By Piazadora Footman
Most people I come in contact with have horrible stories about their lawyers. Not me. I had a good experience with my two lawyers, Charlyne Peay and Sharon Yoo. They were from the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project, an effort to connect parents with mental illness to private practice lawyers who volunteer to represent them in child welfare proceedings.
In Good Hands
In my case, I didn’t have the right to a court-appointed lawyer. When I was locked up and then placed in a psych hospital, my grandmother was awarded custody of my son, Xavier. My son was not technically in foster care and I didn’t have an agency or a caseworker or a lawyer. The judge just told me to complete my psych treatment, find my own apartment, complete a drug program and a parenting class, and give clean urine. So I did.
After 18 months at South Beach, a psych hospital, I went to a halfway house, then my boyfriend’s house and then to a shelter. That’s when I went to court and filed for custody of Xavier. At first I tried to represent myself and found out it was hard. So the Urban Justice Center connected me to a lawyer.
When I first met Ms. Charlyne Peay at her office, I felt a little underdressed in my jeans and sneakers. She worked at a fancy New York City law office. There were turnstiles to get to the elevator and people in business suits going in and out using swipe cards. I’d never seen that before. I rode up in the elevator thinking, “This lawyer must be a big shot.”
Upstairs, the receptionist offered me water and then Ms. Charlyne came out. She was tall with a short haircut, dressed in a pants suit with a silky top. She said, “You must be Piazadora. I love that name. Nice to meet you.”
Ms. Charlyne explained that my case would be pro bono, meaning that she would work on my case for free. I thought she would be aggravated because she wasn’t getting paid but she said, “I’m here to help you. This is something I believe in.”
A Blunt Approach
Ms. Charlyne also asked me to be completely honest so that she could help me in the best way possible. Our first court appearance was a visitation hearing. What was at stake was whether I’d be able to have regular visits with Xavier. Until then, I’d seen him whenever my grandmother allowed me to (or needed a babysitter). Ms. Charlyne asked me, “What do you want to be the end result?” I told her, “I want to eventually have custody of my son.”
“As long as you have completed all of the tasks the judge has asked of you, then you should have custody of your son real soon,” she told me.
She told me, “Listen, if you don’t bullshit me, I can get you what you need. Or at least point you in the right direction.” She made me feel like I was in good hands.
No One Else on My Side
For a long time, though, I felt that the judge was not on my side. Everything my grandmother’s lawyer requested, the judge granted. When my lawyer requested something for me, the judge would ask my grandmother if it was OK.
If I said in court that I’d completed a parenting class or other services, my grandmother would say, “No, I don’t think she finished.” The judge would request a letter from the program.
My grandmother was hard on me because she feared that I had already started following in my mother’s horrible footsteps.
Taking the Time to Explain
But Ms. Charlyne encouraged me by saying things like, “I’ve had a lot of cases where mothers say they want their children back but they never want to work all the steps to get them back. You are one of few who is on the straight and narrow.”
I also trusted my lawyer because, when we went in the courtroom, Ms. Charlyne did not say whatever she wanted to say. She spoke for me. And every time I accomplished something, she brought it to the judge’s attention.
Driving a Hard Bargain
At times Ms. Charlyne disagreed with my thinking, and she kept it real with me. Once my grandma wanted me to switch the day I visited, saying that she worked and that my visit day was not convenient. I was totally against it because I felt that my grandmother was just trying to control me. My grandma didn’t work! She collected SSI and was home all the time.
That day in court, the judge was frustrated that I wouldn’t agree and called a recess to give us time to think. I told my lawyer that I wanted her to tell the judge that my grandma was lying. Ms. Charlyne didn’t shut me down, but she told me, “Do not get into it with the judge. It will only make you look like you won’t cooperate.” She took the time to explain that she feared I could lose my visits.
Still, back in court, Ms. Charlyne bargained hard for me. She agreed to change the day but asked for daylong visits (7 hours!) instead of the regular two hours. That day I made my first compromise and I got even more out of the deal.
Me vs. My Family
Up to the end, my grandmother and I clashed in court. Even though I had proof that I’d been clean for almost three years and I was attending all of my mental health appointments, she tried to convince the judge that I was still using drugs and wasn’t getting treatment. At times, it felt like I had to prove more to my family than even my judge demanded.
It meant a lot to me that my lawyer stuck to the facts about my present life and congratulated me on my positive progress.
On my last day in court, the judge ran through her list of things I was supposed to do. Ms. Yoo had taken over my case by then, but she was informed and she was able to stand up and say, “Yes, Your Honor, she completed them all.” I knew I had won the battle against not only mental illness and substance abuse but also against that “she’ll never do it” mindset that my grandmother carried into the court.
Reprinted with permission from Rise, a magazine written by and for parents affected by the child welfare system: www.risemgazine.org.