Saving by Investing in Civil Legal Aid

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Category: Civil Rights, Family Law, Legal Profession, Poverty & Law, Pro Bono, Public
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Kara is a single parent with two children. She works full-time, but still makes less than $1,500 each month. Kara’s boyfriend Jay, the father of one of Kara’s two children, lives with her, but does not always contribute to the household. In addition, he’s physically abusive to the family cat and to Kara. After the most recent incident where Jay pushed Kara into the wall and grabbed her arm so hard he left a bruise, Kara wants him to leave. And she wants a restraining order. But knowing who to call and where to go—and, most of all, how to pay for services she’ll need—is overwhelming her. If Kara lives in a state that invests in civil legal aid, she’ll have no problem finding resources and will be able to have a lawyer represent her—at little to no cost to her—at any court hearing she needs to get a domestic violence injunction.

While Kara’s story is merely illustrative—though many people experience circumstances like Kara’s every day—its larger point is important. Civil legal aid is a combination of services and resources that helps Americans of all backgrounds—including those who face the toughest legal challenges: children, veterans, seniors, ill or disabled people, and victims of domestic violence—to effectively navigate the justice system. Civil legal aid helps ensure fairness for all in the justice system, regardless of one’s ability to pay. It provides access to legal help for people to protect their livelihoods, their health, and their families. Civil legal aid makes it easier to access information through court forms; legal assistance or representation; and legal self-help centers. Civil legal aid also helps streamline the court system and cuts down on court and other public costs. When we say the Pledge of Allegiance, we close with “justice for all.” We need civil legal aid to ensure that the very principle our founders envisioned remains alive: justice for all, not the few who can afford it.

Our state has had a rocky history of funding civil legal aid programs. While the state did begin such funding, of late, that funding has since dropped precipitously. In 2007, for the first time in Wisconsin history, the legislature included nearly $2 million in the state budget for civil legal aid. In 2009, the funding was increased to just over $2.5 million. But in 2011, the funding was eliminated completely from the state budget. From 2012-2015, Wisconsin was one of just three states that did not provide any funding for civil legal aid for low income people. (The other two are Florida and Idaho.) Read more »




Full Faith and Credit for Adoption

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On Monday, the United States Supreme Court issued a summary disposition reversing the judgment of the Alabama Supreme Court in V.L. v. E.L. (577 U.S. ___ (2016)) In that case, two women had been in a committed relationship with each other for over 15 years. While they were together, E.L. gave birth to three children through assisted reproductive technology, and she and V.L. raised the children together. At some point thereafter, V.L. formally adopted the children in Georgia, with the express consent of E.L. who retained her own parental rights. The Georgia court entered a final decree of adoption recognizing both women as parents to the children.

In 2011, V.L. and E.L. split up while living in Alabama, and shortly thereafter V.L filed a petition in circuit court alleging that her former partner was denying her access to the children. She asked the Alabama court to register the Georgia adoption, and to grant her some custody or visitation rights. The circuit court granted visitation, and E.L. appealed, claiming that Georgia lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to enter the decree of adoption. The Court of Civil Appeals rejected the jurisdictional argument, but did remand the case with directions to the family court to hold an evidentiary hearing before awarding visitation rights to V.L. The Alabama Supreme Court reversed, holding that Alabama was not required to accord full faith and credit to the Georgia judgment because Georgia did not have subject-matter jurisdiction to allow V.L. to adopt the children while E.L retained her parental rights.

In its per curiam opinion reversing the Alabama Supreme Court decision, SCOTUS emphasized that states are required to afford full faith and credit to a judgment unless that judgment was rendered by a court that “did not have jurisdiction over the subject matter or the relevant parties.” Although a court can look into whether a foreign court had jurisdiction, jurisdiction is presumed if the judgment is one of a court of general jurisdiction, and the presumption cannot be rebutted simply because a foreign court disagrees with the outcome of a case. Read more »




Vaccination Uproar

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Category: Family Law, Health Care, Public
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MeaslesDuring the past month, the American public has been bombarded with news reports about a continuing measles epidemic, as well as an extensive debate about whether measles vaccinations should be required to stop this epidemic and prevent future ones from developing.

