From Paternalism to Process: Reflections from the Bench on 40 Years of
American Child Advocacy
By Erik S. Pitchal1
As the child advocacy field takes stock of its development over the past forty years – its
progress and its setbacks – and considers where it may be going next, I am also marking my fifth
anniversary on the Family Court bench in New York City. Having essentially grown up,
professionally speaking, in parallel with my field, this seems as good a time as any to trace the
points of overlap and observe the ways in which developments in child advocacy have impacted
my own approach to work in our field. Having made the transition from advocate to neutral, I have
the benefit of still being immersed in child welfare and juvenile justice issues, but enough distance
from practice to be able to offer, I hope, a couple of useful notes. 2
I am often asked by students and young attorneys if I always wanted to be a judge and how
I got to this point in my career. While the idea of eventually becoming a judge crossed my mind
during the wonderful year I spent as a law clerk, it was never really a career goal. I was inspired
by the example of “my judge,” Robert Patterson, Jr., 3 to be a strong advocate for causes I believed
in and to treat people with dignity and respect. He encouraged me to take a job offer from the
Legal Aid Society, where he had been president of the board, and with the juvenile division in
particular, which had been started by an old friend of his decades earlier. 4 He knew of my interest
in working for and with children, and knew of the many opportunities I would have to make a
difference as a front-line lawyer in Family Court.
I was interested in how the law treated children, in part because I had studied education
policy as an undergraduate and in part because of a positive experience during my 2L summer
working on juvenile delinquency cases in a public defender’s office. In truth, though, I was drawn
to this field for altogether more personal reasons. My parents divorced when I was very young
and, when I was about eleven, they had what I experienced to be a pitched battle over visitation
1 Judge, Family Court of the State of New York for the City of New York. Judge Pitchal has been a member of the
National Association of Counsel for Children his entire career and has been a board member of the organization for
more than 10 years. His full biography is available at
2 There is a vast literature on American child advocacy, and it goes far beyond the modest scope of this essay to survey
and analyze it. Don Duquette and his team at the University of Michigan undertook the task of compiling and
summarizing all secondary sources on the legal representation of children from 1974 to 2010; their incredibly valuable
contribution is available at http://www.improvechildrep.org/NeedsAssessment/LiteratureReview.aspx#_ftn131.
Duquette’s intellectual heft is matched only by the warmth and generosity of his heart. He has been a mentor to
countless child advocates over the many decades of his career. My measured sense of where the child advocacy field
is headed pales in comparison to his expansive vision. See Donald N. Duquette, Looking Ahead: A Personal Vision of
the Future of Child Welfare Law, 41 U. MICH. J. L. REFORM 317 (2007).
3 Judge Patterson had a storied career as an attorney before becoming a federal district court judge. See Sam Roberts,
Robert P. Patterson, Jr., Lawyer and Judge Who Fought for the Accused, Dies at 91, N.Y. TIMES, (Apr. 24, 2015),
4 For an excellent history of the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Division, see Jane M. Spinak, The Role of
Strategic Management Planning in Improving the Representation of Clients: A Child Advocacy Example, 34 FAM.
L.Q. 497 (2000).