I’m somewhat attached to my identity as a “pretty tough cookie.” A Jewish girl from Detroit born to fight. That is what I tell myself when I need to be tough. My early experiences with injustice, racism, child abuse, and bullies certainly puts how I ended up a divorce lawyer into context.
Recently, I had the experience of confronting my fear of death. A past client asked if I could help her renew her “Relief From Abuse Order” against her former husband. He had been serving an eighteen year prison sentence in a tough western state prison for sexually assaulting another woman. He was about to be released and he sounded pretty dangerous.
Family lawyers know that we are also at risk of violence. We deal with some unstable, angry people who want to blame us for their misfortune and the consequences of their own behavior. Family law lawyers, judges and social workers get killed. It can be a dangerous job. They say that family court is more dangerous that criminal court.
I first met my client when she was looking for help with a step-parent adoption for her son. It seemed like a nice thing to do. I didn’t feel threatened since the biological father was in jail, and he wasn’t getting out any time soon.
A step-parent adoption can only occur if: 1) the biological parent consents; or 2) the court finds that the biological parent is unfit to parent, has failed to exercise any parental rights (legal, financial, or emotional) for a certain period of time and the adoption is in the child’s best interests. In this case, the biological father contested the adoption and would not give his consent. The court appointed him a lawyer, and he participated in the termination of his own parental rights in a hearing by telephone from jail.
The boy grew up and was now a young man. The biological father, whose parental rights had been terminated, was being released from jail. Both the son and his mother wanted to renew the restraining order because he was apparently “on his way” from prison to see “his son” and his ex-wife. Without legal assistance, the client sought to renew the old restraining order. The man wanted to fight about it. From a domestic violence lens, he really wanted to see his ex-wife, intimidate her, and confirm his power over her. It was set for a hearing. She and her son appeared in person. He failed to appear.
The court issued a default order for another five years, but then realized an administrative mistake. The man had requested a continuance since he would be released on the hearing date, and he wanted to appear in person. As a result, the court then rescheduled it for two weeks later. That is when my client called me. Her fear was palpable. This was the first time that I can recall seriously questioning whether I wanted to “get involved” with a prior client’s domestic violence problem. I wanted to help her. I really liked her and I knew she and her son needed my help, but deep down I had to admit that I was scared.
In the intervening years, I was involved in a high-profile family court murder case. I represented a father trying to obtain custody of his young daughter because the mother appeared to be decompensating mentally. She was doing drugs and generally neglecting her parental responsibilities. The court disagreed with me and left the child with the mother to give her another chance. My client was devastated. A year later, things were demonstrably worse. I gave him the name of my favorite state social worker and confidently declared that she could help. He called her. The state initiated a juvenile protection case. My client eventually was awarded custody. In response, the mother murdered several people, including the social worker.
Before that tragedy, I had felt safe in my legal armor. I no longer felt that safe. Had I “won” that custody fight the year before, that mother could have easily put the focus of her rage and grief at losing a child on me. I knew that. No one is safe in family court cases and no one ever knows which one might result in catastrophic violence.
I reluctantly agreed to represent my client in her time of need. Instinctively, I arranged for my client, her son and I to appear by telephone from a safe house sponsored by the local domestic violence shelter. There was no reason to give this man any power over any of us, or give him any pleasure in seeing how much he still unnerved his ex-wife. Then I did some serious soul searching about why I said yes in the first place.
The night before the hearing, my vision went like this: I meet the man outside the courthouse and he’s pointing a gun at me, blaming me for keeping him away from his wife and child. I bravely make eye contact and say: “Well, you certainly could shoot me. You would immediately go back to jail. I would die a martyr to the cause of domestic violence and for standing up to bullies like you. I’ve had a great life. I’ve achieved all of my childhood goals (I only had three: be a lawyer, go to Paris, and own a horse). My daughter is well on her way to being the brilliant person she was destined to become, and my life insurance is paid up. While I will certainly miss everyone, I’m actually not afraid to die.”
With that courage in mind, heart and body, I showed up. I took appropriate safety precautions. The bully never appeared.
Can you remember a time when you took a stand, stood up to a bully and got out of your comfort zone? Remember how that felt? That feeling is why I’m a divorce lawyer.