Monthly Archives: September 2008

Legal Aid unveils new automated custody interview for parents seeking custody

Two new online tools developed by Maryland Legal Aid will make access to justice easier for a parent seeking an initial custody order for his or her children and for attorneys seeking to help clients complete court-required forms for filing an initial custody complaint.

The Child Custody and Visitation Interview is a website that interactively helps clients complete and fill out forms required by the circuit court to begin a custody proceeding—an online “automated custody interview.”

“Imagine you are a mother with two young children,” said Katherine Jones, Legal Aid’s assistant director of IT for law practice. “You just left your husband, and moved in with your mother. Your husband is threatening to take the children from you and move to Florida. What do you do?”

Before: If you make it to the courthouse before it closes, the clerk points you to a forms bank to select the forms you need to complete, sign, and return to the clerk—and there are over 30 documents to choose from.

“You take one of each, and realize that it is going to take a long time to complete all of the forms, writing the same information over and over again on each form,” Jones said. “And do you really need all of those forms? And what do they mean?”

After: With the new, easy-to-use online tool (which can be accessed from any computer connected to the Internet and a printer), access to justice is easier for this client, as well as anyone else seeking an initial custody order.

“When a client clicks on the link, an ‘avatar’ of a woman standing on a road leading to a courthouse invites the client to begin the process of seeking custody, visitation, or child support,” Jones said. “Links, denoted by bold orange type, or buttons offering additional information, answer questions a client might have about legal terms, or about what information is being requested as the client proceeds through the interview.”

Because the client is asked a series of questions about the facts of the case, she should be prepared with the full names, addresses, and birthdates of all possible parties to a case, as well as detailed information about her own financial situation before she accesses the website.

“However, if a client completes the interview, answering all of the questions asked, at the end of the interview the client has the option to preview, and then print, the court forms the program has chosen for them based on the information provided,” Jones said. “The client can then sign and take these court-approved forms to the clerk’s office to file to begin her custody case.”

The new website for advocates, Automated Documents Online, allows an attorney to conduct a full interview with any client seeking custody.

The website prompts the attorney to ask for specific information, but allows the attorney to formulate and provide whatever advice or information the client requests as the interview progresses. As specific information is provided on the website, it chooses which documents the client needs to file, and uses the information supplied to fill in the spaces on the appropriate court form.

When the attorney has asked all of the questions from the website interview, the attorney can print out the documents to review with the client, have the client sign the forms where necessary, and send the client with the forms to the clerk’s office to file the forms and begin the court case.

The new online tools were developed by Legal Aid, the Maryland Legal Assistance Network, the Chicago-Kent College of Law Center for Access to Justice & Technology, Capstone Practice Systems, Inc., and the Legal Services Corp. The two websites can be accessed at the Peoples Law Library (in the Family Law section under “Need Help with Maryland Custody Forms?”). The advocate specific site is available at MDJustice.org (in the Children and the Law Resource Center; click on New Automated Maryland Custody Forms).

The latest version of Adobe Flash is required to access the Child Custody and Visitation Interview. Most Maryland public libraries allow printing from public computers for a nominal fee.

For more information, call Katherine J. Jones at 443-604-4729; David Demski at 410-451-2892; or Joe Surkiewicz 410-951-7683.

Maryland Independent profiles Southern Md. office

Maryland Legal Aid’s Southern Maryland office (Hughesville) was profiled in the Maryland Independent newspaper of Charles County in a story about Charles Weeks, a Nanjemoy man severely injured in a car accident three years ago and burdened with medical bills. After losing a court fight with a collection agency, he went to Legal Aid, which took his case.

“That’s when Jake Ouslander [above] entered the picture,” the article said. “Jake Ouslander is a young attorney, relatively fresh out of law school. At the University of Michigan School of Law, he worked extensively with the school’s clinical law program and found he had an interest in helping those who are unable to navigate the judicial system and advocate for themselves. Weeks’ was one of his first cases. The first thing he did was to review all of the materials connected with the case and the audio tapes of the district court hearing. He believed that there was basis for appeal and he agreed to take the case.

“He submitted a brief to the circuit court and to opposing counsel and requested an oral argument. A few weeks after the oral argument, the decision came down from the higher court: the lower court’s ruling had been reversed. Unless something unforeseen occurs, that’s one less thing Weeks has to worry about. He can begin to ponder his future.”

