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I am a nearly silent witness. I listen. People tell me secrets they haven't told their closest friends. They call me on the phone and ask me which form to file; or where to find the form they need. Desperately, they try to crack the mysterious code; try to navigate the labyrinth in the dark. They need the right paper, the magic epistle, that will let them see their kids; prove their paternity; end their marriage; adopt their grandchildren; or simply go on with their lives -- if only they had the right form. I listen to their stories. I am the first to listen.
A father told me he has not seen his little girl since before Christmas. His beloved four year old baby girl, Hannah Jean, was whisked away by her mother. He knows that they live in a homeless shelter somewhere on the Gulf Coast. The young father buys minutes for the ex's phone to maintain the one thin thread of contact. She won't say where they've gone. He pays child support to the courthouse weekly, and prays that Hannah Jean will be all right. The government won't tell him where they are.
He wants to go to court and ask the judge to grant him custody – to bring home Hannah Jean. He lives in a house with a big yard and a room for Hannah Jean. He learned through phone calls that they live in a room with three other little girls and one other mother. He wrote a letter to the director of the government child support office and asked for the whereabouts of Hannah Jean. The government official wrote him back, and said that confidentiality laws prevent them from disclosing his daughter's location. Hannah Jean, for whom he pays child support; and for whom there is a pink bedroom waiting.
We might have found her. He knew part of the name of Hannah Jean's daycare. I searched it online and found one that sounded right, and in the right area. He paid his money to the sheriff to have the ex served there. It was the right daycare, but the daycare Director told the Sheriff Hannah Jean no longer attended.
He found the name of a Ministry near the daycare that shelters homeless people. He thinks that is where the ex and Hannah Jean live. The last time I spoke to him he was trying again to serve the ex so that he can schedule a court hearing so that he can ask the judge to bring his baby home.
We have never met in person, we've only spoken on the phone. I imagine that Wilfred's face is wrinkly dark, baked by the sun. He calls me “Miss”, yes Miss, no Miss, thank you Miss. In a scratchy reptilian voice with a thick islander accent, he laments his poverty. A wizened man, a jockey past his prime, small and dark and sad, yearning to see his teenage daughter. Stuck in West Virginia, riding third rate horses at last chance tracks; he has no money. The arrest warrant for contempt for failing to pay child support keeps him away. He calls long distance to explain to the court clerks that he just doesn't have the money to pay; he pays what he can. He just wants to see his daughter.
Denise called me twice a week for a month. Her 26 year old daughter and son-in-law were strung out on something or other. They were drug addicts in love, using whatever they used, and fighting in between. Denise said she knew they were on marijuana. I thought cocaine or meth or pills, and told her so. Their fights were physical, not arguments.
The first time Denise called, she asked how to petition the court to ask for custody of her daughter's two year old. And she told me that her daughter was eight months pregnant. She wanted to know what form to file and how to file it. I told her to call social services, or the police. I told her that social services could take the newborn straight from the hospital and send her home with grandma. I told Denise to invite social services over for a home study, so she could show the worker her clean home and food in the refrigerator.
Sometimes, when we talked, she would tell me a story, and then laugh. She told me about the time her daughter and son-in-law were fist fighting in the McDonald's parking lot, while police officers watched. The officers waited until Denise's daughter and husband finished fighting and then arrested them both. Denise laughed about it. Her daughter was pregnant when that happened. She laughed when she told me that her daughter hadn't taken any prenatal vitamins, and hadn't brushed her hair, bathed or changed clothes in weeks. Just a chuckle, a small disconcerting laugh. Better to laugh than cry.
George is an educated man, a professional, a licensed realtor. He thought he could handle things on his own. He and his wife, Samantha, had been separated for eight years, and had stayed on good terms, more or less. He saw his 10 year old son regularly; his son stayed with him on weekends and one evening during the week.
After separating George and Samantha went on with their separate lives. Samantha had two more children with another man, George had a live in girlfriend. When Samantha and the other man decided to marry, she filed for divorce from George. The divorce petition demanded that George pay child support for the two children that had been fathered by the other man.
Since George and Samantha were still married at the time of the children's birth and conception, George was the legal father, until he filed the right paper proclaiming that he wasn't. To George, those two children were nothing more than his ex's children and the half-sisters of his son.
