Category Archives: Children

O Death Where Is Thy Sting?

HybridGuardianAngel2” Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”-     2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Today will be difficult  so I am writing. It’s my drug of choice in times of strong emotion and particularly soothing right now with a cup of hot green tea at hand, in the quiet of the earliest morning before sunrise.

Later today we will bury Harrison. His obituary says: “He passed peacefully in the arms of his family after a beautiful and unforgettable hour. His life was a brief gift to all that loved him and he will never be forgotten.” Harrison was the newborn son of my nephew Patrick and his partner Diana.

When Patrick was born 28 years ago, my brother (his father) and sister-in-law let me come into the delivery room with them. Patrick came forth after the normal struggle of childbirth and we laughed that he was a “conehead” because his pointy head had been squished in the birth canal during his entrance.

Patrick grew up to be a fine man. I served as Patrick’s godmother as he entered the Greek Orthodox faith through baptism and chrismation.  He became a church altar boy and made the family proud with his sweet and gentle demeanor.  I still see the faces of Patrick and my son Clint in altar boy robes as they flanked the casket of my father at his memorial service,  tears streaming down their young boy faces in the light of the candles they held.

Patrick and Diana made a family with Diana’s young daughter Mya, and their son Lincoln who will be 2 this year. They were delighted to learn Diana was pregnant again but their joy soon turned to shock and sorrow when they learned their infant had Trisomy 18, a life threatening genetic disorder that causes devastating medical issues and often death.  Undeterred, they named their in utero baby boy and we all became acquainted with Harrison.

From the moment they named him,  Harrison became a person.  A person who was a member of our family, and for whom we began to pray and worry.  Patrick and Diana started a gofundme account to help with the inevitable medical expenses and the cost of  sole provider Patrick’s projected absence from his job as a chef near their home in Northern Iowa. Their page kept us all posted on Harrison’s developments.

From the beginning the young parents were committed to seeing Harrison all the way through his birth. Abortion was mentioned by well meaning relatives, but they were champions of life from the get go. After all, this was not just a fetus; it was Harrison. As a pro choice individual I have to admit, Harrison brought me to a new understanding of life and I am more conflicted than before about this delicate issue.

Harrison’s parents sought the best medical treatment for his imminent arrival. They were connected to a hospital well versed in Trisomy 18 and the doctors were strong partners in their quest to spare no effort in helping Harrison. The ultrasound confirmed abnormalities would be life threatening once he breathed his first breath. They were encouraged with small bits of hopefulness such as the determination that despite other challenges, his heart was strong and mighty.

Spiritual support came forth. A Greek Orthodox monk friend saw Patrick’s Facebook post  and rallied the monks at his monastery. “We are praying for Patrick, Diana, Mya, Lincoln and Harrison each specifically and by name,” he reported.  Graciously they also volunteered a burial plot at the monastery for Harrison should it be needed.  Being covered in prayer, the family felt supported in ways beyond the reach of a gofundme page.

At 33 weeks, “Harrison took things into his own hands,” stated Patrick’s Facebook post and Diana went into labor.  An unusually fierce snowstorm had struck and they were unable to make it to the hospital that was awaiting Harrison’s arrival. Instead a nearby hospital would have to do, and Diana gracefully demanded a C-Section when the staff who were not as familiar with Harrison’s medical condition tried to get her to have a vaginal birth.  Harrison’s siblings Maya and Lincoln were along too since the grandmothers could not make it through the storm in time to babysit while mom and dad went to the hospital.

The obituary had it right.Harrison lived an hour.  He was surrounded by his family. His medical conditions were too substantial to sustain life.  Even the more elaborate hospital couldn’t have helped.  A professional photographer came in to take his baby pictures. He was wrapped in a blanket and stocking cap, showing only his perfectly formed, beautiful angelic face.  When Patrick sent me the picture all I could say was “There’s Harrison!” as though I had known him my whole life.

