Civil legal aid protects Americans’ families

Family eating at table.
Herbert, Rosa, and family around the table. (photo: Lisa Helfert)

We all want the best for our families. Whether that means parenting our children after a divorce, seeking protection from a violent spouse or partner, obtaining legal guardianship to care for a loved one, or keeping an immigrant parent and child together, going to court is part of the process. But too often, overly complex court proceedings and requirements present immense barriers to fair and just results.

Domestic Violence

In cases of domestic violence, legal aid makes the difference in securing life-saving orders of protection. Research shows that having legal representation is the single most important factor in enabling victims to escape the cycle of domestic violence. Yet fewer than 1 in 5 low-income victims of domestic violence ever gets to see a lawyer.


When parents are unable to care for their child and grandparents step in to the parenting role, legal guardianship is needed so grandparents can enroll the children in school and take them to the doctor. Likewise, when adult children step up to care for aging parents, guardianship enables them to handle their parents’ financial and medical needs. In both situations, legal help and court simplification are essential.


Civil legal aid uses international treaty to recover abducted kids from Mexico

Public Radio International (PRI) published this story on June 3,2015:

Five years ago on Valentine’s Day, Carmen Avendaño’s husband told her he was taking their three kids to the mall to get her son some sneakers. Instead he drove them across the bridge to Mexico, about a half-hour away from their home in La Joya, Texas.

Avendaño says her husband had been abusive, even violent, for years. But it was only at this point that she called the police. Avendaño was undocumented at the time, and she feared contacting the police for help. But when she did, they told her they couldn’t help her.

“They told me, he’s the father, he can take them wherever he wants. They couldn’t do anything.”

So she went to the Mexican Consulate, and she says they told her there wasn’t anything they could do either. They told her it would be better if she just returned to Mexico and did something about it there.

Then Carmen sought out Pamela Brown, an attorney at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in Weslaco, Texas. Most of Brown’s clients were domestic violence victims, undocumented from Mexico. Brown says she learned that some abusers use the border as a weapon.
Brown had her first brush with this in 2001, when a new client came to her for help: Her husband had taken their daughter to Mexico…. So Brown did some research and discovered a treaty that had rarely been invoked in Texas: the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

“The treaty is very basic. One parent cannot take children across borders without the consent of the other parent with the intention of changing the residence of the child to the other country,” she says.

Both Mexico and the US were signatories to the convention, but no one in Texas really knew how to use it. So Brown brought together lawyers, judges and law enforcement officials from both sides of the border; a representative from The Hague even flew in to help.

Invoking the treaty was meant to be as simple as filling out a form and providing some basic documentation. Brown figured she could handle the cases on her own, from her side of the border. But Mariano Nuñez Arreola, a Mexican attorney from the city of Monterrey who attended the conference, told her “good luck” with that.

“I remember telling Pam, ‘Look Pam, you’re going to need a Mexican attorney to do this because, I mean this is not going to work if you don’t have one.’ ”

Brown and Nuñez have now been working together for 15 years, including on Carmen Avendaño’s case. Her husband took the children to Monterrey, where he tried to establish custody. He went to court in Mexico, claiming the family had been living there all along, and he said his wife was the one who had left them for the US.
Brown and Nuñez have now helped return more than 60 children to their homes on both sides of the border, and other states are turning to Brown for help invoking the convention. You could almost call it a mini-Hague in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley.

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