Yesterday marked my 15th family law trial this year, and though my client was thrilled by the result, I could not bring myself to feel happy because I witnessed a horrifying case before mine. I left court and tried to shake the icky feeling, and it still lingers over a day later. I decided to recount it and call fellow lawyers to action to refer prospective clients to resources, instead of turning them away.
If you’re reading this article for the California family law referral letter template, click here.
[Note: To protect the privacy of the parties, I changed and/or omitted identifying details of the following account]
Before trial, I watched ex parte (i.e., emergency) hearings be heard in the same department. The last ex parte hearing lasted nearly an hour. The last case involved a parent’s motion for sole custody of their baby, because the therapist of the other parent warned them that the other parent had plans to kill them and their baby.
The judge asked the parent if the allegations were true. They replied, “well yeah, I don’t know how else to stop the voices. What the hell am I to do?” They went on to explain, frustrated, that in August they made a request to the court to change custody to the other parent, because they were experiencing thoughts of harming their child. They stated they were extremely afraid of what they will or have done to their child, but that they felt their life was spinning out of control. Medications did not help, and one medicine had made it much worse and turned thoughts suicidal. The court earlier in the year denied that request because of a service issue – there was no proof of service of the motion, and it was dropped. The parent stated they called several lawyers, but no one would help answer their question.
The judge was visibly upset at the testimony, and continued to inquire, gently, about where the child was. The parent shrugged. The judge issued a temporary order changing custody to the other parent, to which the former custodial parent replied, “that doesn’t mean anything and it doesn’t matter now anyway, does it?” The judge asked again, “where is the baby? Where is the child?” The parent replied, “with god ma’am.”
I do not want to sit in court and see a case unfold like that ever again. My heart dropped. The bailiff’s face went white. The judge’s voice cracked, holding back tears.
Taking everything stated by the parties as true, I do not believe the court is at fault for denying the parent’s initial motion on procedural grounds. Service and notice are fundamental to due process and fair litigation. I think the therapist’s decision to inform the non-custodial parent was brave, and may have saved lives.
As for the lawyers who allegedly turned away that parent: we can do better than that. As a law firm owner and attorney, I openly acknowledge that I run a business as much as I solve problems, represent clients, and fight the good fight. I have a living to earn, and if I took on every client that called my office, regardless of ability to pay, I would be out of business and unable to provide helpful legal services at all.
I also recognize that attorneys have a superpower we can wield for free: making referrals.
So I urge attorneys out there who receive calls from desperate people: listen to spot the issue(s) they’re asking about (e.g., family law, housing, mental health crisis, etc.), and have a referral list to give people the power of information even if their needs are outside the scope of your practice.
If you don’t have time to make your own referral list, you can use mine for family law (and it also serves as a declining representation letter): Family Law Sample Referral Letter & Declining Representation.
Mental Health Referrals:
If you believe there is a mental health crisis at issue, keep these numbers/resources handy:
- National Suicide Prevention/Crisis Line (24/7)
- NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness
- NAMI Crisis Text Line – Text NAMI to 741-741
Connect with a trained crisis counselor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message. – See more at: http://www.nami.org/Find-Support/NAMI-HelpLine#sthash.h3RHTswm.dpuf
- Emergency / 911
If you are calling 911, be sure to tell the operator that it is a “mental health emergency” and ask for emergency responders with Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training. Many first responders will approach a mental health situation differently if they know what to expect. – See more at: http://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Treatment/Getting-Treatment-During-a-Crisis#sthash.bhALwAG4.dpuf
I do not believe lawyers can solve every problem, but when we receive calls from prospective clients who need help that we are unable to provide, please refer them instead of just turning them away. Making an impact can be as simple as sending a list of referral resources via an email that takes less than a minute to send.
Other ways you can help:
- Take the stigma out of mental health by discussing mental illness and health care like any other ailment.
- Volunteer at a legal clinic. It can take weeks or even over a month for a person to get an appointment because clinics are often understaffed and underfunded. Encourage other lawyers to join you.
- Write informational articles to answer common legal questions, and put it on your firm’s website. If you don’t have time to do this yourself, contact a local law school and enlist the help of an eager student.
- Offer limited scope representation services. For more information, click here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/1085.htm.
By Christina E. Cortino, Esq., a family law attorney practicing in Sacramento and Bay Area counties.
Disclaimer: This publication is designed to provide our clients and contacts with information they can use to more effectively manage their resources and information. The contents of these publications are for informational purposes only. Neither the publication nor the lawyer(s) who authored it are rendering legal or other professional advice or opinions on specific facts or matters. The author assumes no liability in connection with the use of this publication.