“I don’t want to say goodbye to him,” Patrick texted yesterday when he and Diana were on their way to the mortuary to see their son for the last time. Harrison is coming home to be buried in the same cemetery as my father.  To conserve funds, Patrick will drive his son in his tiny casket from the mortuary three hours to the grave site in West Des Moines. “I’m leaving soon to get my boy,” he texted me moments ago.  He is bringing his son home.  Harrison will be buried in the “Garden of the Innocent” not far from the mausoleum where my dad rests, and amidst other babies who have died.

Later today, our immediate family will gather at the gravesite, along with our monk friend and our Greek Orthodox priest. On St. Patrick’s Day we will bury Patrick’s son, our beloved Harrison. He is every bit as cherished a member of our family as the old grandparents we have buried before him. It’s hard to explain how one can feel so connected to a spirit who only passed through so briefly. It’s something I have never experienced before in my life, and has been quite unexpected. I like to envision my father holding his great grandson Harrison in his arms with a big smile, like I saw him hold my three adult children when they were infants.

Harrison’s  innocence, his courage, his radiance, the devotion of his parents, his reminder to all of us that life is fragile and every moment matters, and his valiant struggle to breathe in this beautiful gift of life for even only an hour has profoundly changed us.  Godspeed my great nephew.

We love you Harrison.

O Lord Who watches over children in the present life and in the world to come because of their simplicity and innocence of mind, abundantly satisfying them with a place in Abraham’s bosom, bringing them to live in radiantly shining places where the spirits of the righteous dwell: receive in peace the soul of Your little servant Harrison, for You Yourself have said, “Let the little children come to Me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Amen.

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A Divorce Lawyer’s Caution to Stay at Home Parents

Super Hero Mom

After more than 30 years as a family law attorney, I still worry about some clients as they leave my office with their divorce decrees in hand. Some are still swimming in emotion. Some have tragedy on the horizon as they walk into new relationships before they are fully healed. The clients I worry most about are those who have been stay at home parents for long periods of time during the marriage. Those clients often face the most difficult emotional and financial “hits.”

No family expects divorce, but if one parent is planning to be a stay –at-home parent there are important things to consider to avoid devastating consequences if it does happen. (Although I am beginning to see men as the stay at home in recent years, I am using “her” as the gender for the stay at home parent).

I cant’ tell you the number of times I hear, “I told her to get a job and she wouldn’t,” while the other parent responds, “He may have mentioned my going back to work but he also liked not having to deal with the house and children as well as his job. Plus there was the high cost of child care.”

To avoid crisis if divorce erupts here’s what I recommend to stay-at-home parents:

