Tamika Hayes

Tamika Hayes

Tamika Hayes is a lifelong resident of the DC area. She earned BA and MBA degrees from the University of Maryland, works for the DC Government, owns her home in Southeast Washington, and has raised three smart, kind, and talented teenagers.

But she has also faced many challenges along the way. Ms. Hayes and her children endured years of chaos, violence, and cruel behavior at the hands of her now-ex-husband and the children’s father. With Legal Aid’s help, Ms. Hayes obtained a civil protection order and filed for divorce and custody.

Our Domestic Violence & Family Law Unit attorneys help survivors get to safety and secure their independence from their abusers, something that is exceptionally difficult without legal assistance.

“From the beginning, my Legal Aid team never made me feel that I had to fight this battle alone.”

During her divorce trial, Ms. Hayes testified over the course of four days, telling her harrowing story of decades of abuse. She explained how, despite countless separations over the years due to incidents of violence, she struggled to break the cycle of violence because – with the children’s expenses, her mortgage, and student loans piling up – financial security felt impossible to achieve on her own.

Ms. Hayes was victorious on all counts. And in recognition of her bravery and perseverance, Legal Aid presented Ms. Hayes with the Partnership Award at the 2019 Servant of Justice Awards Dinner.

**If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and needs help, contact DC SAFE or call Legal Aid at (202) 628-1161 for assistance.

Get Help 24/7 from the National Sexual Violence Hotline at 1-800-656-4673**

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Fatoumata Niang

Fatoumata Niang and her ex-husband were married less than a year before separating. Originally from Senegal, Ms. Niang had limited English proficiency while her ex-husband is well-educated with a professional career. Their marriage was rife with abuse as Ms. Niang’s ex-husband consistently questioned her intelligence, controlled her finances and social life, and physically abused her.

After Ms. Niang became pregnant, her ex-husband’s behavior worsened. He never attended a prenatal appointment with her and attempted to postpone her labor induction because of his work schedule, even as the doctor warned that a delay posed a significant risk to Ms. Niang’s life and the life of their child.

Enter Maryam Casbarro of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, who agreed to represent Ms. Niang in the divorce case, and the child support and custody battle of their eight-month-old baby. Maryam was steadfast in her support of Ms. Niang, even briefly returning from parental leave so she could represent Ms. Niang at trial.

“That’s why I’m here smiling.”

Both Maryam and Ms. Niang’s resilience paid off. The judge granted a divorce and awarded child support and custody on terms that were quite favorable to Ms. Niang. While both parties have joint physical and legal custody of their child, Ms. Niang has tie-breaking authority in the event of an impasse on matters relating to childcare, education, or healthcare.

In spite of the chaos, Ms. Niang has taken control of her destiny. As Maryam put it, “From start to finish, I remember when I met Fatou she hardly spoke English, and now she’s enrolled in college, she’s paying all her bills, she’s no longer dependent on her husband. She’s a leader in her community.”

**If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and needs help, contact DC SAFE or call Legal Aid at (202) 628-1161 for assistance.

Get Help 24/7 from the National Sexual Violence Hotline at 1-800-656-4673**

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James Reed

Ten years ago, Mr. Reed was in a new relationship and he was overjoyed when he learned he was going to be a father. When the child was born, he signed an Acknowledgment of Paternity, but he did so without any of the legally-required notifications and disclosures, important protections required to ensure that putative fathers do not lightly undertake the lifelong commitment of paternity.

Determinations of paternity have far-reaching consequences regarding custody, decisions related to education and healthcare, and more. When an Acknowledgment of Paternity is signed by a non-biological father, all these rights are stripped from a true father who should have the opportunity to be involved in his child’s life.

“I’m overwhelmed that it turned out like this.”

After the child was born, Mr. Reed realized that the child may not be his. Over the years, Mr. Reed was brought to court by the government several times for child support, but his requests were denied.

With the help of Jamie Sparano, staff attorney in the Domestic Violence/Family Law Unit, Mr. Reed told his story yet again. This time, the judge was convinced that the Acknowledgment of Paternity was invalid and ordered a DNA test.

