first_img Pro bono lawyers labor for love: Two years, seven attorneys, hundreds of hours later, boy gets to keep his mom Associate EditorMiami lawyer Marc Douthit happened to be in the courtroom the day a poor woman who loved a little boy like her own son said she needed a lawyer.Geraldine Scott wanted to adopt James. She had cared for him since he was 2 months old, a cocaine-exposed baby without his biological mother. But when little James was 2 years old, the Department of Children and Families suddenly took the child away — simply because the agency said Scott was too poor to raise him, even though she had never taken a cent of public assistance.Little did Douthit realize that what he witnessed that day in August 2001, the indignation that churned in his gut, would spark a monumental legal battle with a cadre of lawyers working pro bono for two years. And he would be part of it all to make sure a little boy got to keep the only mother he had known.That day finally came July 17, 2003, with an adoption hearing, with 11th Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman presiding, joining Scott and James together as legal mother and child.“What makes us do it for free? Sometimes right is right,” Douthit said. “When you stand there and see someone who is banged around the system and doesn’t really have a place to turn, to me, it was either just stand there and do nothing or step up and do something!”Do something he did, along with hundreds of hours of legal help from lawyers Fran Allegra, Alan Mishael, and Holland & Knight lawyers Bob Levenson and Lori Weems. In addition, there was a guardian ad litem on the case, as well as the GAL staff attorney Abbie Cuellar, with invaluable help from Louis M. Reidenberg, pro bono attorney for the GAL program.In Weems’ words, “it was a long battle with personalities and politics and everything else. It was ugly.”On July 17, while Weems was standing at baggage claim at Miami International Airport, wiping away tears over the recent death of her mentor and friend 85-year-old Chesterfield Smith, her cell phone rang. It was Judge Lederman letting her know there was finally a happy ending to this long saga.In the 11th hour, the attorney for DCF agreed to allow Scott to adopt James, now 4.“I was hysterical,” Weems recalled of that moment tears of sadness mixed with tears of joy.“It was the day after Mr. Smith died, and it could not have been more fitting. I think it all starts and ends with Mr. Smith. What he taught me was to ‘do good.’ And he always told me, ‘I want you to be somebody’ in the law. He didn’t just say in the law. He meant be somebody in the law and in your life. What he meant was not to have a big name. I think what he meant is to be somebody who is a professional,” Weems said.“I remember once asking Mr. Smith whether he thought pro bono should be mandatory. I had come from Texas, where we didn’t have the requirement. He looked at me like I was nuts. He said it doesn’t matter if it’s written down. There is mandatory pro bono.”All Douthit knew that day in Lederman’s courtroom in August 2001 was that it was mandatory he get involved and offer his services for free, out of a sense of fairness.As an observer in the courtroom, he had gleaned this much: With DCF’s blessing, Scott had taken care of James since he was a baby. No one argued Scott, who was a friend of the boy’s father, was anything but a good mother to this motherless child. But here she was in court two years later, after DCF unexpectedly took James away from Scott during an office visit. Agency officials said Scott was too poor to adopt the child after his parents’ rights were terminated.Douthit’s ears perked up listening to those details of this intriguing love-vs.-money dependency case. He watched Scott ask for a lawyer. He saw the lawyer for DCF say Scott did not have a right to be heard or be appointed a lawyer, because she was not a parent and therefore not a party in the case. He observed Judge Lederman appoint a lawyer and tell DCF they could take it up on appeal.The lawyer’s name who came up on the “wheel” was Fran Allegra. Douthit called Allegra, told her what he had witnessed, and agreed to help.“My view was this woman is not a disposable part of the system,” Douthit said of that day he first saw Scott in court. “She had provided a valuable service. She took care of the child for two years and no one complained. When no one needed her anymore, it was thank you very much, goodbye, we’re taking the child.”Allegra showed up at the hearing the next day, only to have DCF again object to her being Scott’s court-appointed attorney.“So I agreed with DCF and volunteered to stay on the case pro bono,” Allegra said, taking that issue off the table for good.Judge Lederman appointed the GAL and requested that Lawyers for Children America assign a pro bono lawyer for James.“Our circuit is blessed to have a wonderful GAL program, GAL lawyers, and Lawyers for Children America, all based on the best interest model and both working together,” Judge Lederman said after the case was over. “Two members of the defense bar represented Ms. Scott pro bono as well. Unfortunately, we do not have enough GALs, and we have very few attorneys who do this work. We often call upon the same excellent, altruistic attorneys time after time. I believe that every dependent child desperately needs a GAL and some dependent children need lawyers, as well. We do not have enough of either.”Judge Lederman ordered James back into Scott’s custody within a week of his removal, but the legal wrangling had just begun.“We all knew the case would require substantial legal work, and we knew getting the Holland & Knight firm involved would bring needed muscle,” Allegra said. “Alan Mishael has a good track record on the precise issue and often volunteers pro bono for the GAL for technical appeals, which this would be.”So Allegra and Douthit divvied up their work. Douthit and Mishael wrote briefs for the appeal, along with Levenson, the original Holland & Knight lawyer on the case before he left the firm and Weems took over. Douthit argued with appellate counsel and handled an administrative appeal. Allegra filed the adoption petition. Then, Weems and Mischael litigated DCF’s right to custody in the lower court. Once the appellate stay was lifted, the GAL attorney, Cuellar, and Weems took the lead on initiating litigation in the lower court. The appeal was taken immediately in September 2001, and the lawyers for Scott and James won the case of first impression ( DCF v. JC ), and DCF sought a rehearing. In a 10-1 decision in July, the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami refused to reconsider its 2002 ruling that it was “appropriate and