Mama Needs a Lawyer! by Mary DuChene
Like it or not, the government is a party to your custody decisions and your decision to marry or divorce. Of course, it is always best if mom and dad can work it out informally and avoid the court system, but sometimes that just isn’t possible.
Fuck the Government – Talk it Out
The first step you should take is mediation. Most larger communities offer some sort of free or sliding-fee-scale mediation through the court system or the County Bar Association. Mediation is not only cheaper, it is less violent to the relations you are trying to build as a family, and can foster understanding and cooperation.
Mediated custody decisions have a tendency to be more stable because both parties feel like they have invested in the parenting plan. Everyone gets heard, and there is the chance of an amicable settlement, which is better for everyone.
For mediation services in your community, call your local County or State Bar Association. Click on the link at the end of this article for access to the American Bar Association website, where you can find contact information for Bar Associations in your area.
If mediation is not an option for you, consider representing yourself. The court calls this pro se representation. Believe it or not, the court is more lenient as a rule to people representing themselves. The ability to do so is at the core of our justice system and pro se petitioners often get a lot of guidance and consideration from judges, court clerks and courthouse staff. It is also an incredibly empowering experience.
Some courts have what they call Court Facilitators who can help with pro se filings for free. These facilitators may or may not be lawyers, but they can help with finding the right forms, checking your filled-out forms for procedural correctness and telling you where and how to file. Call your County Courthouse’s information number, (found in the County Government pages of the phone book) and ask if there is such a service in your area.
County Bar Associations often have free or inexpensive workshops for pro se petitioners seeking divorce or custody help. Click on the ABA link at the end of this article for the number of a Bar Association near you.
Emergency Help: Domestic Violence and Custody Violations
Most communities have a free service which helps with emergency pro se filings like restraining orders and other actions necessary in a domestic violence situation or a situation where one parent disappears with the child or children without legal custody. Call your local Bar Association or your local law enforcement agency for information on these programs. In these situations you MUST contact police. Not only can they steer you toward legal resources, they also can document the illegal activity and witness for you in court.
I Absolutely Need a Lawyer
Sometimes mediation and self-representation are simply not an option. Life can be too complicated, or the other party can have a kick ass lawyer on their side. If you need a free or inexpensive lawyer, good news – all attorneys do some work for free. Pro bono means ‘for the good’, and it also means ‘free!’.
Call your local Bar Association and ask if they have a volunteer lawyer or a pro bono program. If they do not, ask for a list of family law attorneys and work the list. Call each office and politely ask for a free initial appointment. Meet with or speak on the phone with the attorney (if at all possible) and ask if they are considering taking on any pro bono clients at this time. Expect rejection – some lawyers are totally in it for the money, but some are true advocates for the poor and the rights of women. It might take a while to find them, don’t get discouraged by the assholes.
Call law schools in your area. Ask about clinical law programs, where student lawyers represent clients in real cases with attorney supervision. Student lawyers are closely monitored, and the professors they work under will be personally responsible for your case.
Law professors rule. Call the professors who teach family law and ask if they could use a real case to teach their students. Ask if they are willing to help you pro bono, or if they have a referral to someone who can. Most professors in family law do it because they believe in justice for women and children.
Get on the internet! Do a search on ‘legal aid (your city name)’. Call the organizations which come up and ask to apply. If they can’t help you, ask for a referral to someone who can. Click on the links below for some state-by-state lists of legal aid organizations.
Call your parents’ lawyers, your grandparents’ lawyers, your friends’ lawyers. Often a referral from a current client will convince a lawyer to do a little free work for a friend or relative. Be polite, you don’t want to damage the person’s relationship with their attorney.
Start a legal fund and hire someone. Let everyone who cares about you know that you need a little help right now. You can set up an account at a bank and let people know the money they’d spend on you and your progeny for birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s Day, Chanukah etc. would be better spent on securing safety and stability for your family.
