Wednesday, May 8, 2013

One Grocery Sack

My secretary, late in the day, buzzed me on the intercom and asked, “Do you want a late appointment?  It’s a mother and daughter and they seem very panicky.”

“No.  Not really, but if they’re upset, it might be interesting.  I’ll do it.”    It had been a long day and I was looking forward to a peaceful dinner, maybe followed by a motorcycle ride in the country.  Little did I know what was to develop out of this late meeting.

At 6pm my secretary ushered two ladies into my office.  The older was about sixty and identified herself as the other lady’s mother.  The daughter looked to be about 35 years old.  They both sat down and I immediately noticed that the daughter appeared to be extremely upset, as she was shaking and continually scrunching up a handkerchief in her hand. She was blotting away tears. Her mother sat up straight in her chair, leaned over my desk and said, “We need a lawyer, I think.  We need some really good legal advice for sure.  Can you help us?”

“I don’t know, yet.  Why don’t you tell me what the problem is, I’ll take some notes, and we will go from there?”  And so, for the next hour they told me their story.

It seems that the daughter, whom I shall call Sue, and her husband, had been trying to make a baby without success, despite all the assistance that modern fertility medicine could offer.  Daughter’s unfortunate plight had been the topic of discussion on numerous occasions by Sue’s mother, who I shall call Sally, and all those who worked in near proximity to Sally on the line at Delphi Electronics.  

One day, a coworker of Sally’s asked if Sue still wanted a baby.  Sally replied in the affirmative and the coworker said that she thought she could help. The coworker told Sally that a distant member of her Tennessee family was the father of an eighteen month old child, who had been totally abandoned by her mother, who had two other small children.  The mother hadn’t been seen in almost a year. Co-worker told Sally that father of the child was pretty much worthless, refused to work, and would not provide financially for the child.  The little girl and her indolent father were temporarily living in a flea infested motel near Scottsburg. A long string of usually unidentifiable males were sharing the single room with dad and daughter.  The more responsible members of the family believed the living arrangement was going to end in disaster for the little girl.

 However, no one in her family had stepped forward to offer help for the child, as they were afraid of the natural father who had something of a temper, which was usually on display when he was consorting with his roommate and Mr. Jim Beam, which, as it turned out, was most of the time.

 If Sally and Sue would take the time to drive to Scottsburg, they could pick up the child and her few, meager belongings and begin adoption proceedings with father’s cooperation and that of her family.  Needless to say, Sally and Sue were in their car on the way to Scottsburg that very evening, positively elated at their good fortune.

Upon arrival at the flea-bag hotel, they were met by an unidentified adult male, who handed over the sleeping little girl who was filthy, her hair uncombed, teeth unbrushed, and had been put to bed in the clothes she had worn that day.  The television was blaring in the background over the loud argument of two older men, one of whom was presumably the child’s father. 

 Sally was then handed a torn, greasy grocery sack, which was filled with dirty, mismatched articles of clothing, one pair of worn out tennis shoes with holes in the toes and the child’s birth certificate and shot records.  As soon as Sally and Sue left the hotel, Sue promptly pitched the  clothing, which was infested with fleas, kept the birth certificate and shot records and enjoyed holding her now soundly sleeping daughter in her arms all the way back to Kokomo.

From the time of arrival in Kokomo until about four years later, all was well. No adoption procedure was ever started. However, when it came time to enroll child in preschool, a problem was encountered, because Sue had no legal paperwork placing child with her.  Sue was told by the school principal that she needed a completed adoption or a guardianship to enroll child. Both of those proceedings would normally require the cooperation of the child’s mom and dad.  Unfortunately, upon checking with dad’s family, Sue learned that he was gone with the wind, not having been seen in at least 3 or 4 years.  Natural mom was still out of the picture, no one having seen her in at least 5 years. 

 Learning these things had panicked both Sue and Sally, who had visions of child being snatched away from them by the police or the welfare department, if they were unable to comply with the school’s request. Even worse was the fact that the school administration now knew that a child of uncertain origin was residing within their domain.

They both told me that the child was the joy of their lives, had been fully integrated into both homes and was the apple of both husbands’ eyes.  This sequence of events and the child’s cloudy legal status had triggered the appointment.

