By Tina Torres
When I became licensed, a number of attorneys, including my boss (who happened to be my dad), steered me away from family law. Dad, in particular, told me not to do it because the cases were often highly emotional and volatile. But a few years into my practice, when I got a call from a lady who had little money and a 16-year-old daughter with leukemia, I decided to jump in. Not only was her ex-husband suing her for custody but he also was behind in child support by $25,000. I have to admit, I took the case because I was emotionally driven to. How could this person who owed so much in child support do such a thing? In the end, we won, and a judge awarded my client custody of her child and all of the back child support and attorneys’ fees. Today, her daughter is beautiful and healthy with a child of her own, and the family is no longer in the state of turmoil they were in when we first met.
Shortly after this first case, a young mother called for help. She spoke horrible things about the child’s father and wanted to terminate his rights. I can still remember the intensity of the mother’s anger and her daily phone calls to my office. In the end, my client made her case when the father voluntarily relinquished his parental rights. Only a few months later, I received a phone call from that same mother, who was hysterical and devastated. She had stepped away for just a few seconds while her son took a bath, and the child drowned in a tragic accident. The story will forever stick with me, and I’ll never forget the beautiful blonde curly haired boy with sky-blue eyes and an impish smile. I keep in touch with the family and know they are still torn and trying to find solace after this dear child’s death.
In my 18 years of practice, I’ve seen families work together through such devastating and difficult times as divorce, but I’ve also seen families fall apart. I can say that in my own life, I experienced the falling apart of my parents’ marriage, but I also experienced the coming together as we healed. I’ve told many a client when they initially come see me in a state of disarray that, at some point, they will be fine. Often perplexed and in the midst of their pain, they’ll ask, “But how?” And, inevitably, I say, “forgiveness.”
We all have to deal with people and experiences that require forgiveness throughout our lives, and many of us may be struggling with it right now. If there’s anything I feel can help individuals through a divorce, a custody battle, or practically any area in our lives where we’ve been hurt, it’s forgiveness. And it’s love.
I’m sure anyone involved in family law matters will agree that people often promote divorce wars or custody battles because they are hurt and angry. When seeing my clients go through these tumultuous times of their lives, I’m reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s mantra, “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”
I’ve often been told to not look at other people’s actions but to look at my own. And, really, it does come down to looking at ourselves and taking personal responsibility in any given situation. So, rather than perpetuating the “he did this, or she did that” mentality, push yourself and your clients to ask, “What positive action can I take in this situation?” Rather than sitting back while your client tells her child, “Your father doesn’t love you and is a worthless loser,” promote the understanding that both parents are part of that child and the ugly things Mom says about Dad are, in effect, ugly things she’s saying about her child. Rather than promote a family’s fighting, take an active role in finding some kind of common ground and work from there.
I find it hard to treat family law issues in the traditional adversarial method of practicing law because it’s when a family is torn apart that we should all work together, including attorneys, to guide our clients through crises. Perhaps a reminder of “holistic” or “peace law” principles is timely:
- Promote peaceful advocacy and holistic legal principles;
- Encourage compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing;
- Advocate the need for a humane legal process;
- Contribute to peace building at all levels;
- Enjoy the practice of law;
- Listen intentionally and deeply in order to gain complete understanding;
- Acknowledge the opportunity in conflict; and
- Wholly honor and respect the dignity and integrity of each individual human being.
After all, when we value one another, we value ourselves.
Tina Torres is a former county court at law judge and currently practices family law with the firm of Zinda & Davis in San Antonio. Former clients mentioned in this article gave express permission for the use of their stories in this writing.