But My Lame-Ass Town Doesn’t Have Any of This Free Help
Get thee to the County Clerk’s office! County Clerks work in the County Courthouse. Show up during the afternoon lull, usually between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. County Clerks know everything that goes on in the courthouse, they know procedure, they know lawyers and they know judges. Don’t take up too much time explaining details, they are very busy. State simply what you are trying to accomplish and ask if they can point you in the right direction.
A good tactic is to buy a forms packet for divorce and/or custody at a local bookstore. Make multiple copies so you can redo. Fill them out to the best of your ability and take them with you to the county clerk’s office. Don’t stress too much on perfection, the court will be kind. Show them to the clerk and ask if he or she can direct you in how to file. Hopefully they will take you under their wing and guide you through the process. See below for tips on winning people over and making them want to help.
Tips for Getting Heard and Getting Help
Be polite. These people get dozens of requests for help each day. Getting angry or frustrated, rude or pushy will accomplish nothing but getting you passed over in favor of someone more cooperative.
Don’t be a Drama Queen. Exaggeration, hysteria and begging don’t work, calm rational requests do. Be sincere and straightforward. Don’t be afraid to express your feelings, but don’t manufacture them. Legal receptionists and other staff you’ll have to talk to hear plenty of sob stories. They want to help, but they can’t be your therapist. Let them know you realize their time is valuable and you won’t waste it.
Be your brilliant self. Make it clear you are willing to do whatever you can to help yourself. Show them how competent and dedicated you are by offering to do any running around, copying, courthouse trips, etc. that you can. Don’t call for help on little things you can do yourself. Take responsibility, be active.
Call or show up during lull times. Don’t call at lunchtime or near the end of the working day. Mid-morning and after-lunch hours are the slowest, so people will be more likely to give you time.
Do your homework. The internet is full of general legal information. Book stores sell generic legal forms kits. Don’t show up empty handed, start the process and then ask for direction. People will be more likely to help you if they don’t have to start from scratch.
Be persistent. Don’t get discouraged by rejection. Make a list and call everyone on it. Keep at it, explore every option.
Get a number at least. Don’t get off the phone without at least a referral. When people say they cannot help you, say “Do you have the number of someone who can?”.
Be organized. Keep all correspondence; keep a call journal of everyone you speak to and the results of your conversation. Take notes. This saves your sanity because you don’t waste time with avenues that aren’t promising and you don’t lose info from helpful sources.
Face to face is best. It is so much easier to say ‘no’ to a disembodied phone voice. Show up in person, it’s a sucker punch.
Keep appointments. I can’t express to you how important this is. Not showing up or showing up late is disrespectful to the person donating their time. In court it can create the impression that you are irresponsible and incapable.
Do your paperwork. When someone asks you to fill out a form or an application do it immediately and turn it in ASAP.
Call back. If you get someone rude or clueless, try again on another day or at another time. These places are often staffed by overworked folks or volunteers. A new person may be more knowledgeable or sympathetic.
Do not ask for or accept legal advice from non-lawyers. First off, it is unethical for any legal staff to give advice or information pertaining directly to the law. Secondly, there is nothing more annoying to a receptionist or volunteer than to be constantly asked for their legal opinion or knowledge. Just take my word on that one. And thirdly, only lawyers are responsible for the advice they give, everyone else is just shooting off at the mouth.
Keep your head up. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You have the right to access the system just like anyone else. Justice should be free to everyone.
Resources American Bar Association’s General Help Page: http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/findlegalhelp/
And their “Getting Free Legal Help” page: http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/findlegalhelp/freehelp.html
Page with info about federally funded programs nationwide: http://www.lsc.gov/fundprog.htm
State by state list of free programs: http://www.ptla.org/links.htm
Directory of Pro bono Programs: http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/findlegalhelp/probonodirectory.html State
Bar Associations online: http://www.abanet.org/barserv/stlobar.html
State-by-state list of legal help for domestic violence: http://www.ncadv.org/resources/state.htm
Children’s Law resources (needs Adobe Acrobat): http://www.abanet.org/litigation/committee/childrens_l/directory.pdf