George came very close to being ordered to pay child support for two children that were not his. In court, the judge told him to file the paper; and told Samantha's attorney to explain to George what to do. After court, in the courthouse hallway, George asked Samantha's attorney what to do, what paper to file. Samantha's attorney refused to tell him. If there is no legal dispute, there are no legal fees. Samantha's attorney invented a dispute where there was none. George and Samantha's more or less good terms ended.
When George first found me, he was already past the date to file that paper. He had not filed it, because he didn't know what to file or what it should say. He could not afford an attorney, and could not understand how in the world anyone could claim that he was the father of those children. I prepared the document for him, and he filed it. George narrowly escaped having to pay thousands of dollars just for the lack of the right paper with the right words.
I prepare legal documents. I do not persuade or advise. When couples, parents, and families, cannot manage their lives on their own, the family court system decides for them. Those who can afford it, hire an attorney. For many, however, the expense is unthinkable. Either, they must give up or go it alone.
There is little help available for the self represented. No one will guide them. They journey to the courthouse and ask the clerk what to do. She will not say. She could lose her job, she could be accused of practicing law. Stubbornly, she refuses to say what she knows.
Legal aid is nearly nonexistent. Guidelines for free legal services are limited, and commonly available only for the severely indigent. Pro bono services, attorneys volunteering their services, are even more difficult to come by. I think that pro bono services are a modern day fairytale.
Having, no choice, people try to solve their problem alone. Anger drives their search. Scouring cyberspace, sifting through thousands of sites, searching for that one grain of information that might help.
When they find me, I can only say so much. To even tell them which form to file is a crime – a felony. Like the court clerk, I am not allowed to choose a form. The government says that merely telling someone which form to file is practicing law. I am careful. I lead them to their own conclusion.
Some people begin to understand the arcane language. The government issued instructions for the forms supposedly designed for average citizens in everyday English, are, in fact, obscure. The wording is like stereo instructions poorly translated from Chinese. The words don't flow. People read the form instructions over and over, desperately trying to find the meaning in the words. Many give up in frustration.
In this country we have the right to access the legal system. The U.S. Constitution guarantees that right. Having a right, and being able to exercise a right are two different things.
We also have the right to bake a cake. But, let's say, that all the recipes are written in a foreign language. And the only people that can understand the foreign language are chefs. And the chefs will bake the cake for you, for a fee, but they refuse to tell you how to do it yourself. Because, if they told people how to do it, people would do it themselves, there would be no need for chefs; and the chefs would lose money. Or, let's say, the recipes aren't completely written in a foreign language, but there are foreign phrases throughout. The recipe writers assume that the readers are chefs, and have spent years in culinary school. The recipes are replete with jargon, unexplained procedures, unavailable ingredients, and foreign phrases.
People in need of cake have three choices. They can pay the chef's fee; teach themselves how to bake; or go without.
Imagine first, that the chefs charge excessive fees -- thousands of dollars for one cupcake, with no guarantee how it will taste. And then imagine, that when a nonchef teaches himself how to bake, he is not allowed to bake cakes for others, or to teach others how to bake their own. He could be charged with a crime – a felony – unauthorized baking. In theory, according to the official chef's association, a nonchef may teach people improper culinary technique, or cause some harm. Maybe, an amateur baker could hurt himself, burn up the kitchen or poison his family. Maybe a chef could do the same ...
There are victories. Through persistent research, consumers can access the legal system. Citizens can exercise their right. Document preparers can direct them to information. document preparers can write helpful articles in an effort to inform consumers, written free speech is, so far, intact, more or less. As long as written words are directed to a general audience, and not to any certain person, I can write as I please. I can invent possible scenarios and provide possible solutions, as long as they are not the real life scenarios of real life people. The argument is that since I am not an attorney, I could cause harm. I could give bad advice. And, its true, I could. Attorneys, likewise, can give bad advice; and sometimes they do.
My spoken words are not protected free speech, not in this part of the world, not here. I may not tell people what to do or how to do it. I may not give legal advice. I may not choose a form. I may not discuss possible outcomes, strategies, or options for any legal action that could affect the legal rights of any certain person. I may not speculate as to what could happen if they filed this or filed that.
As for the governments' answer to citizens' pleas for their right to access the legal system, the government responds with a resounding:
LET THEM EAT CAKE!