When my colleagues and I speak with prospective pro bono volunteers, funders, law students, and others around the city, we often say that it can be “life-changing” for our clients to be represented by a lawyer. A recent report from Reed Smith associates Julya Heywood and Jouya Rastegar about the outcome they achieved for their client in a child custody and support case is a concrete reminder of exactly what we mean.
Ms. Wilson* -- a single mother with two young children -- came to Legal Aid in January 2013 asking for help with a child custody case initiated by the father of her three-month-old baby. The father had never lived with Ms. Wilson and their baby, but he was seeking joint custody and requesting that he have temporary custody of the child pending the outcome of the litigation. The father was employed and represented by counsel.
A temporary order already had been entered providing the father visitation with the baby every other weekend and overnight one night a week. Ms. Wilson was concerned about the visitation because the baby had some health issues, including acid reflux that caused choking incidents requiring visits to the emergency room. In one incident, Ms. Wilson had to perform CPR on her baby.
Ms. Wilson explained that she felt intimidated by the father’s lawyer when they were in court, and she was anxious about the case proceeding without having her own counsel. Fortunately, Reed Smith associates Julya Heywood and Jouya Rastegar were eager to help.
The case proved contentious. During the course of the custody litigation, the baby’s father filed a petition seeking a Civil Protection Order (CPO) against Ms. Wilson in the Domestic Violence Court. Julya and Jouya agreed to represent Ms. Wilson at the CPO hearing, even though this was a completely different proceeding before a different judge. The Court denied the father’s CPO petition.
The custody case went to trial in October 2013. Two key issues litigated at trial were: (1) final decision-making authority with respect to the baby’s care and well-being; and, (2) the amount of child support that the father would provide. The Judge issued an order nine months after trial, siding with Ms. Wilson on all issues. She was granted final decision-making authority, and the father is required to continue paying monthly child support in the amount specified in the temporary order.
As Julya reported, one of the father’s main arguments at trial was that Ms. Wilson didn’t have the financial resources to properly care for their baby, and that he should not have to pay child support because Ms. Wilson was “willfully” unemployed. Ms. Wilson testified that she had applied for several jobs, but was turned down by many because she did not have a high school diploma. Acknowledging this obstacle to Ms. Wilson’s ability to support her family, Julya and Jouya helped Ms. Wilson enroll in a free high school diploma program. In addition to preparing older students to get their high school diploma, or GED, the program also provides help with applying and preparing for college. Ms. Wilson is now on her way to earning her high school diploma and is planning to pursue a college degree at the University of the District of Columbia.
“When we first met with Ms. Wilson, she had just appeared pro se at the initial hearing and felt dejected by the Judge and scared that she was going to lose custody of her baby,” recalls Julya. “By the second hearing, after we had undertaken the representation, Ms. Wilson had a wholly different air about her – she was confident and relaxed knowing she had lawyers on her side. I think that when we took on Ms. Wilson’s case and helped relieve some of the stress of the custody battle for her, we gave her the mental space to focus on other parts of her life, like getting her high school diploma and working toward her dream of studying to become a psychologist.”
*Name changed to protect the client’s confidentiality.