The practice of law as a profession implicitly carries with it the duty of helping our fellow human beings.
By Cindi B. Graham, Family Lawyer
The call came on a day when I was swamped. My secretary told me there was somebody holding for me; an old client who wasn’t calling about business. The name instantly took me back eleven years, to the only time I have cried in the courtroom, in front of a jury no less. (I admit this reluctantly as I hate to destroy my tough lawyer image.)
Misty’s story is a long and painful one. Her parents had been addicted to drugs. She was pregnant at fifteen, a mother at sixteen. By eighteen, she had started heavily using meth and marijuana. She had two more children before the age of twenty-two. She married the father of her two youngest children, who was a drug user and horribly abusive. She had to watch her every action for fear of setting him off, and suffered beatings if her husband overslept or did not like her cooking. Her address held the city police department’s record for most domestic violence calls that year.
Misty was twenty-one when I met her, coming to me originally because Child Protective Services had opened a case for neglect against her and her husband. She had little money, but I agreed to represent her, and talked her into filing for divorce several weeks later.
Misty got her children back a couple of times, only to test positive for drug use and have them taken again. After the third time, she did not get them back, and she was sent to a drug rehabilitation facility. She had long since run out of money with me, but I couldn’t bring myself to withdraw from her case—there was something special about her.
In March 2003, the Department filed an action seeking termination of her and the father’s rights to their children. While I had warned Misty that this would happen, it took the filing of that Motion to Terminate to really get her attention.
Because her rights were being terminated, the judge in her case appointed me to represent her, which meant that I would get paid for her trial.
When we got to the courthouse, Misty was terrified. In addition to this being a termination action, her divorce would finally be heard that day, too. Her husband was there with his lawyer as was the lawyer appointed to represent the children. Numerous witnesses were there including the psychologist who had conducted evaluations of Misty and her husband. Undoubtedly dreading the reality of what was coming, Misty told me that she would sign over her rights to her children if her husband would. His lawyer, however, felt he could get the children back. So we proceeded to trial.
It was during the psychologist’s testimony that something clicked inside Misty. He was testifying to her addiction issues and how they impeded her ability to properly give her children the care they needed. She leaned toward me with tears in her eyes and said she would give up her children. I immediately asked the judge for a break.
During the break I asked Misty if she was sure that was what she wanted to do. She tearfully said it was. I explained that because her husband was not giving up his rights, she would have to testify against him. Misty signed the relinquishment of her parental rights form, with tears streaming down both our faces.
She testified that she knew she hadn’t cared for her children properly. As the details of her drug usage and neglectful parenting came out, so too did those of abuse directed at her throughout the marriage. Listening to her I started to cry again. Before her testimony ended, the father’s attorney asked for a recess. The father then signed away his rights to the children.
The judge dismissed the jury and finished hearing Misty’s testimony so he could grant her and her husband a divorce, while also terminating their parental rights. As Misty and I left the courtroom, we were approached by several of the jurors who had been dismissed an hour beforehand. They said they were sorry about what she had gone through and were relieved she gave up her children so they didn’t have to struggle with the decision of terminating her parental rights.
The trial wasn’t the last of her problems. Misty was eventually imprisoned for theft. It was a place for her to get free of drugs but also a terrifying experience where she witnessed many violent acts. She found comfort in the hope she might become reconciled with her children. Following her release, Misty moved closer to her family in Texas, but struggled with prescription drug abuse causing her father to close his doors to her. Knowing she couldn’t lose her family again, she sobered up. In 2004 she attended the Academy of Professional Careers and is now working in Amarillo for two physicians as a phlebotomist. She remains completely drug free.
Misty told me on the phone there were several things I had told her during my representation that had stuck with her. As she was signing away her rights I told her: “This is not the end. Make this the beginning of getting your life on track and live your life right, then everything else will fall into place one day.” Misty says that I was right, and that it just took more time than she thought it would.
The woman who adopted Misty’s children is seeking help from her in guiding her teenage son through a difficult adolescence. She is even considering allowing him to move in with Misty and her new husband. While Misty is thrilled with the idea, she is also scared and wondering if she can now be the type of mother her son needs.
We rarely get to see the turnarounds in our cases, so it’s inspiring and reassuring to me that what I do for a living sometimes does count and can make a difference. The notion of the practice of law as a profession implicitly carries with it the duty of helping our fellow human beings. While we have the right to make money as attorneys, we also need to pay our successes and privileges forward.
The next time you have someone who needs help, don’t be afraid to volunteer. Remember that most jurisdictions will waive court costs, filing fees, and even service fees if you are handling a case pro bono for a person with limited means.
I am so glad I took that phone call that day. Misty restored my faith in what I do and reminded me how much our work matters.
Cindi Barela Graham is board certified in Family Law and has been named a Texas Super Lawyer every year since 2008. She currently serves as a director to the Texas Academy of Family Law Specialists and is on the Board of the Texas State Bar’s Family Law Section.