A pandemic is no excuse to keep a family apart. In fact, it’s a time when keeping families together is more important than ever. Unfortunately, some see a crisis as an opportunity to do just the opposite.
Francesca Martin’s (name changed for confidentiality) two children were scheduled (per a DC custody order) to stay with their father over spring break in another state. When DC’s spring break came early due to COVID-19, Ms. Martin agreed to move the visit up, but at the end of the visit, the children’s father refused to give her children back and threatened violence against her. The father was also not giving one of the children her daily prescription medications. The police in the father’s state couldn’t enforce the DC custody order.
Legal Aid helped Ms. Martin file an emergency motion for contempt of the custody order and attended a virtual emergency hearing the same day. The court agreed that the children’s father was in contempt and ordered him to return the children the coming weekend. The father complied with the order, and the children are now safe in DC with Ms. Martin.
Legal Aid is relieved that Ms. Martin and her children are safe, but our Domestic Violence/Family Law Unit remains vigilant. Ms. Martin is one of hundreds of parents who now find themselves and their families in unprecedented circumstances. Amidst this uncertainty, our team remains as committed as ever to advocating for the safety and stability of our clients and their families.
A Father United with His Daughters
Damion Burriss initially came to Legal Aid in early 2018 when he was seeking custody of his older daughter, Skylar. Mr. Burriss was just a teenager when Skyler was born, and his grandmother took custody of her for several years. Now a bit older and more stable, Mr. Burriss and Skylar’s mother went to court to get custody of their daughter back. With Legal Aid’s advice, Mr. Burriss was successful, and he and Skylar’s mother agreed to share custody equally.
In late 2018, Mr. Burriss came back to Legal Aid with a new issue, and met with attorney Jamie Sparano. Mr. Burriss had a brief relationship earlier that year with a woman he had known since childhood. She got pregnant and told him she was terminating the pregnancy. She blocked his number and stopped contacting him. Later, Mr. Burriss learned that the woman had not terminated her pregnancy and had given birth to a daughter, Reign. He also learned that Reign’s biological mother had arranged for a private adoption and that Reign was living with prospective adoptive parents in New York.
Mr. Burriss went to court to contest the adoption, but the case moved slowly and adoption law isn’t very father-friendly. Finally, when Reign was about 6 months old, the prospective adoptive parents agreed to drop their case and Mr. Burriss got to meet his daughter and bring her home. But he still had an uphill battle. He had to bring Reign’s biological mother back to court to establish paternity, get himself added to Reign’s birth certificate, and fight for sole custody.
Reign’s biological mother only showed up to one hearing. In her absence, the Court agreed to hold a default hearing. Mr. Burriss testified about how hard he fought for his daughter, and all of the things he did to give her a happy and safe home. He spoke about how his seven-year-old daughter, Skylar, loves playing with Reign’s hair, and how they have dance parties in their living room. The judge granted Mr. Burriss sole physical custody and sole legal custody in February just before the pandemic.
Since 2011, Legal Aid has helped Harmony Burns-Gibson (name changed for confidentiality) with different cases, including housing, family law, immigration and public benefits. Ms. Burns-Gibson is a breast cancer survivor and we have assisted her every fall over the past nine years with an analysis of Medicare Part D Prescription plans. In 2017, we learned that Ms. Burns-Gibson had assumed care for her granddaughter, Dorothy, that summer.
Dorothy travelled to the U.S. from Nigeria after her parents died in a bus accident. Legal Aid attorney Carolyn Rumer helped Ms. Burns-Gibson obtain health insurance for Dorothy through the Immigrant Children’s Program. In February 2020, we represented Ms. Burns-Gibson in a custody hearing to obtain full custody of Dorothy and the necessary findings to pursue a Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) case. We will be representing Dorothy in the SIJS case so she can obtain full legal status.
“I have never been able to talk to a lawyer and feel safe or feel free the way I talk to Carolyn. When I talk to her I feel safe and feel free to share things.”HARMONY BURNS-GIBSON