He Never Gave Up

As tragedy overwhelmed a new family, a young man turned to the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law to protect his rights as a father.

Studying to become a barber, Jemar* met the love of his life at cosmetology college. Two years later, she became pregnant. They knew her life-long struggle with sickle cell anemia posed serious risks during pregnancy, but they were committed to the family they were starting together.

As the due date grew closer, her health began to deteriorate. Concerned for the life of both the mother and child, doctors delivered a baby girl several weeks early. The tiny infant spent the first month of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit. Three days after giving birth, the mother went into cardiac arrest and slipped into a coma.

She also suffered a stroke, and even though there were times that she would regain consciousness, she was partially paralyzed and unable to articulate her wants and needs.

As she lingered on the edge of life, Jemar learned that her grave medical condition was a roadblock to his desire to officially be named the child’s father. Under California Law, the mother needs to sign a ‘Voluntary Declaration of Paternity,’ which she could not do. Without it, Jemar was told, he could not legally establish fatherhood.

“We were just hoping that she’d come back around and get better so that this could be taken care of, but she never did,” Jemar says. “She lasted two and a half years before she actually passed away.”

Securing parental rights can be a challenge even for those with the money to hire a lawyer. But without funds, it’s that much harder. A nurse at the hospital recommended that Jemar contact the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law.

The Center lawyers immediately realized that Jemar’s case presented unique challenges. Fortunately, the Center has recruited a panel of family law attorneys willing to take on complex cases and represent clients in court pro bono, without financial compensation. When contacted by the Center staff, local family law attorney Andrea Caster offered to take the case.

“My initial thought was ‘how tragic,’” recalls Andrea. “And then as I went through the file and saw everything that this father had done, I though, ‘wow, this guy has really stepped up to the plate.’ Not everyone would be willing to go to the lengths that this man went through to try and get this taken care of. It would have been very easy for him to have just given up.”

But he never did. The grandparents, who had been acting as the little girl’s guardians and sharing parenting responsibilities, were very supportive. They had lost a daughter but they took Jemar in as their own. Their granddaughter might never know her mother, but she’d have as complete a family as possible.

Impressed by how the family came together in the best interests of the little girl, a judge named Jemar the legal father. Leaving the courthouse, pro bono attorney Andrea revealed a fateful coincidence. As she was preparing for the court hearing, she realized she had gone to school with the mother and had known her as a schoolmate and a friend.

Low-income individuals like Jemar have few places to turn when they try to address serious family law problems. Private attorneys are financially out of reach, and self-help programs are not equipped to provide the expertise more complicated cases require. The Center has an open door to poor people and, with the help of one of California’s largest family pro bono panels, does not shy away from challenges.

“I wish all my cases were this ‘feel good’,” Andrea says. “This is absolutely the kind of thing I went to law school for.” She considered it the best possible outcome for a very tragic situation.

Jemar agrees. “It was a long process. It’s taken a long time. But I never gave up.” Thanks to the help of the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law, he is finally the proud, and legal, father of his daughter.