In fact, all states require vaccinations against many contagious diseases, including measles. But there are exceptions, and the exceptions are broader in some states than others. Only a handful of states limit exceptions to medical necessity – for example, a child whose immune system is compromised by chemotherapy should not receive immunizations. Most states allow religious exemptions, so parents who are, for example, Christian Scientists need not vaccinate their children in contravention of their religious beliefs. However, about a third of the states, including Wisconsin, also allow much broader exemptions based on “conscience” or “philosophical reasons.” These broader exemption categories often can be invoked with little or no effort on a parent’s part, such as by checking a box on a form and signing it, and thus have the potential to erode the requirement if enough people choose not to vaccinate.

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Spouses, Income, Alimony

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Category: Family Law, Public
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alimonyThere are few things in family law more controversial than alimony (also referred to as spousal maintenance), which is defined as a series of support payments made by one former spouse to another. Traditionally, alimony may be awarded when one spouse has need of financial support to maintain the marital standard of living, the other spouse has the ability to pay it, and the award meets certain criteria of fairness (e.g. it should not plunge the paying spouse into poverty or excuse the payee spouse from engaging in paid employment). Historically, alimony was paid by ex-husbands to their ex-wives, but today’s laws make it plain that either a man or a woman may be the payor. Spouses who have stayed home or reduced paid employment to raise children may claim that their activities at home made success at work more possible for the other spouse to succeed in the workplace, and that this should result in a greater share of the property division or an alimony award to either compensate the stay-at-home spouse for the sacrificed opportunities (restitution) or enable him or her to re-tool for a job with good pay (rehabilitation). Indeed, statutes like Wisconsin’s §767.56 direct judges to consider all of these factors (and others) in determining whether to award alimony to a divorcing spouse.

Nonetheless, alimony has never been common and has become less so: the few empirical studies that have been done show that only a small minority of divorcing spouses are awarded alimony of any amount and for any duration. The reasons for the always-low and still-declining numbers of alimony recipients are many and varied, and a full discussion of all of the theories requires more than a blog post.

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Brutality Touches Down at Home

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Category: Criminal Law & Process, Family Law, Public, Sports & Law
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imagesVR6YYD65Anyone living in the United States who has watched TV in the last two weeks is undoubtedly aware that the NFL is in the midst of a storm of bad publicity. First, we saw the chilling videotape of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice delivering a punch to the head that knocked out his then-fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer, and then roughly dragging her off the elevator and dropping her like a sack of potatoes on the floor. Only days later, the Minnesota Vikings found themselves in the midst of a similar scandal when their star running back Adrian Peterson was charged with felony child abuse in Texas, where it is alleged he beat his 4-year-old son with a “switch.” Perhaps learning from the debacle that ensued when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell originally imposed a meagre two-game suspension on Rice for his misdeeds, the Minnesota Vikings have suspended Peterson from games and team activities indefinitely, although since he continues to draw his $11 million dollar salary, he is hardly a sympathetic character at the moment. Meanwhile, the incidents involving NFL player violence against their partners and children keep surfacing.

A lot has already been said and written about these cases, and much of the discussion is thoughtful and educational. Numerous commenters, including New York Times columnist Michael Powell, have pointed out that we should not be so shocked that players who are rewarded for brutality on the football field revert to violent behavior at home. He makes an excellent point. After all, the NFL is not the only place where people who use force, sometimes brutal force, in their jobs have a hard time turning it off at home: the military and various police forces have faced similar issues. Moreover, we live in a society with a high tolerance for violence, at least violence of a recreational sort—as evidenced by numerous TV shows, video games and movies. Read more »




Wisconsin Assembly Responds to “Child Exchange”

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Category: Family Law, Public, Wisconsin Law & Legal System
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Adoption is intended to create lifelong parent-child relationships, and irrevocable parental obligations, no matter the challenges the newly-formed family might face in integrating an adopted son or daughter. However, in a tragic number of cases, parents decide not to keep the adopted child. Perhaps the highest-profile failed adoption in recent years was that of Artyem Savaliev/Justin Hansen, a seven year old Russian adoptee who in 2010 was put on a flight to Moscow by his Tennessee adoptive mother with a note explaining why she no longer wanted him. The case sparked concern and outrage in both Russia and the US.

