Dec 3, 2017

I Hope You Made It

It was early November, and three days in as a legal aid lawyer, the intake sheet indicated that Henry and Mae (not their real names) were married and here for a "domestic relations" matter. I went to the waiting room and spotted them. Sitting together, they looked tired. May was in a maid's uniform that was a little too tight and Henry, thin as a reed, in baggy gray overalls, looked older than his 34 years. 

I brought them back to my office, and had them sit down as I walked around my big desk. I was 24 and looked 18 so I needed that big desk to give me some gravitas. I introduced myself, and asked them "what I could do for them." 

Mae handed me a picture of Kay and Keri (not their real names), their twin 9 year old girls, and then started to cry. I had yet to experience crying clients and had made the rookie mistake of having no kleenex in my office.

Henry looked lovingly towards Mae, and then handed me some paperwork. It was a custody case scheduled for an emergency hearing the next day (ugh). I didn't even know where the courthouse was. The State (in the form of the local social services agency) had sued to take custody of the girls. I might have been green, but I at least knew this was very serious.

Henry and Mae had been married for 12 years, and lived together in a 1 bedroom apartment with the girls. Henry towed cars and Mae cleaned motel rooms. They had no health insurance or other benefits and their income was low enough to qualify for legal aid. 

In order to take the girls away from Henry and Mae, the State would have to prove that my clients were unfit -- that their parenting caused serious harm to the girls. It wouldn't be enough to show that it was in the "best interests of the children" to live with someone else. And if the State succeeded, in order to get the kids back, my clients would have to show that they were no longer unfit. 

They seemed lovely. Immediately I thought that this was another example of injustice towards poor people. You can't take kids away from their parents just because they are poor! There was always someone else with more money! Without a free lawyer, Henry and Mae would have to go to court alone. Now this is why I became a lawyer.

I asked them, "Even if you disagree with them, why does social services think the kids are at risk by living with you?" 

"We are heroin addicts."

$%^***!

Both my brothers were, even back then, addicted to drugs. I coped by making believe I wasn't related to them. I really was the wrong person for this case.

I babbled, "Could you get off heroin to keep your girls?"

Henry told me that they were trying, but that it was really hard. They had no health insurance, and didn't know what to do. 

Henry and Mae were scheduled to spend 30 minutes with me. They were my last appointment of the day. They stayed 3 hours. I ended up just talking with them, getting a better idea of their lives, and how the heroin addiction affected the girls. If they weren't buying drugs, they could likely afford a bigger apartment. But, the girls were healthy and went to school.  Kay was on the honor roll and Keri was a solid B student. They both had pink ribbons in their hair and had big happy smiles. Not bad. Henry and Mae were warm and honest and clearly loved the girls. Maybe you could be addicted to drugs and be a good parent at the same time? Not possible, but why did I like them?

Then it suddenly occurred to me to ask the most important question -- how did social services find out they were on heroin?

Did I mention that I only been on the job for 3 days?

Desperate for a fix, Mae had turned to prostitution. She was trading sex for heroin for her and Henry. She got arrested but, although the charges were dropped, the police notified social services.

Words failed me. 

After what seemed like minutes, but was probably 20 seconds, I told them that I needed a moment to discuss their case with another attorney. He told me that I should argue that the heroin and the prostitution had no effect on the kids -- that social services should spend its scarce resources on providing drug addiction care for the parents rather than tearing the family apart and that living with their parents, as troubled as they were, was better than rolling the dice on stranger foster parents. Sounded good to me.

I got the more experienced attorney to come with me so I could at least find the courthouse, and the next morning we were in court. The State presented its evidence. It was bad. Then, Henry and Mae both testified and admitted to the worst of it. But, I also had them carefully describe the girls' day and how they had friends and went to school, etc. The girls slept in a fold out sofa in the apartment and were otherwise doing fine. The addiction and prostitution, though awful and serious, were separate and apart from their parenting. Not bad for a rookie lawyer. I was satisfied and sat down.

