by Desirée Magney
The familiar Marimba African rhythms chimed and I glanced at my iPhone to see who was calling. “Blocked Call.” It could have been a solicitation or a wrong number, but I knew it might be a defendant in one of my cases or, more importantly, one of the children.
It was the children who were my clients, but that didn’t stop the parents or guardians from calling me. Any time of the day or night, any day of the week, these calls came in. Of late, I had been working a particularly difficult case. Seeing the disintegration of this family was akin to watching a train wreck in slow motion and I was at a loss to know how to stop it. The local evening news had reported another drive-by teen shooting in Anacostia. My stomach clenched. Was it my boy? I worried about these kids I represented as if they were my own.
“Hello,” I answered tentatively. It was Keisha, the defendant mother in one of my custody cases.
“Miss Desirée, will you please come to mental health court with me tomorrow?”
Keisha was the biological mom in one of my cases. I was the lead attorney and was assigned a “shadow” attorney who would assist me. My shadow, Joan, and I hadn’t known each other previously but we became fast friends over the many hours spent pouring over case files, researching criminal background records at DC Superior Court, and talking over the unusual facts of this case. Joan would travel from Manassas, Virginia, catching the Metro train from Vienna to Judiciary Square, a good hour plus commute. We met at the DC Superior Court, Joan with a baguette always in hand, to begin our long hours playing detective, tracking down the facts, and requesting related case files. We bonded over lunches at the courthouse café, discussing Keisha’s children as well as our own, early on discovering we had daughters born on the same day, same year. We called them our twins. I asked her why she always carried a baguette. She explained it was for the long trip to and from the city. Thin and athletic, she admitted she didn’t act out of hunger; rather, she had a theory if she ate enough bread it would soak up any liquids in her system and she wouldn’t need to pee during the long commute. We laughed, a great diversion from delving into the heady, complicated lives of the parties in our case. As a fellow woman of a certain age, I understood what Joan meant. In that instant, we bonded.
A few years ago, I became a child advocacy lawyer with a non-profit organization. I was there at its inception at the invitation of a longtime acquaintance. She and I, like many others women lawyers we knew, had suspended our practice of law when we had children. Now that our children were getting older, there was a feeling that it was time to use our legal training pro bono to give back to the community. I served as a court-appointed guardian ad litem, representing disadvantaged children in often harrowing child custody cases.
Keisha was the biological mother of a number of children, two of whom we now represented. She wisely had given up custody of all of them. Having suffered for many years with drug addiction, she admitted to using crack cocaine throughout her pregnancies. Impoverished, she often found herself homeless and prostituting for drugs and money. She had been diagnosed as bi-polar and had been in and out of drug treatment centers and psychiatric hospitals. With no way to support herself, let alone her children, she had the good sense to know they would be better off elsewhere.
She gave two of her children to a neighbor woman, Kim, who couldn’t have any children of her own. Tamika and Samuel had lived with Kim since their birth and were now teenagers. They knew Kim wasn’t their biological mom, but she was their real mom in their minds, although they regularly talked to Keisha and saw her on occasion. Kim finally had decided to legalize her custodial arrangement over the children. Joan and I were baffled as to why, after all these years, Kim would choose this point in time to come to court to seek an order of custody. But Kim had been recently disabled and unable to work and it eventually became clear that she needed a formal custody order to be able to obtain more benefits. Meanwhile, Keisha never disputed custody and the man listed as the defendant biological dad, Jimmy, didn’t dispute it either. At times, the entire group seemed like one big happy family. Joan and I weren’t sure why the court even felt the need to appoint a guardian ad litem in this case, given that none of the parties contested the best placement for these children. But obviously, the court had questions and as time went on, we understood why.
For years the case dragged on, the court and Joan and I reluctant to relinquish oversight of these children, wanting to keep an eye on their progress, as I recommended in my status reports and relayed in court hearings held every few months. As the kids became older teens, Kim was less able to exert any control over them. They rarely went to school. Kim would call me at 6:45 in the morning, even when I was on vacation, and ask me to talk Samuel into going to school that day. Tamika regularly got into fights, shoplifted, and was on probation. She lashed out on the streets, at school, and at home, once even throwing cleaning solution at a relative.
