“Either you do something or I will.”

The desperation in her teenage son’s voice terrified Rosa*.

Either you do something or I will,” Gustavo* told her.

Trapped in his father’s house after coming out as gay, Gustavo was shunned from their family table, forced to eat on separate plates and forbidden to use detergent and wash his clothes because he had “defiled” them. His step brothers called him “faggot” and “bitch.” He endured beatings and other punishments by his dad, and he was told he wasn’t wanted. His father arranged for “re-education” to cure him. Although shamed, Gustavo never wavered about his sexuality. He was banished from his church.

Rosa, Gustavo’s non-custodial parent and only confidant in this crisis, recognized the danger of her son hurting himself. With no funds to hire a lawyer and the father’s refusal to let her do anything, she felt powerless to save her son. Fortunately, she had recently been referred to the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law to help before it was too late. After he made this chilling statement, she phoned the Center who treated the situation as urgent.

Quickly, custodial papers were prepared and a pro bono attorney found. The lawyers and Rosa arranged to have Gustavo leave school right after his father dropped him off and go directly to the courthouse to meet them for an emergency hearing. After reading the declaration and pleadings prepared by the Center, listening to the firm advocacy of Rosa’s volunteer lawyer and speaking directly to Gustavo, the judge ordered an immediate temporary change of custody to Rosa based on Gustavo’s fragile psychological state and hostile living environment.

Rosa was directed to get a psychiatric examination for her son within 24 hours. Without funds and health insurance, Rosa had limited options. The legal team furiously searched for free mental health services. Finding it, Rosa persuaded her reluctant son to go and the evaluators found him to be a risk to himself. To help him survive in his darkest moments, he clung to his lawyer’s promise “to get him out of his father’s house.”  He was hospitalized for two weeks and never returned to live with his father again.

After several months of court hearings, the final custody order for Gustavo to remain in Rosa’s healing household was made. His father agreed to this and to go for counseling to learn to accept Gustavo for who he is. The pro bono attorney, who had represented Rosa and Gustavo at every hearing, finalized the paperwork.

After intense therapy and treatment for the trauma he had endured, Gustavo felt “he’d survived the worst.” Now thriving under Rosa’s care, Gustavo is getting straight A’s, applying to college and playing a varsity sport. To his lawyer, he simply said, “I’m so glad that my mom and I reached out for the right help. You saved my life.”






* Names and photos changed to protect client’s privacy.