Jan 29, 2018


I had a problem. Although she was 25, Mary, my client, couldn't read and didn't have a telephone, and I needed to tell her the date of her court hearing.

What Mary did have was a TV that she had rented. Unable to afford the $300 purchase price, Mary signed a contract in which she agreed to pay $12 a week to rent the TV. If she made all the payments over a 2 year period, Mary would own the TV.

In case you don't have a calculator handy, Mary had agreed to pay $1248 over 2 years for a TV worth $300. By signing the contract, Mary also agreed that if she got behind in her payments she would owe, you guessed it, $1248. Did Mary know what she had signed? No, but she wanted a TV and $12 a week sounded good.

Mary came to see me because, after making 47 payments, she had missed one $12 payment and the rental company filed suit against her for the full $1248. It's been over 30 years but I'm still angry about that contract.

In Virginia, the fact that Mary could not read the contract she signed was irrelevant because she was an adult and had the capacity to take care of her own affairs. However, I planned to argue that the terms of the contract were "unconscionable" -- basically the terms were so outrageous that they "shocked the conscious" and, as a matter of public policy, the court shouldn't enforce them. At legal aid we made that argument a lot, and most of the time we lost. But every once in a while a judge would agree with us, and I had a feeling this would be a winner.

Since Mary needed to be at the trial, I drove out to her house to let her know the court date. Mary lived in a small brick rambler. The white trim was peeling and the front porch was cracked, but it was on a bus line and had enough bedrooms for Mary and her 4 kids. In fact, it was right next door to the hospital and the social services agency. Mary used her monthly welfare check to pay the rent, utilities, diapers, and things like the TV contract. I parked on the street in front of the house and walked up the steps. It was a hot, sticky, day. I rang the bell and was relieved when the door opened. I couldn't wait to get into the air conditioning.

"Is your mother home?"

A young girl, about 4, had answered the door. She was wearing dirty pjs even though it was 2 in the afternoon. Something that looked like peanut butter was in her hair. At that point what appeared to be the oldest of Mary's 4 children, a 6 year old girl, came to the door and told me that Mary was not home.

"Are there any grown ups there?," I asked.
"No," said the 6 year old.

Quickly, the other 2 kids gathered by the screen door wriggling to stand where they could see me. I could see behind the children that the inside of the house was packed with piles of clothes and toys and food and junk. It was a huge mess and I could hear the TV blasting.

I was alarmed. Kids this young can't be home alone, even for a few minutes. I needed to do something to ensure that the kids were safe, but in order to do that I would have to leave the house and find a phone (no cell phones back then.) And who would I call? Mary was my client. Could I turn her in for child neglect? I thought about staying in the house until Mary came home, but this made me uncomfortable. I didn't have permission to enter her home and what if someone claimed that I harmed the kids? Nonetheless, I decided to go in and wait for Mary.

As I entered the house, I was engulfed by a wave of heat and by a stench so strong that I started to throw up. I immediately backed out of the house and back onto the front porch. Of course Mary didn't have air conditioning. Quickly, I remembered that social services was right across the side street. It would only take me a few minutes to report that the children were alone. Could I do that? Could I leave them alone? What if they left the house? Could I turn in my own client? Was that even permitted? My mind was spinning.

I froze, caught between my concern for the kids and, frankly, my concern that reporting her would make me lose my law license.*** But, I couldn't stand on the porch outside with 4 kids huddled on the inside staring at me, and I didn't want to throw up in their house.  So, I did something foolish. I left the children in the house, darted across the street, ran to the social services office, and reported that there were 4 children home alone next door. I gave my name and Mary's name. My intentions were good, but those kids could have died in a fire in the time it took me to go to social services.

I sat in my car outside the house watching the social services folks enter the home, and then went back to my office, full of conflicting emotions: guilt for leaving the kids, relief that the kids hadn't been injured while I was at social services, happy that I had reported the neglect, worry about all of them, and, finally, fear that Mary would file a complaint against me with the State bar for violating attorney/client confidentiality.

Mary still didn't know about her court date. A court judgment against her for $1248 would be devastating -- it could lead to the garnishment of her bank account and then eviction. That's how it worked when you were poor. You rent a TV and the next thing you know you and your kids are homeless.

I sent Mary a letter informing her of the court date for the TV hearing even though I knew she couldn't read it. Maybe she would share it with someone. I didn't hear from Mary, and was unable to get the hearing continued. We had the trial without her -- I got away with explaining that Mary was unavailable. Based on the terms of the contract itself, the Judge ruled in Mary's favor. Surprisingly, the Judge let her keep the TV and ruled that she didn't owe anymore money. Had the circumstances been different, I would have been celebrating a big win. But when I got back to my office I sent Mary another letter, this time informing her of the outcome.

I didn't hear from Mary and, as the months went by, I never heard anything about her filing a complaint against me. I thought about Mary and the kids and guilt tugged at me. I should have stayed at the house until she returned. I shouldn't have left the kids alone. And then, because we like to justify our actions, I'd think about how she had left the kids alone in a filthy house and at least I had done something. I wondered what happened when social services got involved. Eventually, though, the constant flood of new clients with their urgent problems shoved Mary and her kids to the back of my mind.