  1. Have a detailed plan. Develop a plan that includes how long a parent will stay out of the workforce before one parent moves forward with staying home with children. Smart couples have a deadline for the stay at home to return to the workforce that is re-evaluated in a focused discussion each year. Discussions about all aspects of the stay at home arrangement should take place in person, at designated times and not just in passing when emotions are running high. I like to say that all discussions should be “kitchen table” discussions when the kids are not around.
  1. Enlist a third party to assist you with the plan. Get help from a family lawyer, financial planner, counselor or family mediator at the outset, and also when tensions erupt. Difficult conversations are easy to avoid. A calm third party can facilitate a discussion that results in a clear understanding and agreement. These experienced professionals also know the impact of staying home with the children and can assist with a list of things to consider that couples overlook.
  1. Prioritize finances for both parents. Despite our fluid roles, I still see that one spouse typically handles the finances. The other spouse often delegates that task and then never pays attention.  Smart couples meet monthly to review detailed family finances. I encounter numerous divorces where one party thought there was plenty of money when it turns out the family was living on credit cards. “I tried to tell him/her we were spending too much,” is a phrase heard often in my office.
  1. Be clear that alimony won’t support your lifestyle. Stay- at- home parents often believe if they divorce the income earner will absolutely be obligated to support the parent who stayed home. This is simply false. Alimony laws are in a state of flux in many states. In the vast majority of cases the stay at home will have a short time to receive a small amount of “rehabilitative” alimony and then they are expected to get to work. There is only so much money to go around and in most families it is impossible to support two separate households on one income.
  1. Keep your skills and contacts sharp. Don’t completely unplug from the work world while staying home. Take an online course or courses, and keep your skills current. When I took time off from my law practice while my children were small I hired a sitter for a few hours and attended bar association meetings and seminars. I never said I was “offline” in my work; I simply didn’t discuss my caseload (which was virtually non-existent for a time). Once I re-entered nobody knew that I hadn’t been practicing law all along and I was able to get up to speed quickly.
  2. Fund retirements for both parents. A good financial planner can advise on how the stay  at home can save for retirement. Although all retirement earned during the marriage is usually divisible to both parties in divorce, the emotional attachment to retirement accounts by the working spouse causes conflict in many cases. Retirement funds set up for each party help diffuse emotion at the negotiation table if divorce ever comes up.
  3. Stay connected in your marriage. Child rearing years are difficult on even the strongest marriages. One spouse in the business world and one at home all day can create a gap in interests and experiences that over time can erode connection. Prioritize time as a couple and take fights seriously as a warning sign. Working on your marriage may seem like the last thing you want to do amidst the exhaustion of all your obligations, but it will be the greatest investment you will ever make.
  4. If you do face divorce, explore collaborative law.  If you have to divorce there are respectful processes that work to move both parties forward in a dignified manner.  Consult with a family lawyer  to see if you and your spouse are candidates for collaborative divorce.

Kimberly Stamatelos is a mediator and family law attorney in West Des Moines, Iowa with Stamatelos & Tollakson. She is the author of the book “The Compassionate Lawyer” available on Amazon.

 

 

The Lawyer as Peacemaker

“It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace.”
― Aristotle

9787f890e1d1f8abc8c09826b868568dInvested in the grievance stories magnified by their lawyers, family law clients often become repeat customers. Whether through initial actions, modifications or contempt proceedings, family law practice can be steady business for the lawyer, but often leaves festering wounds for the families we represent.

Hard fought family cases can also hurt family lawyers. Our suffering clients call us non stop, email us long diatribes, even show up at our office unannounced and agitated. Fueling the fire by delivering scathing interrogatories or through biting cross-examination can wear on an advocate’s mind, body and spirit.

In response, family lawyers are starting to expand their practices to focus on peacemaking. What makes a lawyer a peacemaker?

1. They practice law with connection and authenticity. Peacemakers don’t think it makes them less of a lawyer because they refuse to heap more hurt on hurting people, especially when children are involved. They genuinely care about the well being of their clients, their colleagues and themselves and believe that peaceful problem solving approaches are healthier for everyone.

2. They use proactive early intervention. Peacemakers recognize that the parties will still have to work together even after the legal intervention, so they set a tone of healing instead of aggression from the outset of a case. Whether through mediation, collaborative law, or simply meeting with the other lawyer to discuss the case, peacemakers agree to customize a strategy that works for both clients. They look for ways to streamline the legal process instead of letting it be driven only by court deadlines.

3. They use an interdisciplinary approach to conflict. Family lawyers are expected to be lawyer, counselor, financial advisor, parenting coach, communication expert, real estate analyzer and retirement guru. Peacemakers recognize the best use of the lawyers’ time is for legal advice, drafting and interfacing with the judge. They involve specialists including therapists, child development experts, financial advisors, realtors, and social workers to assist in developing a comprehensive plan for the family. Adding these experts mean the family has a highly specialized team often providing lower overall cost for comprehensive decision making. Lawyers focus on what they do best, and minimize the stress of trying to solve all the client’s problems themselves.

