. And where outside services would be helpful, the students will help facilitate appropriate referrals.
The guardianship project centers on families with a developmentally disabled or delayed child. Under this program, law students — again with training and mentoring — will establish guardianships and standby guardianships and present them to the Surrogate’s Court.
In sum, these two programs are a win for the families in need, a win for the students who gain valuable experience, a win for the community and a win for the Law School in that it addresses the institution’s commitment to its students and its obligation to be a good neighbor and community partner. I’m very excited about what we are doing and the potential to positively impact, on a very intimate level, the family dynamic in our community.
How will students benefit from participating in the projects?
Students will benefit enormously from participation in all of our projects. At Hofstra Law, we have the Child and Family Advocacy Fellowship program, in which academically committed students with an interest in family law issues can receive a fellowship, work under the supervision of lawyers who train them in these issues, and also work with us on policy initiatives where we see the need for change and legislation.
Students will take family law courses and a mediation course with a professor from the University’s Department of Psychology. They will also learn from experienced lawyers as they watch them prepare uncontested matrimonial papers and work with families. They will get a practical and pragmatic experience, plus an upfront and personal understanding of what it means to go through the process with a loved one who can’t take care of themselves. It’ll make them better lawyers, and better people, frankly.
What are your short-term and long-term goals for the Center?
It is my great hope that the Center for Children, Families and the Law will become a family justice center and that it will be known as a vital resource for families in crisis — no matter what their problem happens to be.
We are going to start with demonstration projects, make these projects as effective as they can possibly be, and prove that they are necessary and successful, with the hope that other nonprofit organizations will adopt and build upon them.
The short-term goals are to raise money, which we have done, hire some professionals, interview students and get this off the ground in 2016 and early 2017. After two years, we intend to re-evaluate what has been accomplished and then adjust according to need, in conjunction, of course, with our justice partners.
What is the biggest challenge facing the Center?
The biggest challenge facing legal education, and this center, is that while law schools are able to provide a good legal education to their students, tuition does not provide the resources for “extra” initiatives that sometimes make the difference between a competent lawyer and an outstanding lawyer. Many law schools offer extra programs, as Hofstra Law certainly does through the Center and other initiatives.
But to launch initiatives such as those the Center is working on, funds must be raised from outside channels, and that is always a challenge. The need is there, without any question. The difficult part is ensuring that the resources are available to address that need. So far, our fundraising efforts have been very well received and very successful. But it is a perpetual process.
How will you draw upon your experience as New York State Chief Administrative Judge in leading the Center?
As a former chief administrative judge, I think I have the unique perspective of knowing what the system does well and where the system needs assistance in helping these families.
So, we can focus on where I have seen the greatest need in my perspective as the state’s chief administrative judge. I also think my 24 years of experience as a judge — 21 of them in the courtroom — puts me in a position of having great concern and great understanding for the community we serve.
What role can alumni play in advancing the Center’s goals?
Alumni are vital in our efforts, and all efforts in continuing legal education, as they show students that it is possible to pursue their professional goals while also serving the public good.
The support of alumni, whether it is in the form of financial support for the Center or in serving as mentors to the students or in hiring students who have developed an expertise they can utilize in their own practice, is crucial to all of our initiatives.
Basically, the alumni are the keystone in this grand, encompassing arch we are trying to build to shelter families in need. With it, the arch is strong, solid and enduring. Without that keystone, it quickly falls apart.
I have every confidence that our arch, because of our committed alumni, will be very, very strong and lasting — the Hofstra Law Arch of Triumph!