The day I met Sarah it had been three years since she fled an abusive relationship within an inch of her life, and two years since she last saw her daughter. The day Sarah left, the child’s father said “if you leave, you will never see my child again.” He made it clear that Sarah could only see the child if she moved back in, but Sarah knew that would result in more abuse, and maybe her own death. Sarah pled with the police to help get her daughter, but they turned a blind eye and said “Sorry, this is a family court matter”. Sarah went to family court. She filed the custody petition herself. She was assigned a court-appointed attorney –who would catch up on her case in the hallway minutes before they entered the courtroom. The abusive father hired a well-established attorney, and the Court was fed lie after lie characterizing Sarah as a drug addict who had abandoned her child.
On the day of trial, Sarah’s attorney was not prepared. Sarah was told she needed to agree to the father’s terms, giving him physical custody of the child, with Sarah receiving a pittance of parenting time. Sarah recalled her attorney saying, “If you don’t agree to this, you might get even less.” She agreed. The Attorney for the Child put an objection on the record, making it clear to the Court that this was not in the best interest of the child.
It was less than a month after the final order was signed that the child’s father began withholding her daughter from seeing Sarah. After nearly a year in court fighting for her daughter, she felt defeated and traumatized. Sarah had nothing left.
Two years later Sarah found herself living an entirely different life. She had a good job, a supportive partner, a new baby, and had just bought a house. But as good at things were, the absence of her daughter gnawed at her every day. She knew she had to go back to court, and attempted to file the petitions numerous times, but the thought of facing her abuser in court always rendered her paralyzed. One afternoon, a CPS worker knocked at Sarah’s door. CPS was investigating after an alleged incident where the child’s father had abused his current girlfriend with Sarah’s daughter present. Sarah explained that she did not have any information since she had been denied access for almost two years. Sarah disclosed that she was terrified of the child’s father and feared for her daughter every day, but felt she had no options.
The CPS worker referred Sarah to her local DV program, which then referred Sarah to the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York where she was provided free representation by an attorney. Both a custody modification and a violation petition were filed, carefully crafted to put Sarah’s voice at the forefront of these proceedings. The judge, who was new to the case, immediately granted Sarah 2 overnights per week. That weekend Sarah saw her daughter for the first time in two years.
The case was settled just days before trial. While the father did still maintain physical custody since the child attended school 45 minutes away from the mother’s home, Sarah was able to reestablish her relationship with her daughter with a new custody order that granted her ample parenting time. Knowing she had dedicated legal representation at her side empowered Sarah to finally file the petitions she had been dreading. Working with an OVS attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York amplified Sarah’s voice and empowered her to always fight for her daughter.