Joan and I got to know Keisha, Kim and her boyfriends, Jimmy and his latest woman friend, and most importantly, Tamika, and Samuel, as well as their great grandmother, aunts, and uncles. We had visits to Kim’s homes and the children’s great grandmother’s home. We talked on the phone to school and to community counselors, principals, and teachers. We attended numerous meetings at the children’s High School, met with the children’s education attorneys, the police, and Tamika’s probation officer. We tracked down allegations of physical and sexual abuse. Joan and I sought counseling for the kids and got them placed in Sasha Bruce, an organization offering services for at-risk children. We were more social workers than lawyers. Desperate for this family to survive, to thrive, we spent countless hours on the phone discussing their circumstances and what else we could do for them.
Meanwhile, tensions had been rising between two Anacostia neighborhoods. Tamika, hotheaded and ready to battle at any perceived slight, got into a fight at school one day defending her brother. Samuel, soft spoken and sweet natured, with beautiful, long dreadlocks, had been accosted in school by a group from another neighborhood. Tamika defended him in the hallway. Security guards broke it up and the police were called. Joan and I went to the local police precinct to discuss what appeared to be rival neighborhood gangs and the impact it was having on our clients. The police officers said the groups weren’t gangs, just feuding neighborhoods. It seemed to be a distinction without a difference.
A few days after the incident at the school, shots rang out at the Anacostia Metro station. Samuel was targeted. The shooters were cruising, looking for the “kid with the dreads” but found his cousin instead. The shooters missed and continued their search for Samuel. He began receiving threatening Facebook messages. At that point, I was no longer willing to visit the family in their home, not wanting to risk becoming a drive-by shooting victim, a very real possibility even if accompanied by security personnel provided by the legal non-profit. Kim had a car, so I asked the family to meet at our offices instead. Kim and Samuel arrived, his once lovely dreads freshly shorn. Kim was upset.
“Can you believe he cut his dreads? My boy cut his dreads! He shaved his head!”
I cocked my head and furrowed my brow at her. Sometimes the kids had more sense than she did. How could she be so oblivious? At least he knew what he needed to do to survive on the streets.
Meanwhile, Keisha was dealing with her own demons. During the pendency of the case, she was in and out of drug treatment programs, often homeless, and was arrested once again for prostitution. But she came to court for each custody hearing—unless she was in rehab or jail—and supported her children the best way she knew how by staying in contact with them and buying them things whenever she had money. The kids stayed in touch with Keisha’s family—their biological grandmother and aunts and uncle. Keisha seemed sincere in her attempts to “right her wrongs.” She would ask Joan and I to pray for her. She always thanked us for the job we were doing helping her children. It was clear to me she loved them. In my mind that was evident by the fact that she gave them up. But she struggled to get her life in any order to take them back.
She was enthused when a halfway house program taught her some computer skills and tried to help her prepare for her GED. But I still needed to sit with her outside the courtroom before each hearing and quietly read aloud my findings in the status report I had written for the judge. We sat shoulder to shoulder on a bench outside the Family Courtroom as I read to her in hushed tones. It broke my heart to have to read the truth I had written about her, the truth I had to tell the judge. But Keisha listened attentively, shook her head in acknowledgment, and slowly ate a piece of Joan’s baguette as I read—baguettes that Joan now brought as much for Keisha, as for herself. We never knew when Keisha had last eaten.
As she quietly listened to me reading the sometimes brutal truths of her transgressions outlined in those court filings, somehow we became closer, and I realized Keisha’s inner strength, her realization of who she was, and her determination to try to change. Although, she could have easily resented the candid nature of my reports, she knew I was only doing what I had to, by virtue of my position upholding her children’s best interests under the law. She accepted these truths for what they were even though she fought against what seemed to everyone else to be her fate.
