Legal Aid recently succeeded in a rather unusual case when a grandmother who had sued for sole custody of a 15-year-old girl agreed to dismiss her case and allow the 15-year-old to live with our client, the only person she ever knew as her dad.
The case began with a tragedy, when the girl’s mother, Tameka Johnson,* died suddenly of an aneurism. Ms. Johnson had been in a long term relationship with William Wilson. During their relationship, two children were born – Malik and Jonice. Malik, Mr. Wilson’s biological son, is now eighteen-years-old, and has just started college. Mr. Wilson never knew, and still does not know, the identity of Jonice’s biological father. Nevertheless, Mr. Wilson always raised Jonice as his own; indeed, Ms. Johnson and Mr. Wilson elected never to tell Jonice that Mr. Wilson was technically not her biological father.
Even when their romantic relationship ended, Mr. Wilson and Ms. Johnson had an amicable co-parenting relationship. Mr. Wilson would care for both of the children after school, and even once she became a teenager, Jonice would visit her ‘father’ daily at his house – located within walking distance from her school – until her mother finished work in the evenings and came to pick her up. Mr. Wilson helped take Jonice to medical appointments, school functions, sports camps, etc.
Consistent with this arrangement, while she was still alive Ms. Johnson made out a will requesting that Mr. Wilson take custody of both Malik and Jonice in the event of her death, and that Mr. Wilson take control of any property in Ms. Johnson’s estate, until the children were of age. Ms. Johnson inherited a house many years ago, and she and the children lived in the home until her death. She also owned a vehicle that was completely paid off.
Mr. Wilson came to Legal Aid when Jonice’s grandmother sued for custody of Jonice. (This was also the first time that Jonice found out that Mr. Wilson was not her biological father). After Ms. Johnson’s passing, Mr. Wilson had moved into the home to care for the children. Ms. Johnson’s mother took the position that she should move into the home, and started law suits both in probate court (trying to challenge the validity of the will) and in family court, trying to obtain custody of the only child of Ms. Johnson who was still a minor, namely Jonice.
The grandmother tried to gain custody pursuant to the third party custody law – even though she had never lived with Jonice or provided any parental care for the child. Interestingly enough, Legal Aid had worked closely with the Council on the drafting of the third party custody law. One provision which Legal Aid supported was establishing a class of parent called a ‘de facto parent,’ defined (this is simplifying greatly) as someone who lived with the child, has formed a parental bond “with the encouragement and intent of the child's parent that a parent-child relationship form between the child and the third party” and “has held himself out as the child’s parent with the agreement of the child’s parent. . . .”
On the other hand, the third party custody law says that third parties may only file for custody if they are living with the child or have lived with the child for at least 4 of the 6 months prior to the filing of the complaint. Legally speaking, therefore, the grandmother had no standing to sue for custody in family court under D.C. law. Nevertheless, the grandmother filed suit, arguing that she had more claim to custody than Mr. Wilson. When Mr. Wilson went to court without a lawyer, he tried to explain his relationship with Jonice to the judge. A court self-help center even gave him copies of the statute regarding third party custody, and assisted him in writing a motion to dismiss Ms. Williams’ complaint. The Court, however, scheduled home studies and psychological evaluations and was in the process of scheduling the matter for trial. Without an attorney, it seems highly likely that the Court would have glossed over the technical, but critical, jurisdictional arguments. With Legal Aid by his side, however, the grandmother was persuaded that her suit had no merit.
To the great relief of Mr. Wilson and Jonice, father and daughter continue to happily live together in the family home. . . .
* Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.