Post-adoption family breakdowns are occurring in other less visible ways, including in Wisconsin. Last fall, Reuters published a five-part expose on “private re-homing,” a euphemistic term for advertising one’s unwanted adopted children on the Internet in order to find them a new home. This allows the parents of international and domestic adoptees to effectively, and beyond the supervision of child safety networks, pass off their parental obligations to strangers. Read more »




The Gender Binary

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Category: Constitutional Law, Family Law, Human Rights, Public
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Gender_signsWestern society has traditionally assumed a gender binary, classifying sex and gender as “male” or “female.” This binary is reflected in many aspects of our legal system. However in recent decades, the gender binary, and related assumptions about the fixed nature and unambiguous meaning of sex and gender, has been challenged by transsexual, transgendered and intersex people seeking legal recognition of their sex and/or gender identity and protection from discrimination based thereon.

In the US, the majority of states now permit alteration of sex on birth certificates for transsexual persons (whether sex-reassignment surgery is required varies from state to state), although a handful of states still take a “fixed from birth” approach to legal sex. The legal landscape in relation to marriage for transsexual people is similarly inconsistent and in flux.

Challenging the fixed nature of sex/gender is an important development, but in most jurisdictions, the gender binary has been kept legally intact. More recently, some jurisdictions are grappling with the question of “other-gendered” and “other-sexed” persons (the terms are not synonymous – the Norrie case, below, was framed as an issue of biological sex, not gender identity.) The issue has come to a head in Australia, where special leave to appeal to the High Court has been granted in a case involving a person who wishes to be recognized as legally genderless. Read more »




Desperately Seeking Re-Homing

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Category: Family Law, Public
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Child adoptions in the United States may be legally arranged through state or private agencies, or through individual contacts between would-be adoptive parents and birth mothers. In any of these situations, state laws require court hearings and extensive psychological screening of the child and the prospective adoptive parents to determine (among other things) whether the child is in fact available for adoption and whether the prospective parents are safe, competent, and suitable for that child. Once an adoption order is entered, the child is the child of the adoptive parents for all purposes, just as if she had been born to them.

What would happen if such safeguards were not in place? Unfortunately, we now have a glimpse of what might happen to children in an unregulated adoption market, and it is chilling. A Reuters investigation, published in part by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (to read part one,  click here ), reveals that for at least the past 5 years, there has been a thriving Internet market in private re-homing of previously adopted children. Adopted children with severe physical or emotional problems that overwhelmed their adoptive parents were sometimes placed with strangers who, via Internet chat groups, promised to give the kids a new home. However, without those time-consuming home visits, interviews and psychological evaluations, the parents placing the children had no real clue what would happen to their kids once the new “parents” took over. Nor did some of them seem to care, so desperate were they to unload those troubled adoptees.

Let me say here that many of these kids were indeed very troubled by any standard. Most (but not all) were adopted from foreign countries such as Russia or China, where they may have suffered from mistreatment by their birth parents or neglect in overcrowded orphanages. Some of them had violent tendencies and attacked their new parents, new siblings, or new pets. Some engaged in property destruction, including disturbing behaviors like smearing feces on walls, sexual acting out, or substance abuse. Some may have reactive attachment disorder, which is the inability to form normal emotional attachments to other people, thought to be caused by trauma and extreme emotional deprivation early in life. The adoption agencies washed their hands of the children upon completion of the legal adoption and provided no remedial services. Most of the parents earn too much to qualify for poverty-based programs, and there aren’t enough of those anyway. Private counseling and treatment costs a king’s ransom. It is not hard to see why the parents became desperate, and turned (as many people do) to the Internet for factual information and emotional support. Read more »




The Catch-22 of Child Care

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Category: Family Law, Public
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ChildcareA recent article in the New York Times details the high cost of child care in the United States. Writer Alissa Quart cites research by sociologist Joya Misra, who argues that women with children are not approaching pay equity with men largely because working may not make economic sense given the high cost of child care. Yet if women drop out of the job market when their children are young, re-entering the job market may entail reduced pay and job responsibilities. A classic Catch-22. There has been much discussion in the past about how difficult it is for poor and working class women to obtain reliable, affordable child care, but this new article focuses on the fact that middle and even upper middle class women are also being priced out of the market for safe, high-quality child care. The author interviews several women in good jobs who struggle to pay for decent child care while still retaining enough income to pay for rent and other necessities. While it may be difficult to feel sorry for the plight of working mothers who are earning $40,000 per year or more, the take-away question from the article is this: if such educated and relatively privileged women cannot easily afford decent child care, what are people of average means supposed to do? The author concludes that the United States needs the same kind of high quality, government-subsidized day care that many other developed countries offer.