“Oh, that Keisha. She’ll be back on the streets in no time,” Kim would say to me when I told her that I had heard Keisha was back in rehab. “She’ll never get better. You wait and see, Desirée.” But I had faith.
So when I got that call from Keisha asking me to meet her in mental health court, I agreed, gently reminding her that I was not her attorney but that I would be glad to be there for moral support. She assured me she already had a court-appointed attorney for these hearings. If she could get through the mental health court diversion program, her record would be expunged, but it entailed her staying in rehab, going for drug urine tests, and not getting re-arrested.
I met her outside the courtroom the next day. We waited for her attorney to arrive so that he could enter her name on the already lengthy, post-lunchtime docket. It was going to be a long afternoon. When the judge returned from lunch, the courtroom doors were opened. Keisha and I found seats a few rows from the defendant’s table and waited for her attorney to arrive and her name to be called. Keisha relayed the latest about all her children, showed me photos of her new grandbaby, told me of her newest drug treatment program. She was excited to be given yet another chance. She looked good. Her hair was set in small plaits around her head. Her skin had a healthy glow. She was smiling.
We did this three times. At what would have been her fourth and final hearing—the one at which the judge would have presented her with a rose and a certificate of completion—she arrived at the courthouse looking disheveled—her hair was dyed pink in places, and her skin was blotchy. My chest tightened. I knew these were bad signs. She sat down and proceeded to tell me that she had gone off her psych meds, had been arrested again, and her urine tests weren’t clean. I knew it was likely the US Attorney’s office would recommend jail time. I placed my hand atop hers and told her how sorry I was. I also told her that I had faith in her and that ultimately, I knew she could do it. I reminded her how often she had picked herself up and that I was certain, she would again. She smiled weakly and squeezed my hand.
Shortly after that day, Kim moved herself and the kids out of DC into Maryland. As a result, the custody case in which I had been the guardian ad litem was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. I lost touch with the kids. Even though they had my phone number, technically I wasn’t to contact them.
A month later, my iPhone rang. The caller ID gave no name or number. Keisha couldn’t afford her own cell phone any more but she had good news to report. She was back in rehab, doing well. She had picked herself up once again, was soldiering on. I couldn’t help but smile and feel hopeful she could do it this time, against all odds.
She told me she wasn’t happy about the further distance between her and the kids but she no longer felt she had a say in the matter. I had assumed Kim’s move was prompted by the annoyance of having the court and I oversee her life with a fine-tooth comb. Keisha confirmed this without my asking. Keisha updated me on the kids and her continuing concerns about them. She confided in me that Kim had yet to enroll them in school, even though weeks had passed since the move. She thanked me once again for all that Joan and I had done to help the kids and all the support we had given her. She told me to say ‘hi’ to Joan and to thank her for all those baguettes. This was sounding like her final goodbye to me. I didn’t want it to be. I wanted to know what lay in her future. Then, just as I told her to stay in touch and we were about to hang-up, she said, “I love you, Miss Desirée.”
In the split second following her words of gratitude, I imagined what other lawyers would say in response. The ethical lines of professional responsibility can get blurred sometimes. As lawyers, we are supposed to maintain a professional distance between the parties to a case and ourselves. I had admittedly already crossed this line by sending food baskets to the kids on Christmas and their birthdays, filled with edible treats I knew they wouldn’t be able to afford, a sports book for Samuel, and a journal for Tamika to write in whenever she felt she was about to lose control. Each time we met outside the courtroom, everyone hugged, not something most lawyers do. So, it didn’t take me but a millisecond to respond to this kind and gentle woman, who needed all the support she could get.
“I love you too, Keisha.”
*The names of all the parties to the case have been changed to protect their identities.
Desirée Magney is a writer and attorney. She writes both nonfiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in Bethesda Magazine, Washingtonian Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, The Writer’s Center—Art Begins with a Story, and Jellyfish Whispers. She was honored with a “Best in Workshop” reading at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She is a Board member for the literary journal, Little Patuxent Review, contributes to their blog, and has been one of their fiction readers. She has two adult children, Daniel and Nicole, and lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland with her husband, John, and their dog, Tucker.