About 9 months later I noticed that Mary was scheduled to see me. I was prepared for her anger. Mary shocked me when she exclaimed in one big rush: "At first I was really angry with you. I wanted to sue you because you were my lawyer and reported me, but I knew I shouldn't have left my kids alone. After the kids were put in foster care, I did everything to get them back. The county helped me enroll in a reading program. I can read now! And I have a job working in the cafeteria at the hospital next door to my house and it comes with health insurance and the kids are back home. Losing the kids was bad, but it gave me the time to learn to read and to get a job."

I was stunned, as this was the last thing I expected. Before I could react, Mary handed me more legal papers and continued: "But now I have another problem. After I lost my welfare, but before I got a job, I couldn't keep up with the rent and my landlord is trying to evict me. I'm afraid I'll lose the kids again if I get evicted. Can you help me keep my house?"

Mary kept her house (and the TV still worked!). We worked out a payment plan with her landlord, made possible by the $700 that Salvation Army gave to the landlord towards Mary's back rent. (Salvation Army was one of the very few charities willing to give cash in situations like this.) Mary was lucky that she lived in a progressive, generally very well to do, county. In order to facilitate the return of the children, Mary was able to put her kids in county-subsidized day care (it was cheaper for the county to help Mary pay for day care than for the county to pay for foster care or welfare), so Mary kept her job.

I had a problem that day I went looking for a client who couldn't read and didn't have a phone. But Mary had bigger problems, and the kids had the biggest problems of all. I'm not entirely happy with the choice I made. I lucked out that day, and so did Mary, and so did the kids.

It's been over 30 years since I left legal aid. When I did, I left it all behind and rarely gave my clients a thought. I was overwhelmed by their problems and my inability to help many of them. My brain needed a break from that much sorrow and frustration.

But, as the years go by, I find myself thinking back to some of my clients, particularly the ones who achieved some measure of success. It was the nature of the job that I rarely saw or heard from them again. Whether a book, a movie, or real life, I crave a happy ending, and even though I know it may be foolish, I choose to believe that Mary and her kids left the worst of their problems behind them on that hot sunny day.

*** I never learned for sure if reporting my client under these circumstances was permissible under the Virginia Bar rules. However, I am fairly certain that it was permissible, given that the safety of others was at stake.


June K said...

TFS, Joan. It was a good read.

Lee Cockrum said...

So glad that it turned out good for Mary. I am a pediatric physical therapist, I have been for almost 32 years. I worked many years as a home health therapist in inner city Baltimore. My job was not as stressful as I'm sure yours was, but I have seen many sad situations throughout the years. I have given money to a family to pay for the flowers for their toddlers funeral, I've purchased food, diapers and clothing and car seats over the years.telling you this not to brag, or call attention to myself,but to say that I TOTALLY understand the need for books and movies to have a happy ending. I see enough of reality every day, I need my leisure pursuits to be joyful.

Cat Craig said...

Another wonderful read on Monday Morning. Thank you.

judkajudi said...

I am sorry you still struggle a bit about how you handled the situation. Once you saw little ones home alone in a bad situation, you did what you had to do. And your actions got "the system" involved to help the children and the mom. Just imagine the tragedy you probably saved those children from! I say when children are endangered, no other rules apply.

Betty said...

i love to read your stories, Joan - thank you for sharing them

Trish said...

Oh , Joan. I live such a sheltered life with a warm bed and plenty of food and a safe street to walk on. My prayer of gratitude this morning is not just for that but more for the people like you that have done battle with other people's hellish circumstances. We all have hard decisions to make, but you have had more than your share. I am grateful to you for the positive intentions and the good that you have done.

Unknown said...

As always Joan, your real life stories reflect the highlights and low points of a legal aid attorney. Anyone of us would have done the same thing - those kids were in danger. In the end for Mary and her family, I hope that the blessings caused by your actions far outweighed the hardship and just consequences that Mary had to endure. I always love your realistic point of view - the good, the bad and the ugly. It makes me think and ponder and learn!

JanetB said...

I think you are amazing and thoughtful, and I thank you for sharing your stories. They are so touching and help us to remember to be thankful for what we have.

Anonymous said...

Joan, in Nevada, as an attorney, I am a mandatory reporter. My husband as a school counselor is also a mandatory reporter. Once he heard 3rd hand hearsay (friend of the girlfriend of a high school student) that a family friend had slapped his son 4 months before. He reported it to child protective services, which investigated it. Our friend admitted the event. This did not prevent our friend from hiring our daughter for a summer job and being invited to the son's wedding. Nance in Reno

Leslie Miller said...

I know we have to consider the times and the circumstances of her upbringing, but it stuns me that at age 25 she couldn't read. That alone is a sad story. You were conflicted as you were faced with a difficult decision, but ultimately you did the right thing. What else could you do? By now her kids are grown. I hope it was a happy ending for them.

Sharli Schaitberger said...

Thank you for sharing. I am always surprised when I learn of adults who can't read. But doesn't that really illustrate how privileged I have been? You did what you thought was right. That is all we can do, and hope that we caused no harm. Bless you for your loving heart.