Each year, the Legal Aid Society receives thousands of requests for legal services. Although Legal Aid staff represent hundreds of these clients and provide brief assistance to several hundred more, still there are many who we regretfully must turn away because we don’t have the resources to serve everyone in need. Fortunately, attorneys working in private practice and government settings throughout the city step up to help many of these clients through Legal Aid’s Pro Bono Referral Program.
White & Case associate Marisa R. Bassett shares her experience representing a client referred from Legal Aid in a case that was resolved earlier this year …
I first met my client, Ms. W, in early 2010. The young mother teared up as she related how she had unknowinglyrelinquished custody of her then five-year-old daughter when the daughter’s father tricked Ms. W into signing an agreement giving him custody. My client thought her child was only going to stay with the father for six months. Ms. W missed her daughter and desperately wanted her back home.
Ms. W’s daughter had essentially no contact with her father until she was three years old. The father then began to visit with the child sporadically. About three years ago, the father unexpectedly approached Ms. W asking for their daughter to come live with him for a six-month period. He said he wanted to get to know his daughter. Ms. W initially refused, but in the spring of 2009, after months of discussions, she agreed, feeling that her daughter would benefit from a relationship with the father. Then, in late summer 2009, the father presented Ms. W with an agreement that he said was a court order memorializing their agreement. The document was, in fact, not official; the father had prepared it. The document essentially stated that the parties agreed that it was in their child’s best interests for the child’s father to have legal and physical custody indefinitely.
Once the document was signed, the father stopped allowing the child to visit with Ms. W on weekends and took other steps to push Ms. W out of her daughter’s life, including enrolling the child in a new school without identifying Ms. W as the child’s mother on the school forms. When it became clear that the father was not going to return Ms. W’s daughter to her care at the end of six months, Ms. W filed a motion for temporary custody and went to Legal Aid asking for help.
I was a first-year associate at White & Case when another first-year, Jacqueline Kort, and I took on the case, referred from Legal Aid, with the assistance of Victor DeSantis and under the supervision of two more senior attorneys, Stephanie Casey and Dana Foster. Legal Aid assigned us a mentor who provided technical guidance, but we were responsible for the matter from start to finish. It was exciting to advocate for a client of our own on a case that involved matters so close to her heart and rewarding to help resolve a difficult challenge in our client’s life.
The Court initially refused to hear any substantive arguments that the agreement was fraudulent and continued to enforce it. We were undeterred. At regular status hearings, we pushed for reversal of the custody arrangement while the Court ordered home studies, appointed a guardian ad litem, and arranged for psychological evaluations of both parents and the child. Ms. W’s case also demonstrated one of the challenges representing clients in family court. The father did not have a lawyer, and he simply would not speak with us. When we approached him to discuss issues—large or small—he refused, telling us that he would only accept Court decisions.
At first, our successes were incremental, securing joint legal custody and obtaining more visitation time for our client. However, when we received an interim report from the guardian ad litem that included facts and recommendations favorable to our client’s position that the father was not adequately addressing the child’s medical needs, we finally saw an opening to argue that temporary custody should be transferred to Ms. W with visitation for the father, essentially flipping the status quo. The Court agreed. A year after we first met Ms. W, and nearly two years after her daughter went to stay with the father, Ms. W brought her daughter back home.
We subsequently secured a consent custody agreement. Ms. W now has full legal and physical custody of her daughter, and the father is permitted visitation on alternating weekends. Ms. W’s daughter goes to school with her siblings and is thriving in first grade.
—Marisa R. Bassett, Associate, White & Case LLP