legal” for Judge Lederman to question DCF’s decision to remove James from Scott’s home. The Third DCA also refused DCF’s request that the appeals court ask the Florida Supreme Court to consider the case.Mishael’s good track record on appeals was just what this case needed. He is a commercial lawyer who has been doing pro bono work on children’s issues since 1990, after he took a GAL training course out of “an impulse toward social justice.”He said he didn’t go to the GAL training expecting to take a case, but that’s exactly what happened, and the rest is history. In the 13 years since, Mishael has racked up many pro bono awards for working on children’s issues. He said he takes on difficult cases no one else wants, and he thrives on the challenge, whether it’s the case of a civil rights action for an immigrant foster child, the case of a biracial adoption, or a current case representing a foster mother of a quadriplegic child who has not taken a real bath in over a year because the house has not been outfitted to be accessible for the disabled.Why did he agree to take on the appeal in the case of Geraldine Scott and James?“How would you feel if people raised you through age three or four and then they suddenly plunk you in some other slot? It could change your whole life,” Mishael said.“Here is the gravity of the situation: You can have a social worker who is greatly qualified and sets aside personal baggage, or you might not. The common thread in these cases is the failure of the separation of powers. You can have arbitrary decision making by the agency and the child is defenseless. I think we owe children more. I see this case as the end of a titanic struggle between two branches of government.”As Mishael further explains why he takes on these cases, he waxes philosophical about how vulnerable children are without lawyers in difficult dependency cases.“Not only don’t children vote, they typically come from families not equipped or inclined to do so. Since children don’t vote, change occurs from the bottom up, not top down. Since the legislative and executive branches are not constituted to the needs of those who don’t vote, the judiciary has a special role to play in making sure the values and ideals of our form of government are made available and are accessible to people who really have no voice in a represented democracy.”Besides all that lofty nobility, it just plain feels good.“As a lawyer, I found that if I apply my high abilities in this area of the law, I derive great satisfaction. The law is a great leveler,” Mishael said.Douthit, a partner with Gordon Murray, said they foster a philosophy of pro bono service at their law firm.“I probably do more pro bono work than I realize,” Douthit said. “Sometimes, you don’t know you’re doing pro bono until you realize you haven’t gotten paid,” he adds with a chuckle.“A couple of times a week, I tell myself I will stop doing this. These cases are time-intensive.. . Then a case like this one comes along and occasionally the good guys win one. All of a sudden, I can’t imagine how I would not do this.”At Holland & Knight, Weems is fortunate to work for the country’s eighth largest law firm, founded by Chesterfield Smith, that makes pro bono work a priority.“They don’t just give us the time. They back it up with billable hours credit,” Weems said.Good thing, because this case took a lot of time. As Weems said, “This was an exceptionally egregious case. This woman loved this little boy. He loved her, more importantly.. . . For me, I do pro bono because it keeps me remembering why I wanted to be a lawyer in the first place.”While she puts in a lot of hours at the firm, in addition to her pro bono work, Weems said: “I have never been exhausted representing James and making sure he had a mommy.”In fact, the case energized her.Cuellar, the staff attorney for the GAL program in Miami, said the happy ending likely would not have happened without the team effort.“It was a rare instance where a bunch of attorneys got along with each other,” Cuellar said with a laugh.“It was too much for one attorney, even two attorneys to handle.. . . Isn’t is sad you needed 10 people working together to get this child to stay in the home? An average person would not have won this case. Thank God for pro bonos. Thank God for all the lawyers who worked for free.”Allegra agrees.“Without the tireless assistance and coordinated team of pro bono lawyers, there is no question that James and Geraldine would have been permanently separated,” Allegra said.“The team forced the department to consent to James and Geraldine becoming a family. This legal ‘miracle’ would have been impossible for Geraldine to manage on her own, and it would have been too much for one lawyer to take on.”The case captured the hearts of many.“Our community came together to help James,” Lederman said. “Sister Jean O’Laughlin (of Barry University) and the great Chesterfield Smith are two examples of support the child and his custodian had. I am very grateful to our community for the support James received, before and even now after the case has been decided. People call my office every day to offer to help Ms. Scott. The Transit Workers Union is sending them to Disney World.”Cuellar was in the courtroom the day the adoption was carried out.Judge Lederman smiled at Scott and said: “I know how much you love James. And I know how hard you have fought for him. You have been his psychological mother. Today, I am making you his legal mother, and no one will ever take James away from you again.”Tears and cheers erupted.“Oh, my God, I was crying from the moment DCF said, ‘We consent,’” Cuellar said.“It was such a long battle. Every time we thought, now, something else would happen. Even to the very last second, DCF didn’t tell us. They were looking at the rule book. We were sitting there making bets. I’m betting lunches they won’t consent. We were ready to do a barrage of appeals if they didn’t. We would have filed a motion to vacate custody to DCF. We decided we would do a million things if they wouldn’t consent. For her to say, ‘We consent,’ I just thanked God that the day has finally arrived. I went home from work that day thinking I can retire, now I can retire in peace. This child has his mother.”Allegra is entitled to receive up to $1,000 from the state for the adoption. But in a fitting final gesture in a case where a pack of pro bono lawyers came to a little boy’s rescue, she said: “I am donating this fee to James.” August 15, 2003 Jan Pudlow Associate Editor Regular News Pro bono lawyers labor for love: Two years, seven attorneys, hundreds of hours later, boy gets to keep his momlast_img

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