Throughout the case, Mr. Reed was adamant that he would pay support gladly if indeed the child was his. However, after a decade of child support hearings, Mr. Reed soon learned that he was not the father, bringing much-needed clarity to Mr. Reed and, frankly, the family in question. With paternity disestablished, Mr. Reed will no longer be brought to court to support a child who is not his own —and the mother will now be able to pursue the actual biological father in the case.

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Ana Mwangi

Ana Mwangi* felt trapped in the wrong life. With her newborn daughter, Eva*, swaddled on her back, her abusive ex-boyfriend held her at gunpoint and sexually assaulted her. As an immigrant from Kenya, Ms. Mwangi was scared to go to court, but she could not risk her or her daughter’s safety any longer.

When she went to the Domestic Violence Intake Center in Southeast DC, Legal Aid Family Law Unit attorney Jamie Sparano helped her secure a Civil Protection Order (CPO) which ensured that her ex-boyfriend could not threaten, contact, or assault her or Eva.

To truly be independent, though, Ms. Mwangi needed more economic security. Carolyn Rumer, a staff attorney in our Public Benefits Law Unit, stepped in. Carolyn helped Ms. Mwangi obtain emergency food stamps after the District originally denied her application, as well as health insurance and cash assistance (TANF).

She is pulling her life together, focusing on providing opportunities for Eva’s future.

“If not for Legal Aid, I could be dead.”

*Names have been changed to protect the clients’ identities.

**If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and needs help, contact DC SAFE or call Legal Aid at (202) 628-1161 for assistance.

Get Help 24/7 from the National Sexual Violence Hotline at 1-800-656-4673**

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Fantahun Amare

Fantahun Amare, an immigrant from Ethiopia, had recently found a room for rent in a home in Petworth. He entered into an oral lease with the owner, also an Ethiopian immigrant, and paid his first month’s rent and security deposit in cash.

Mr. Amare was planning to apply for a D.C. driver’s license so he could pursue job opportunities that required a license. He needed proof of residency, and asked his landlord for a lease or other documentation. The landlord—whose home was not registered as a rental property—refused and began pressuring Mr. Amare to leave.

“Those who don’t have money, those who don’t have nothing: come to Legal Aid!”

When those efforts failed, the landlord changed the locks to Mr. Amare’s apartment. The landlord then filed a case seeking a Temporary Protection Order in the D.C. Superior Court Domestic Violence Unit, claiming he lived in the home with Mr. Amare (providing jurisdiction for the Domestic Violence Court) and that Mr. Amare had threatened him. Based on these allegations, the landlord was able to get an order that Mr. Amare vacate the home.

Homeless, Mr. Amare came to Legal Aid seeking help. Family law attorney Stephanie Westman helped Mr. Amare return to his home by proving the landlord was not, in fact, Mr. Amare’s roommate.

Undeterred, the landlord turned around and sued Mr. Amare for eviction alleging nonpayment of rent—specifically, for the month in which he had forced Mr. Amare out of his home. Legal Aid negotiated a favorable settlement in the landlord and tenant case. Mr. Amare received a refund of rent paid, forgiveness for any past rent due, and an additional cash settlement.

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Lew Ruffin

Lew Ruffin has twice been the victim of mistaken identity. Once, it nearly cost him his life. In 2001, Mr. Ruffin was shot several times, including in the brain and stomach. The shooter had mistaken him for someone else. Permanently disabled, Mr. Ruffin could little afford another bad break. “I’m used to working, you know before I got shot, like 16-hour days,” he told us. “My body just won’t let me do the things I want to do.”

But in 2003, Mr. Ruffin learned that the daughter he believed was his was not in fact his biological child. He eventually scraped together $500 to pay for a DNA test, which confirmed he was not her father. After sharing the results with the baby’s mother, he never saw them again.

“Ms. Ashley McDowell, she cared. She was really making sure that I was okay.”

Years later, believing the situation was long behind him, Mr. Ruffin learned that the District had filed a child support case against him, taking the position that he was still financially responsible for the child. “I’m disabled because somebody thought I was somebody else,” he said. “It’s like for me to go through this again with the court because you think I’m somebody else.”