4. They encourage clients to “do the right thing.” Peacemakers don’t consider it a “win” to have someone pay as little child support as possible, if it means children aren’t financially supported at the other parent’s house. They don’t automatically fight to minimize a healthy and loving parent’s time with their children, at the request of a heartbroken client. These lawyers use words like “healing” and “forgiveness” and may set up infrastructures to improve trust and teamwork between parents. They help clients write a new forward focused story of life transformation that identifies the client as the hero, not the victim of the story.

5. They model emotional intelligence. Active listening, compassion and empathy are key skills used by peacemaking lawyers. “Patience is the greatest attribute of a peacemaker,” says Dick Calkins, a longtime advocate of peacemaking law. These lawyers don’t thrive on depositions with blistering accusatory questions so their clients can see their lawyer hurt their partner. Instead, they work together respectfully and cooperatively, modeling behavior families will need in order to heal. That may include producing documents voluntarily upon request and using calm reasoned discussion instead of threats.

6. They take the long view and encourage clients to do the same. Author of the ABA bestselling book “Lawyers as Peacemakers” J. Kim Wright puts it this way: “The upheaval of divorce can be very emotional and uncomfortable. It is easy to succumb to the emotions of the moment and strike out, do some damage, hurt you because you hurt me. Reacting provides short-term satisfaction and guarantees long-term conflict.

Peacemaking focuses on the long view, aligning with long-term values and goals. What relationship do these parents want to have in five, ten, twenty years? Who goes to the first day of school? Who will celebrate the team championship with your daughter? Will you dance at your son’s wedding or boycott because your ex will be there? The long view isn’t easy, but it is the path that focuses on the well-being of your child, not the emotions of the moment.”

7. They are creative in their approach to conflict. Each case is viewed as a unique set of circumstances requiring a customized approach of creative problem solving. Lawyers are creative people, but in traditional practice they aren’t encouraged to “think outside the box.” Peacemakers unleash creative thinking without feeling intimidated in putting forth a unique idea that isn’t borrowed from the standard stipulation template.

Often, the biggest impediment for peacemaking lawyers is the other lawyer. If opposing counsel makes aggressive moves or promotes themes of “fight to win,” or “let’s let the judge decide,” it frustrates peacemaking opportunities. Being a peacemaker doesn’t mean you sing kum-by-ah and get eaten alive in litigation. It means you see the peacemaking approach as a higher calling because it results in much healthier outcomes and is more satisfying to your clients and your own soul.

A baby lawyer fully trained in peacemaking skills recently told me, “I hope for the day when a client calls asking to destroy the other side in litigation and a lawyer says, “I’m sorry, I don’t engage in that type of law, it’s not healthy for families.”

And then, they call the next person on the list and that lawyer says, “I’m sorry I don’t engage in that type of law it’s not healthy for families.” And then each lawyer down the list says the same thing so that clients understand that peacemaking and healing families is what it means to be a family lawyer.”

I may not see that total shift in the practice of family law during my lifetime. But I truly believe he will.

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Wisdom From A Witness

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”― Fred Rogers a/k/a “Mr. Rogers

mrrogers_image

I sigh as I get out of my car and begin the walk to the Polk County courthouse for my 9AM hearing. Even though I’ve been coming to court for over thirty years, I never enjoy it. Maybe it’s the feeling of handing my client’s problem over to a stranger with the power to make a life changing decision for them. As a peacemaker attorney, I know decisions are usually better when they are talked through by the stakeholders in a calm and safe environment, rather than the result of carefully crafted spin introduced into evidence.

At the parking garage elevator I meet a handsome man and woman adorned in Sunday morning finery, holding hands with a small boy and girl dressed like mini-me’s of the couple.

“How darling; are they twins?” I ask. I’m told “no” and that the children are ages 3 and 4.

“Say thank you” the mother directs the young ones after I lean down to say how nice they look. The children dutifully echo “thaaank youuuu. “

“God bless you,” the mother turns around to say to me as the family walks away. I feel good seeing a happy family and it feels even better to receive a blessing from a stranger. While in my morning journey for justice, I will be on the look out for the blessing as it was ordered up by the stranger.