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Enforcing Surrogacy Agreements in Wisconsin

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Category: Family Law, Public, Wisconsin Supreme Court
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scan2Let’s say you are part of a married couple in Wisconsin. Due to a leukemia diagnosis and treatment for that disease, your eggs are no longer viable. Doctors agree that you are currently in good health and the disease is “a nonissue,” but your husband and you want children and you cannot bear them. A friend has offered to help you out. This woman has been your friend since grade school; you’ve each participated in the other’s wedding.  You and your husband are godparents to her youngest daughter. Your friend and her husband have five children of their own and have said they are done expanding their family. Her husband even had a vasectomy. Twice in four years she has offered to carry and bear a child for you.  Finally, you agree.

You and your husband visit a lawyer, and your friend and her husband visit a different lawyer.  The gist of the arrangement is that your friend will be artificially inseminated with your husband’s sperm. She will carry and bear the child, but she agrees that you and your husband alone would raise the child and she agrees to terminate her parental rights to allow you to adopt the child.  She would still be able to see the child; after all, you have long been friends and you plan to continue to see each other through social visits. You’re a bit concerned, though, that your friend may have difficulty giving up a child to whom she has biological ties, but she assures you she can do it. Your lawyers create numerous drafts of your agreement and each revises these drafts until finally all of you agree that what is written accurately reflects your understanding of the arrangement.  You all sign this agreement in November.  By this time, your friend is already almost five months’ pregnant.  She is due the following March.

After all of you sign the agreement, your relationship with your friend crumbles, and before the child is born your friend informs you that she will no longer terminate her parental rights to the child, as she had agreed.  Furthermore, she wants to have custody of the child.  In March, she gives birth to the baby.

Now what? Read more »




Adopting Veronica

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Category: Family Law, Federal Indian Law, Public
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Recently I wrote about the U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the Court declared that a Native American father was not covered by the Indian Child Welfare Act’s procedures for TPR because he had abandoned the child before her birth, and the Court stated that ICWA only protects existing families and their relationships. SCOTUS remanded the case to the South Carolina courts to decide the future custody of the child. Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court found that the couple seeking to adopt Baby Girl – named Veronica – was the only party properly seeking her adoption, and ordered the Family Court to finalize the adoption.

So what happens now? It appears that Veronica will be transferred almost immediately, which is somewhat unusual. Normally, a court would hold a hearing to determine the best interests of the child, and might gradually re-introduce the child to her adoptive parents since, after two years in Oklahoma with her birth father, little Veronica might not feel comfortable moving back into the Capobianco home in South Carolina. In addition, under so-called “grandparent visitation” statutes, the birth father might be awarded some visitation rights. But here, where the adoptive parents and the biological father have fought bitterly for almost Veronica’s whole life (and where they live half a continent away from each other), shared custody might not be a viable option. Read more »




Measuring Child Abuse Incidence

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Boy with Black Eye Hugging Teddy Bear --- Image by © Guntmar Fritz/zefa/CorbisProbably you are familiar with some version of the old philosophical riddle “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, is there still a sound?”  Today’s question is similar: “If a child is maltreated but the maltreatment is not reported to authorities, does it still count as child maltreatment?”

I do not mean to be flip.

One of the perennial controversies in child protection circles is how high the rate of child maltreatment actually is, and the answer is never straightforward.  It depends on how we define abuse and neglect (physical, emotional and sexual), how we measure it (Third party reports? Self-reports by victims or perpetrators? Arrests? Convictions?), and whom we think it affects (Poor people? Addicts? Members of certain minority groups? Everyone?)  A lot rides on the answers to these questions, from public funding to public attention to the issue, and the answers often vary from time to time and place to place.

There are, however, some areas of agreement.  Read more »