Child-support arrearages solution gets thumbs-down from Legal Aid

An article in today’s Daily Record, “Parent support, child support,” looking at child-support payment problems of non-custodial parents, included a comment by Baltimore County office (Towson) acting chief attorney Ann Lembo. A suggestion that non-custodial parents could help pay off arrearages by spending time with their children got a thumbs-down response: “How does that help pay the rent and put food on the table?” asked Lembo, noting it’s no substitute for money.

Apple pickers in the news

Farmworker Program supervising attorney Daniela Dwyer was quoted in a Baltimore Sun article Sept. 21 about Mexican apple pickers in Western Maryland: “Both nationally and in Maryland, migrant camps have vocal critics,” wrote reporter Scott Calvert in the article. “Daniela Dwyer, an attorney at Maryland Legal Aid, said the state’s apple industry as a whole needs ‘massive reform.’ Wages are not always paid, she said, and housing conditions ‘in general do not meet code.'”

Legal Aid helps students enroll in Cecil Co. schools

The problem: For two years, the Northeastern Maryland office (in Bel Air, covering Harford and Cecil counties) has had clients calling because the frontline personnel at Cecil County public schools continue to tell grandmothers (or other relatives) that they must have custody of the child in order to enroll the child in the grandmother’s school district.

The solution: Assistant Director of Advocacy Jessica Rae did extensive research on the kinship care requirement for each county and distributed it to 13 Legal Aid offices around the state. “Armed with that information and the necessary one-page form, I have advised people that the school is wrong,” said Northeastern Maryland office chief attorney Jeanette Cole. “When I have given them the correct information and sent them back to the school, they have always successfully enrolled the child.”

Yet in spite of this the procedure was continuing in some of the schools. In an effort to try to bring this to the attention of the Cecil County Board of Education, Rae drafted a very complete letter (with a footnote, no less) explaining the kinship care requirements.

“It was a great letter,” Cole said. “I sent it to the acting superintendent of schools and he forwarded it to the appropriate associate superintendent who immediately called me. We had a great discussion.” The associate superintendent thanked Cole for the letter and emphasized that they try to be sure that the front desk employees are not giving incorrect information, but it is hard to check on each one. She said that the letter had given her an opportunity to remind supervisors of the kinship care requirements. She also asked that if the Northeastern Maryland office finds any other people who have been told that they have to get custody, to identify the school and call the her immediately–and it will be corrected.

“She was very appreciative of our input and emphasized that I should call her at any time with questions or concerns for students of Cecil County Public Schools,” Cole said. “Thanks to the letter Jess drafted, I believe we helped others from going through the hassle of filing for custody when a one-page notarized statement does the trick!”

Still waiting for action on welfare reform

Legal Aid assistant director of advocacy Peter Sabonis had a letter published in Saturday’s Baltimore Sun responding to an op-ed on welfare reform. “In the early 1990s, President Bill Clinton set forth four principles of welfare reform: make work pay a living wage, provide child support, put time limits on public assistance, and provide public jobs to those who cannot find work,” Sabonis wrote. “Only one of those, time-limited assistance, found political  favor. We still await action on the other three.”

Legal Aid saves home from foreclosure

Metropolitan Maryland office staff attorney Vicki Taitano is off to a good start in her job as the lead housing preservation advocate for the office, which covers Prince George’s, Montgomery and Howard counties. She and a client recently signed an agreement that will get her house back from foreclosure. The story: The client had fallen behind on her mortgage after the birth of her son and she had to cut her work hours back to part-time for a short period. She worked out a forbearance agreement with the bank. But they suddenly decided not to honor the agreement and rushed to foreclose.

The client had been in the house for 10 years. The home equity line of credit lien holder foreclosed and sold to a private purchaser. Even though the bank admitted it made a mistake and tried to pull it back from the purchaser, he would not agree. Taitano filed objections to motions for possession and surplus proceeds and threatened legal action against the bank, which was negotiating to try to buy the house back from the purchaser.

“The client, feeling emboldened by having Vicki on her side, helped turn up the heat on the bank by contacting a local television station consumer helpline,” said Metro chief attorney Blake Fetrow. “Caught between Vicki’s threats of a lawsuit and the light cast on their error by Channel 7, the bank agreed to pay the purchase price to a third-party purchaser. They then modified the loan to the client and forgave the missed payments from all of the time that this was going on. The end result is that the foreclosure on her home was cancelled and she is still in her house with a much better, more manageable loan.”