The State's attorney asked one question -- "Did you ever have heroin in your apartment?" It wasn't even a leading question, but this guy knew what he was doing.

Henry told the truth. Once the judge heard that there were drugs in the apartment, he ruled that the girls would go into foster care and set a court hearing for 45 days later. He spoke directly to Henry and Mae:

"I'm giving you a chance. You will see the girls every weekend. When you come back to court I want to hear from social services that there are no drugs in your apartment and that you are not engaged in any criminal activity -- no heroin or other drugs and no prostitution. Don't waste this chance."

And then he turned to Social Services and said "Let's get them into the methadone clinic."

There was a methadone clinic?  Yes, and it had a long waiting list, but they would get moved to the top.

The way the Judge put it sounded good -- I felt like we had won even though we had lost.

I met with Henry and Mae for 2 hours at 1 pm every Sunday in my office for 6 weeks. They gave me a status report and we practiced their testimony over and over. They were doing well. They saw the girls every Saturday, moving their work schedules if necessary. They went to the methadone clinic every day and the clinic staff signed a log indicating that they were passing their drug tests. They even looked a little healthier.

On the Sunday before the Court hearing, I told Henry and Mae that I'd meet them in the courthouse for the hearing, and that they should wear the type of clothes that they would wear if they were going to Church.

A couple of days later -- about a week before Christmas -- I spotted them as I walked into the courthouse. Even though there was a light cold rain falling, Mae was in a pink suit with a matching pink hat and matching pink heels. She had a white feather boa around her suit jacket! But Henry took the prize. He was in a dark gray suit, with a bright yellow tie, and was sporting a hat with a yellow feather sticking out of the band. I was expecting simple, quiet clothes. I couldn't decide whether this was good or bad, but in we went.

The Judge kept it informal. He swore in the social services worker and just let her tell her story. She confirmed all the good things but felt that 45 days wasn't enough to ensure the children's safety. She wanted the see Henry and Mae clean for 6 months before the girls were returned.

The Judge looked at me. What did I have to say?

In my head I pictured the ruined family moments caused by drugs. I agreed with social services. As much as I liked Henry and Mae, I'd seen my brothers "get better" only to "get worse." These were little kids, and going back and forth between foster care and addicted parents could make an awful situation tragic.

So I stood up and did what I had sworn I would do when I became a member of the bar -- I zealously advocated for my clients. My brothers weren't in the room and my clients weren't Kay and Keri -- they were Henry and Mae. I laid out all they had done and emphasized how difficult it is to be in foster care and how returning the children would make it more likely, rather than less likely, that Henry and Mae would stay clean. I spoke non-stop for 5 minutes, painting a picture of parents who would do anything to get their kids back. I reminded the Judge that the law required that social services and the court do what was needed to reunite the children with their parents and indicated that Henry and Mae would welcome surprise inspections to their apartment as well as random drug testing.

But then the State's attorney reminded the Judge that Henry and Mae had only been clean for a few weeks. He urged the Judge to keep the kids in foster care, but increase visitation and slowly reunite the kids with their parents. He made sense to me. I looked at Henry and Mae and they were just staring at the Judge, holding each other's hands tightly.

Henry and Mae won. The Judge ruled that the kids could return immediately. Foster care had its own risks and he wanted to give them a chance. There would be close supervision of the family, but on December 19th, Kay and Keri went back to Henry and Mae.

A few days later, I found a box of chocolates on my desk with a Christmas card signed by Henry and Mae and Kay and Keri. I shared the chocolates with my coworkers, but saved that card for years.

We went to court every 6 months for the 2 years I remained in that particular job. Henry and Mae stayed clean and the kids stayed with them. They even managed to move to a 2 bedroom apartment. I lost a lot of similar cases as the years went on and saw many parents fail, but this was a win.

