Washington Lawyer

The Pro Bono Effect: Mother Endures Through Two-Fold Battle

From Washington Lawyer, January 2011

By Thai Phi Le

sorensen“I was going through hell,” says Maya,* who had spent six years living with her son’s father in a tumultuous relationship. It was a cycle of domestic violence—a cycle that was not broken until 2008.

Around New Year’s Day 2008, the two were on a street in downtown Washington, D.C. They began arguing and Maya’s then-boyfriend shoved her to the ground in front of a witness. She knew she had to leave. After separating, Maya began legal proceedings to gain custody of their young son.

“He threatened that he was going to take my son away from me,” she recalls, a very real possibility considering he was a prominent person in D.C.’s law enforcement community. “I realized that I cannot do this by myself. I need somebody.”

But like many Washington metropolitan area residents, she was struggling financially and could not afford to hire an attorney. The Family Court Self-Help Center at the D.C. Superior Court referred Maya to the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Advocacy & Justice Clinic.

Poverty: A Growing Problem
In 1993 the Advocacy & Justice Clinic—then called the Law Firm Clinic—opened just as demand for pro bono legal services was growing in the city. At the time, most of the larger Washington law firms were not involved in individual pro bono poverty law cases. Aiming to meet the needs of the community, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program created an extensive plan to engage these firms and show them that, with support, their attorneys could be powerful advocates for people living in poverty.

Since its inception 17 years ago, the Advocacy & Justice Clinic has grown tremendously, partnering with nearly 40 firms and federal government agencies. Over the past few years, the Advocacy & Justice Clinic’s mission has become even more significant as D.C. residents struggle with unprecedented levels of unemployment and poverty. The D.C. Department of Employment Services reports that in September 2010, the city’s overall jobless rate was 9.8 percent, slightly higher than the national average of 9.6 percent. In neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, the unemployment rate is near an astounding 30 percent. The poverty levels are even more staggering—one in five D.C. residents lives below the poverty line, according to numbers released by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute in April 2010.

With a soaring number of poor residents in need of legal services, the clinic provided representation to 30 percent more clients during its last fiscal year (July 2009 to June 2010), underscoring the need for more pro bono attorneys.

A Long Road
During one of the 21 sessions held each year at the clinic, Heidi A. Sorensen, of counsel at Foley & Lardner LLP, was reading through files prescreened by the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program. “I looked at Maya’s file and said, ‘This is the case I want to take,’” Sorensen says. Within a week of Maya’s initial contact with the clinic, she had a meeting scheduled with Sorensen at Foley’s offices.

“Foley & Lardner has developed this incredible level of family law expertise,” says Mark Herzog, associate director of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program. “When the firm joined the Advocacy & Justice Clinic in 1996, it had very little experience representing pro bono clients with contested custody matters. But the need was great and continues to be. The firm’s approach to these cases, led by partner Melinda F. Levitt, is that, yes, they can be messy—families tend to be—but that’s why it’s so important to have lawyers involved.”

After the first meeting, Sorensen thought she knew where the case was going. “At the time, I thought this would be relatively simple to settle. We’ve got two parents who have been involved in the child’s life,” she recalls. “Even with the domestic violence, we should be able to come up with something that would work for this family.” She was wrong.

Sorensen and Maya met with Maya’s ex-boyfriend and his attorney a month later to discuss a settlement. They reached an agreement where Maya would have their son 60 percent of the time. Five minutes after her ex-boyfriend walked out the door, Maya received a call from him on her cell phone. “I’m not going to agree to that, you know,” he told her.

“We had to start gearing up for an evidentiary hearing,” Sorensen says. The next year-and-a-half was filled with status hearings and settlement discussions. Around the summer of 2009, the two parties were able to reach a shared custody arrangement, but the roadblocks continued. Her ex-boyfriend would not comply with a requirement to provide financial documentation to determine child support. He also hid income from a rental property he owned in an attempt to avoid higher support payments.

Maya and Sorensen forged a strong bond during the long process. While working on the custody case, Maya had to testify about the domestic violence she faced at her ex-boyfriend’s termination hearing from his law enforcement job. In the back sat Sorensen, who was present simply to provide moral support. “She supported me even though she didn’t need to be there because that was another case,” Maya says. “She was there for me.”

Following his termination, Maya’s ex-boyfriend continued to be difficult, unwilling to cooperate to update child support when he found another job. He also routinely picked up his son late from school and was an absentee father. “I tried to do the best for my son. We decided to share custody, but it didn’t work out,” Maya says. “My son was going through a lot of stuff emotionally.” Her son was experiencing significant adjustment issues.

The last straw came when Maya’s ex-boyfriend refused to pick up their son from school the day before Thanksgiving in 2009. “When the school called, he told them, ‘Oh, no, it’s not my day,’ when in fact he always had Wednesdays,” Sorensen recalls. “When that happened, we were able to go to court. . . . We had already been explaining to the judge all the problems that had been occurring with the shared-custody arrangement we had agreed to.”

The judge granted Maya temporary full custody until the actual hearing in six months. Sorensen and Maya, with the help of Foley attorneys Jackie Acosta and Joyce E. Gresko, continued building the case, talking on the phone, and meeting at Maya’s house.

What seemed like a fairly cut-and-dried case nearly two years earlier had proven to be long and trying, with Sorensen devoting more hours than a typical divorce with huge property assets. But the hours put in were worth it: in June 2010, the judge awarded Maya full legal and physical custody of her son.

“They did a great job. I feel like I won. I got back my peace of mind,” Maya says. “There’s a child happy living with his mom, and there’s a mom that’s happy with her child.”

*Name changed

Reach D.C. Bar staff writer Thai Phi Le at tle@dcbar.org