I told them that all was not lost.  We needed to go through the complicated process of filing an adoption, notifying all the interested parties by running legal ads in the local newspaper, and having an adoption hearing, which was usually routine.  I assured them that I had done this many times before and that, providing natural mom and dad stayed gone, the adoption would likely be granted.  They seemed greatly relieved, inquired about my fees, paid them, and confirmed they would be back in two days to sign the petition to adopt the child.

I prepared the legal paperwork, alleging the child had been abandoned by both parents and that neither parent could be found, obtained Sue’s signature and filed all of it with the court.  Since there would need to be a home study done by the welfare department, along with updating the shot records for the child, the hearing to finalize the adoption was scheduled for about 4 months away. For a while all was well and on schedule, just as predicted.

About a week before the hearing was to take place I received a telephone call from my good friend and fellow attorney, William “Bill” Beck.

“Michael, do you represent one Sue ____ in an adoption set for hearing in a week?”  

 My heart sunk.“Yes, I do.  What do you need, Bill?”

“Well, it seems that I have, as we speak, sitting across from me, the child’s natural mother,  Nancy ____.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Unfortunately, no, I am not kidding.  She is here and has employed me to represent her at the hearing coming up.  She intends to resist the adoption and will prove that her ex- husband ripped off the kid and was  on the run with the kid up to the time your client got her five years ago.”

“I don’t think it will make much difference, will it, Bill, since she abandoned the child for at least five years?”

“Well, that’s the thing, Mike. If she really had skipped out on the kid, you’d be right. But, you wouldn’t believe the boxes of information she has with her, documenting her search for this child.  

 Her ex-husband stole the child from her and he has been one step ahead of her ever since.  Mike, there is no way she abandoned the kid.  You ought to see this stuff she has documenting her search.  I couldn’t have done better.  You are going to lose this one.”

“Maybe so, but I would like to look at what you’ve got.  Is that OK?”

“Sure, I’ll send my secretary over with it.”   

He sent it over and it was true.  This woman had mounted an exhaustive search through five states trying to find her daughter. It was undeniable that the judge was going to believe that the child had been stolen, not abandoned, and that mom had tried desperately to find her by tracking her ex-husband.  If I could not prove abandonment, and it was clear that I couldn’t, the judge would have no choice but to restore child to either natural mom or dad.

After I had carefully gone over the natural mom’s documentation, I realized that I needed to have a talk with my clients to tell them that I could not win the case, that the judge had no choice about restoring child to natural mom, since dad had no chance of custody, considering that he had kidnapped and hidden the child from a desperately and relentlessly searching mom.

So I called Bill and said, “Let’s you and me go see the judge and get him up to speed on what’s happened and see what he wants to do about the hearing.”

“Good idea,” said Bill.  

So Bill and I met with the judge, who immediately saw no point in having a hearing, as it would be very painful to my client and that he, the judge, had no choice but to restore child to mom.  I hated to admit it, but the judge was right.

Walking with Bill on the way back to our offices, I said to Bill, “You are right about this case.  The judge has no choice.  It is clear that mom did not abandon the child.  You win.  I will go over what has happened with my client this evening and I will make arrangements to return the child.”

“Sounds good to me, Mike. I don’t envy your job tonight.  I’ll talk with you tomorrow.”

That evening I sat down with my client and her family and explained the situation to them. I offered to go over mom’s records with them, which they declined.  They were stunned, but did not seem surprised.  All in all, they took it pretty well.

When I was finished, Sue asked, “If I still want to have a hearing, can I do that?”

“Yes, you can have a hearing, but the outcome will be the same.  We have no case and the judge has no choice.”  I was puzzled by the question.

“I understand that,” said my client.  “But I want a hearing, anyway.  If I have a hearing, my daughter will know later I did not just give up.  I went down fighting for her.  That is important to me.”

“OK,” I said.  “I understand.  We will have our hearing.  I will inform Mr. Beck.”  
 Later that evening I called Bill and the judge and brought them up to speed on the situation.  Both of them were sympathetic and said they would cooperate. 