Reaching the steps at the courthouse entrance, I find the attractive family waving into a camera navigated by a photographer capturing their every move. “It’s adoption day!” I hear someone say and a weathered man smoking a cigarette on the ledge in front of the courthouse says “I ain’t never seen kids dressed so nice.”

I make my way towards the fourth floor family court looking for my client, passing a line of shackled young people wearing green and white striped jail attire, being led by a deputy to a different courtroom. One of the prisoners is a young woman with beautiful black hair down her back. She appears to be my daughter’s age, and I wonder what has led her to this moment in time. “God bless you,” I whisper under my breath, mystically directing the invisible energy of the blessing to the woman. “Intervene in her story Lord,” I add, knowing the court holds her destiny in its hands.

I look for my client, a young mom, a case assignment from the Volunteer Lawyers Program. She is missing so I call her on my cell phone and am informed she will be a good 20 minutes late. I’m mildly agitated knowing that the court likes to keep things running on schedule.

A beautiful woman with warm dark skin standing nearby makes eye contact and introduces herself as a witness for my client. Our matter is a simple default hearing and I didn’t contact any witnesses. The husband did not respond to the divorce petition, so my client’s testimony and her husband’s documented long record of criminal offenses and sexual assault will suffice as evidence. We are asking the judge to prohibit the child’s father from having contact with the couple’s child, and to grant a divorce.

I sit on the bench outside Room 413 and begin to make small talk with the witness, thanking her for coming but letting her know it’s likely the judge won’t need her testimony. She says she’s “like a relative” and she’s come to testify to protect the child. “I’m Native American and I take my responsibility seriously,” she says while looking directly into my eyes.

As we wait, the witness tells me her story. I’m grateful that I am a magnet for people’s stories, and I’ve trained myself to provide a safe listening space for their hearts.

“I’m from the Winnebago tribe, placed for adoption as a child because my own mother had many problems. I am grateful for my adoptive family.”

I ask her more about her story. “My mother has recently come into my life again. She explained why she could not care for me. She still can’t be a mother to me, but we spend time together and she is teaching me about my culture. She helps me make costumes for pow wows and tells me stories of my ancestors as we sew.”

“What will you tell the judge today, if he decides to hear from you?” I ask.

“My people have a saying: ‘We didn’t inherit this land from our ancestors, we borrowed it from our children.’ For me this is true for all we pass on to our children. It’s not just the sanctity of the Earth, it’s the heritage of family. If there are patterns of dysfunction, we have an obligation to step in and change the path so it is not passed on. I must speak out about this child’s father even though he is on my side of the family. If I do not, then I have failed to help break a cycle.” By placing this woman for adoption when she herself could not care for her young daughter, the witness’ own mother had begun to live out the culture’s command. Now, our witness would continue the legacy, affecting more than one child with her testimony that day.

My client appears and we begin our hearing. The judge hears my client’s testimony, reviews the husband’s court record, and grants the default divorce giving my client sole legal custody and prohibiting the child’s visitation with the husband. My client bursts into tears and hugs me so tightly she won’t let go, thanking me over and over. The witness smiles. I’m disappointed that the judge didn’t hear the witness, but I know her mission has been fulfilled, just by stepping forth.

At the bottom of the stairs I pass a top notch trial attorney from a big downtown law firm. “What are you doing here I never see you in court!” he says.

“I just finished a VLP case,” I respond.

“Oh, my last three VLP cases have gone to trial. That’s always fun isn’t it?” attesting to the fact that the pro bono cases often take the most effort.

Walking outside I breathe in the fresh fall day, immediately sensing relief to be out of the negative energy. The adoptive parents were probably official by now. The young woman from jail has heard her sentence and her fate is cast, the witness has honored her legacy of family, the judge has protected an innocent child, my colleague from the downtown firm would soon volunteer for a new pro bono case.

Today they’ve all been here: the helpers.

And my blessing was that I got to be one too.

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