February 15, 2012: “In South Carolina, I walked three miles every day, to and from a little wooden school, while a bus full of white kids would pass us on the way to the brick schoolhouse. So I was aware early on there was a difference made between African-American children and white children,” said Judge Betty Staton.
Today, well into her 70s, Staton is still walking, every day, to and from Restoration Plaza, where she works as executive director at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Legal Services.
Staton grew up during a time when racial segregation was the norm, and she has seen a great degree of social injustice. But, she says, segregation wasn’t really the reason she decided to go into law.
She was not so compelled to change the social mores of the time as she was to help re-build and maintain the black family structure.
Her family in the South was tenant farmers (sharecroppers), and her mother was “a domestic” who lived away from the home. So she was raised by a community of people—some related, some not—who shared the responsibility of child-rearing, while several family members were away for days trying to earn a living.
When Staton was 7 years old, she moved with her mother and little sister up North, to a small but growing middle-class community known as Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Staton attended P.S. 70 on Patchen Ave. and Macon St., and was an Arista Student in high school. She then enrolled in Brooklyn College, but eventually dropped out when her husband-to-be insisted he would be the primary caretaker. However, that marriage never consummated.
After that, she decided, never again will she allow a man to sidetrack her future or thwart her educational pursuits. And so she enrolled back in college, to complete her associate’s degree, and also in charm school, with the intent to become an early childhood educator, with a touch of charm and class to boot!
“I’m an Ophelia DeVore graduate,” announced Staton proudly, of the once-popular charm school. “In those days, [Ophelia] was the lady to train women.”
After graduating (from both schools), Staton took a job working in the garment district, then the state employment service, and then with the federal government. By 1970, she was married, had two boys and began working as the registrar in a private public school, before deciding to return to Brooklyn College and complete her bachelor’s degree.
One day, one of her supervisors at work said to her, "Betty, you’re smart. Why didn’t you ever finish your degree?" said Staton. "She said, 'Go! Leave here. Go right now! Go register!’ So I went down there that same day.”
But even then, she had not yet found her way to law.
“What I wanted to do was work for my community,” said Staton. “I wasn’t sure what that was, but I just wanted to do whatever I could to help the people in my community. And I wanted to work with them directly—not in a corporate office.”
Staton was pursuing a degree in psychiatric social work when, in 1974, out of the blue, a cousin suggested she become a lawyer. “I said, ‘Wow,’ and it was a like a whole thing opened up. I thought, ‘Yes, that’s what I’m supposed to do, work in law.'”
Staton was 41 years old when she earned a full scholarship into New York University’s Law School. While at NYU, she founded the Black Latino Asian Pacific Alumni Association -- the alumni of color organization, which is still in existence.
Her first job out of law school was in legal services at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation where eventually she went on to become the deputy director and director of outreach and education.
In 1987, Staton co-founded the first African-American female law firm in the state of New York—Boyd Staton and Cave—on 27 Court Street in downtown Brooklyn. Again, she continued her work in social services, until she was appointed by Mayor David Dinkins to serve as a family court judge in 1991.
“A lot of what happened in family court had to do with culture and misconceptions and stereotypes, and there is a glaring absence of judges of color to understand and deal with that," said Staton. “I was a latch-key kid: When I was 10 years old, my mom put a key around my neck, and I had to look out for my younger sister. But in this culture, if they find a 10-year-old watching a sibling, all the kids get emplacement.
“I had a 14-year-old kid in my court, gifted child, very responsible, she was graduating from middle school,” recounted Staton. “But she missed her graduation and her middle school prom. Why? Because at 14 years old, they came and found her watching her siblings, and they took them, put them in foster care, separated them all over the place.
“She wasn’t able to get back to her school to graduate; her life was completed disrupted. The kids were terrified, crying for their mother, and I mean, this happens over and over again in this system. But because of my own background, I understood, and was happy to be able to intervene and say to them, ‘You put this child back with her mother, and you put this family back together again.’”
Staton tells of how this was her struggle far too often – trying to repair and maintain the family structure within poor communities.
“That’s the discouraging part of practicing law: When you see a social problem that is widespread, unless you can address that problem in one case, you can’t do anything but see the same issues over and over and over again,” she said. “But I was very blessed to be able to serve there; it was my ministry.”
Eventually, Staton was forced to retire in 2004 and returned to her work at Bed-Stuy Legal Services. After a few years, she went back to work in family court as a per diem Judicial Hearing Officer (JHO), a position they have since eliminated due to budget cuts.
Now, for the third time, she is back home at Bed-Stuy Legal Services, providing free counsel and representation to local residents in the areas of housing, foreclosure, SSI disability, income tax and immigration.
Make no mistake, Judge Betty Staton works hard, but she still takes time out to enjoy herself. She loves to dance (Latin dancing is her favorite) and is an active member at her church, Emmanuel Baptist, in Clinton Hill, where she now lives.
In addition, she has a lively and vibrant social network of girlfriends; they call themselves, “Les Filles Charmes,” which in French means, “The Charming Girls.”
“It’s a girls social club we started in 1962, except we’re not little girls anymore,” she said laughing. “We all modeled when we were young, so we used to do charitable fashion shows and raise money for different causes. Those of us that are left, we still get together.”
“God has always been so good to me. My girlfriends always called me teacher’s pet," said Staton coyly. "And then they ask why I’m still working five days a week. But this work energizes me.
“There are only two important questions you should ask yourself in life, and that is, ‘Did you find joy in your life, and did your life bring joy to someone else?’ And that’s the bottom line,” said Staton.
“You have to find your personal joy. And when you find it, you have to take it. But you also have to be mindful that you have to give joy to somebody else. You do.
“That's what I try to do.”
*This is a reprint of an article that ran on Bed-Stuy Patch on September 27, 2011