When Leslie became pregnant at 24, she was nervous. Leslie is an immigrant from El Salvador, living with her mother in a shared basement with no other family nearby. Her partner, also the baby’s father, had become controlling and aggressive during the pregnancy and caused the relationship to end. Throughout the course of her pregnancy, the child’s father threatened to take the baby away from her and back to his home country. Her partner had financial resources and connections, and he used this power to take advantage of Leslie’s immigration fears, her limited income, and her lack of familiarity with the justice system in the United States.
Despite the increase in emotional abuse and the lack of financial support from the baby’s father, Leslie did everything she could to stay healthy and prepare for the child. On, September 5, 2019, Oliver was born.
Just a couple of weeks after this happy arrival, Leslie received a court notice that Oliver’s father was filing for full custody. Leslie was terrified. She knew she could give Oliver a good life: she had a job, her mother to provide childcare, and so much love for her child.
With no knowledge of the court system, Leslie was worried she would say something wrong and the system would remove Oliver from her home as the father had threatened repeatedly. She needed legal help. Leslie went to the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network (FIRN), which helped her complete an intake application to receive free legal services from MVLS. MVLS volunteer attorney Thomas Mulinazzi saw the case on the MVLS Pro Bono Portal and instantly knew he wanted to help. He understood Leslie was in a difficult situation from handling cases like this in the past and was at a huge disadvantage with the court date only 10 days away.
The Mulinazzi Law Office took the case on December 26, 2019, and they were prepared for the January 7, 2020, court date. The team provided substantial evidence that Oliver was well cared for by his mother, and the court agreed ruling that Oliver would stay with Leslie and have a gradual, phased-in visitation schedule with his father. They also ruled that the father owed Leslie child support and assistance with previous hospital bills.
Leslie was thrilled with the outcome. “I don’t know what I would have done on my own…God sent that help,” she shared. Without the help of MVLS, Leslie may not have been able to retain custody of Oliver. Having adequate legal representation in family law cases helps ensure fairness and increases the chances of a favorable court judgement.
Today, Oliver is a growing baby who loves to crawl, play with his mother, and is just beginning to teethe. Sadly, he has been unable to build a relationship with his father, who has only visited a couple of times in the past few months.
Leslie’s case is not unique, MVLS placed 269 contested custody cases in FY20 with volunteer attorneys. Many of MVLS’ contested custody cases are through our Judicare Program and attorneys can receive reduced fees for these often-complex family law matters which often require litigation and a larger time commitment. MVLS is able to pay experienced family law attorneys who take these cases a reduced fee of $100 for up to 30 hours per case through a generous grant from the Administrative Office of the Courts, administered by the Maryland Legal Services Corporation.
Unfortunately, Leslie’s case continues and despite everything that has happened the father recently appealed the court’s decision, requesting full custody once again. Leslie continues to work with the team at Mulinazzi Law Office and is hopeful for a positive outcome knowing she has strong legal representation to keep her family together.
Family law cases are one of the greatest areas of need for MVLS clients. If you can help take a family law case or would like to learn more about our Judicare Program please visit our Pro Bono Portal to help a Maryland family today. MVLS also offers extensive training opportunities about family law cases which are available to view anytime on our website.