Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Todo Sobre La Madre (All About the Mother)

Yesterday afternoon I told a 14 year old girl that her father wasn’t coming back home that night.

The girl’s mother, “Mrs. A” and I had just secured a court order of protection in Queens Family Court preventing her father from entering the family’s home or from having any contact with the family going forward. As we stood outside of the courtroom, Mrs. A turned to me and asked me to tell her daughter what had just happened.

Yesterday was the first time for both me and the family to set foot in the courthouse. My role, along with several other law students from the New York area, was to serve as an advocate for women applying for orders of protection against their “intimate partners” (defined as husbands or boyfriends, if they share a child together). This meant interviewing my client in order to detail the reasons behind her application; preparing and submitting the petition for the order of protection; and appearing alongside my client in front of the judge to ensure the proper order of protection was granted and that her interests were adequately heard.

When I met Mrs. A this morning she appeared to be an even-keeled middle-aged Hispanic woman who was dressed well, but not lavishly, and who spoke English as if she had lived here for a long time. Her story came out during the course of our interview and was essentially as follows: Mrs. A used to run a cleaning business but was forced to stop after suffering a leg injury several years ago. Since then, she has become a full-time house mother, taking care of a two year-old son and the aforementioned 14 year old daughter. In the meantime, Mr. A works as a building superintendent in Manhattan, though he has been fired from several buildings because of his temper, and he also took over running the business, which Mrs. A believes is now down to one client. Mrs. A has no idea how much her husband makes, and all funds and purchases, including Mrs. A’s pocket money, are controlled directly by him.

While Mr. A has been physically and verbally abusive to Mrs. A during the entire course of her 15 year marriage, only several incidents were filed with the police prior to yesterday’s incident. Two of those incidents included a physical assault eight years ago, after which Mrs. A declined to press charges, and another incident in which Mr. A pulled over on a highway in Queens and tried choking his wife until she and her daughter got out of the car in the middle of the highway and made their own way home. (Mr. A is the father of both of the children).

The “straw that broke the camel’s back” so to speak took place Sunday, when Mrs. A called the police to intervene against her husband, after he turned a morning discussion on their daughter’s spring break plans into a heated shouting match that involved a steady stream of verbal invective against Mrs. A and a threat to cut her off entirely from any money. The police advised Mrs. A to come to court yesterday and this time, she decided to act on their advice. Why this time instead of previously? Most likely, Mrs. A was spurred to take action because her daughter has increasingly been on the receiving end of Mr. A’s violent hands, though Mrs. A was doing her best to literally put herself in the way whenever he threatened their daughter. Three weeks ago, the daughter ran away from home to the school guidance counselor because of this situation. (statement of the obvious: people usually run away from school, not to school).

After we filled out her petition for an order of protection, Mrs. A went to pick up her son and daughter from school and then returned with them to the courthouse. Neither of them knew the specifics of why they were there, though the daughter had some peripheral understanding that it had to do with her father. While we were waiting to be called by the judge I had a chance to speak with her, and it was clear she had very mixed feelings about what was right and who’s side she should be on – her mother’s or her father’s.

During the wait I also had the opportunity to speak with and hear the stories of other people who had come in to court yesterday. One woman, who was clearly among the most wealthy of the people in attendance, told me with a smile that she was there to teach her husband a lesson. Among other things he controlled all the money in the household and wouldn’t let her have any pocket money; he insulted her on a continuous basis; and, most recently, he switched the shampoo in her shampoo bottles with a mixture of ammonia and turpentine (she realized this before she put it in her hair but it caused significant blistering on her hands that she showed me). It didn't appear that this woman wanted her husband gone permanently, just long enough to teach him how to behave properly. Another woman who came to court yesterday morning was in the midst of messy divorce proceedings with her husband that had been dragging out since she first came to court to get an order of protection against him 18 months ago. The woman needed an order of protection after he chased her with a meat cleaver (but wasn’t able to catch her because he was too obese) and after he jumped on her knee repeatedly, causing it to break and putting her on long-term disability.

After a couple of hours of waiting, Mrs. A was called before the judge and she and I were both sworn in. In a span of no more than two minutes, the judge reviewed the petition, confirmed that the statements contained therein were true, and granted the order forcing Mr. A to leave the house. Based on my recommendation, the judge also granted Mrs. A $200/week in child support since she has no other source of income.

And with that, we walked outside. There was no Peoples’ Court reporter waiting to interview us in the hallway; only Mrs. A’s daughter and son who didn’t really have an idea what was in store for them. When I broke the news, the daughter simply bottled up and looked ready to leave. While she acknowledged that the situation at home was untenable, she also justified her father hitting her by saying that he only does it when she acts up. Both Mrs. A and I emphasized that nothing justifies the hitting.

I spoke with Mrs. A this morning, and after several attempts by the police last night, Mr. A was served with the order of protection and left the house. The A couple is due in court on Friday in order to provide Mr. A with an opportunity to respond to the order of protection and to seek court supervised visitation rights with his children. No doubt, the road to the stable and quiet family life Mrs. A seeks for her children will be a long one, and will wind its way through Queens Family Court, through the divorce proceedings that she intends to initiate, and lastly, through the struggle to obtain the income necessary to support her children. As countless statistics bear out, this road is one that's been paved by many women before Mrs. A, and will continue to be traveled afterwards. I only hope that the children being brought along for the ride manage to stay on until they reach the rainbow that's shimmering in the distance.