The next day my client appeared to testify.  She testified in detail about how she and her husband had grown to love the child, who was the center of their universe.  She talked about family vacations, summer trips, Sunday school, birthday parties and her daughter’s many friends.  All of these topics were supplemented by numerous scrapbooks and photo albums.  My client brought pictures of her home, yard, the child’s bedroom, and pictures of the child’s school, teacher, bus driver and principal.  She brought her first tooth, a favorite blanket, her first shoes and pictures of her pet cat.  There was no question the child was well cared for, was enjoying every possible advantage, and thriving in a beautiful home.  About halfway through her testimony Sue began to sob.

Natural mom then took the stand and outlined the near superhuman effort she had made to find her kidnapped daughter.  She had photographs of her own living situation, which was at poverty level. It was obvious that Nancy was struggling to provide basics for herself.  She described being chronically unemployed and moving from house to house, just getting by.

About this time, to everyone’s astonishment, who should walk into the courtroom in the middle of the trial but natural dad!  Dad said he was there to regain custody as mom was incompetent to care for the child.  The judge was both incredulous and furious at the father’s outrageous demand and reminded him that he had committed the offense of child-stealing and that he was likely going to jail. 

This possibility quickly killed off dad’s ridiculous, self-righteous demand.  The judge then terminated natural dad’s parental rights, clearing the way for the judge to award child to natural mom. 

Natural mom went back to testifying about her history with the child, which largely centered on her struggle to provide basic necessities for herself and the child.  She, too, began to cry. Emotionally spent, she looked at her attorney and requested that we take a five minute recess, which the judge granted.  When the break was up, Bill walked back into the courtroom without his client and asked the judge for an additional twenty minute recess.  

 The judge granted the request.

When Bill and his client returned to the courtroom, Bill’s client retook the stand.  Bill asked, “Did you and I have a lengthy conversation in the conference room during the break?”

“Yes, Mr. Beck.  We did.”

“Are you feeling well today?  Do you know what you are doing?”

“Yes, Mr. Beck.”

“You have changed your mind about your request before the court, haven’t you?”

“Yes, sir.  I have.”

“Have I tried to influence you in any way?  Would you like time to consult with another attorney?”

“No, sir.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to give up my request to regain the custody of my daughter.  I want to agree to the adoption and I am willing to sign whatever papers are necessary to get that done.  I want my daughter to continue to live with Sue.  It is obvious to me that my daughter will be better off with Sue, than she would be with me.  I know that Sue and her husband love her as much as I do.  Sue and her husband can provide things for my daughter that I will never be able to provide.”

“ I only want a few things.  I want to be able to visit with my daughter one week each year during the summer and to see her on her birthday. I want to get copies of her school work and any awards she might receive.  I also want to know about any illnesses she has.  That is all I want.”

The courtroom was totally silent.  Everyone in the courtroom was stunned.  The court reporter and bailiff began to weep, as did my client and her husband.  Bill and I looked at each other in amazement. The judge, who was almost speechless, looked over at my client and asked my client if the mother’s proposal was acceptable. After quickly conferring with my client, I advised the judge that it was not acceptable as my client had just informed that mother should have more time in the summer and at Christmas than she had requested. After agreeing on more visitation, my client then advised the judge that she would comply with mother’s wishes.

The judge then granted the adoption petition that I had prepared for my client.  The matter was now ended with child going home with my client permanently.

For years after the adoption, I received birthday and Christmas cards from my client, as well as an occasional newspaper clipping about one of the child’s many accomplishments.  Surprisingly, the “two” moms made the arrangement work. Both moms worked as a team whose focus was on raising an educated, well-mannered young lady that they both could be proud of.  

My client told me that the daughter would frequently say how lucky she was to have two moms who loved her.  

 I couldn’t agree more.

Mike out.


  1. Selflessness may be one of the most powerful forces on our planet. Thanks for sharing Mike.

  2. True.
    My client understood that her child's prospects in life were best with the people she was with. This mother did the most loving thing I have ever witnessed - she did what was best for her child over her own need to be with that child after she finally found the child.
    Justice was done.
    It was a good day to be a lawyer.
    ANOTHER good blog post my friend. Keep them up.

  3. If the adoption went through, I'm guessing you lawyers had to take a leap of faith that Sue would honor Nancy's wishes for visitation!