At Christmastime, I think of them on that rainy day in December when I walked out of Court with a crying woman wearing a white boa and a smiling man with a yellow feather in his hat. It was a good day.

I often wonder what happened to the girls after I moved away. Did Henry and Mae stay clean? Was there an eviction, a job loss, or a car accident that pushed them over the edge and back to heroin? I would never know.

Merry Christmas, Henry and Mae and Kay and Keri. I hope you made it.

37 comments:

  1. OH my goodness. What a beautiful story.

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  2. whenever I get an email that you've posted and it looks like a story, I make myself a cup of tea and settle down. you never disappoint. have you thought of taking all your stories and publishing them as a book?

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  3. oh my god, Joan, I have chills. You are a magnificent storyteller. This is exactly why Legal Aid attorneys are needed, and I am so very glad that you were able to put this joy into the world for this family. I am sure that they never have forgotten you.

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    1. thank you. legal aid makes a tremendous difference in lives. I hope it continues to get funding

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  4. You are talented in paper crafting in more than one way! (Even though this is cyber, ha!)

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  5. Beautiful! I adore your storytelling and this one brought tears to my eyes. There are so many fails in drug addiction cases, especially with heroin. It’s good to hear a success, even for two years. Thank you for sharing this.

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  6. Terrific writing. There are so many hurt children and folks in the world. There can be progress and successes and your beautiful story reminded me of that! Thank you.

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  7. thank you Joan - i have tears in my eyes

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  8. I hope they made it, too. Both with jobs, no health insurance, and income low enough to qualify for legal aid. Then the heroin. They reached rock bottom. I breathed a sigh of relief at the end. Thank you for this beautiful story, Joan.

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    1. I really agree that they were scared to death. Their love for the twins made a difference.

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  9. Heartwarming! I hope they made it, too. In my mind, they did. ❤️

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  10. Thank you for sharing not only this story, but your experience with addiction in your family. Our family, too, knows that sorrow. Your writing is mesmerizing! Big hugs and I hope you are recovering steadily.

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    1. I'm sorry your family also knows that sorrow. It is in the news so much now that I hope that solutions are found. Hugs

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  11. Judi is right your writing is mesmerising, I wonder too what happened I hope it all worked out. Maybe they for the fright they needed to stay on the straight and narrow. I do hope so.

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    1. thanks. I like to think they made it!

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  12. I agree with all your fans, another wonderful heartfelt story. I too, hope they made it. Thank you for sharing your experience, it helps us all to read positive stories like this.

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    1. My legal aid career included a lot of sadness, but this couple, right from the start, was different! thanks

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  13. I hope they made it, too. I also wish they had stayed in touch, just so you'd know.
    =]

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    1. I am kind of glad they didn't stay in touch. They really didn't need me to prop them up, particularly after the court hearing. they did it themselves. I like to imagine the kids are very successful and happy!

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  14. I adore reading everything you write:) Praying they made it too! Happy Monday Joan.

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  15. At first I thought this was fiction, but instead a powerful message. Thank you for bringing this to family to light and sharing some hope for the problem of drug addiction.

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    1. Jeanne -- I don't have a good enough imagination to write fiction. I wish I did. I remember this couple like it was yesterday. Hope they made it!!

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  16. What a wonderful story! This brought tears to my eyes. I can imagine you as a young attorney, helping those that truly needed help. Thank you for sharing this with us. I hope the girls are happy and healthy, somewhere safe in this world.

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    1. thank you. good luck at the doc today!

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  17. This made my day! I'm sitting here in tears -- my niece a drug addict. Although, it
    s been many years, I hope your clients and their children are doing well wherever they are!
    PS - I am glad you are well too!!

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    1. I have no answers to drugs. I stopped my own pain killers as soon as I could as I feared addiction. It is so complicated. Best of luck to your niece.

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  18. Wonderful, heartfelt post -- a post that rings close to my own profession and work with foster children. Thank you for bringing light to the foster system, and the fact that we CAN have successes!

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