Mr. Ruffin connected with Legal Aid in 2013 through our courthouse project at D.C. Superior Court Paternity & Child Support Branch and Legal Aid family law attorney Ashley McDowell took his case. Ashley litigated Mr. Ruffin’s case for the next four years. Finally, the District agreed that Mr. Ruffin was not the child’s father and dropped the child support case. Now, he can use his modest wages from his part-time job as a driver for a homeless shelter to pay for rent and food.

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Anna Jones

Anna Jones* was terrified of her child’s father, Garrett Lewis.* Over the years,  when he got angry, he would hit, scratch, and even choke her. The violence continued during Ms. Jones’ pregnancy. Ms. Jones finally summoned up the courage to escape with their one-year-old daughter but lived in fear that Mr. Lewis would find them. Her fear was justified. One day she arrived at her parents’ home in Virginia to find Mr. Lewis waiting outside. He grabbed her arm and threatened her. That was when Ms. Jones decided to seek protection from the courts. Ms. Jones went to a Domestic Violence Intake Center and met with Legal Aid family law attorney Jamie Sparano.

Ms. Jones filed for a Civil Protection Order (CPO). Mr. Lewis consented to the CPO, but surprised Ms. Jones by serving her with a complaint for custody of Emma. A year later, the custody case was ongoing, and Ms. Jones asked for an extension of the CPO. A trial ensued. Ms. Jones and another of Mr. Lewis’ ex-girlfriends testified at trial about the abuse they suffered at his hands. And Mr. Lewis’ aggression was on full display in the courtroom—once, he even shoved Jamie during a break.

As the custody case moved forward, Mr. Lewis made an offer: he would drop his request for custody if Ms. Jones would agree not to seek child support. While this is not entirely fair, Ms. Jones was nevertheless thrilled. She secured a well-paying job (using the degree she earned after she escaped Mr. Lewis’ abuse) and is gladly bearing the financial burden of raising her daughter knowing that she is keeping her safe.

“We have a future now because of Legal Aid.”

*Names have been changed to protect the clients’ identities.

**If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and needs help, contact DC SAFE or call Legal Aid at (202) 628-1161 for assistance.

Get Help 24/7 from the National Sexual Violence Hotline at 1-800-656-4673**

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Donna Stewart

Sometimes, even when you have done all the right things, your past comes back to haunt you. This is what happened to Donna Stewart. She had two children with a dangerous, abusive, and at times terrifying, man. But she had put all of that well behind her, making the decision to leave him and raise her children in a safe and peaceful home. Unfortunately, last year, Ms. Stewart’s batterer tried to come back into their lives. He showed up out of the blue to a Stewart family get-together, where he threatened and assaulted her.

But if her abuser was thinking that Ms. Stewart would give in to his threats, he was sorely mistaken. Legal Aid represented Ms. Stewart in her domestic violence case. With her Legal Aid lawyer at her side, she stood up to her abuser, once again securing safety for her family.

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Ebony Zaho

When Ebony Zaho was brutally assaulted by her ex-boyfriend on Christmas Day, it was the worst day of her life. Sadly, it was not the first time he had physically attacked her. There was a long history of abuse, including when she was pregnant. But, as you can see from the photo, with the help of Legal Aid, Ebony and her children are now thriving.

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Henrietta Bello

When Henrietta Bello’s ex-husband sued her for child support, she was shocked. She knew that her ex-husband earned far more than she did – he has a well-paying job, while she relies on Social Security Disability Insurance, which provides her with financial assistance because a disability prevents her from working. Moreover, their son spent the majority of the year at a boarding school (which he was attending on a full scholarship). When home, their teenager split time with both parents equally, making the request for support even harder to understand or justify.

Ms. Bello’s ex-husband had hired counsel pursue Ms. Bello for child support. Legal Aid guided Ms. Bello through five years of contentious litigation. This included complicated income and public benefits calculations, investigation into Mr. Bello’s income and earning capacity, and aggressive government and opposing counsels. In the end, Ms. Bello was able to prove that, not only did she not owe support, her ex-husband owed support to her. Ms. Bello, who had never asked for the court to intervene in the first place, achieved a just outcome that allowed her to provide for her son while protecting her limited income. Ms. Bello is deeply proud of her son, now a sophomore at Vanderbilt University.

“I could not believe my eyes or my ears the outcome of my case. It’s a good feeling to know that when you really need someone on your side, there’s a place to go to.”

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