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Linda’s Kinship Care Story

Linda takes care of her two grandsons, Micah and Noah, in a household where family is a big priority. Linda’s daughter and Micah and Noah’s mother has substance use disorder and, although she loves her sons, could not provide a stable home life for them, so Linda stepped in to provide that, but it has not been an easy road.

“I decided not to take the steps to adopt them yet,” says Linda. “I want my daughter to get better and be in their lives, be their mother.”

Micah, 11, and Noah, 6, have different fathers, but they both struggle with behavioral issues, specifically bursts of anger that they have not learned to process or control. Linda sometimes feels lost taking care of them, but she does not want to create any more instability for the boys who have structure and consistency in her house.

In 2022, Micah’s father came back into their lives and told Linda he was going to get custody of his son. At first, Linda did not take him seriously because he had not shown much interest in visiting or taking care of Micah in the time she had been taking care of him. In fact, she recalls he sometimes would drive past her house but not stop. Then she got word that he had filed to terminate her guardianship of Micah, and she had to go to a hearing, which she did by herself—without an attorney.

The hearing did not go as smoothly as she anticipated, and after sharing with her family about what happened, Linda’s nephew told her, “You need to get an attorney, Aunt Linda. Now.”

Linda started looking for an attorney but got discouraged quickly at the cost, but not long after, Noah came home from school with a Lawyer in the School flyer in his backpack.

“I was wary,” says Linda. “I thought, ‘This can’t be real.’ But I was in need, so I still reached out to the program, and that’s when I met my attorney, Amber. She was real with me, and she gave me confidence.”

Together, Linda and Amber prepared and went to a second hearing to determine if her guardianship would be terminated. The result was complicated for Linda; her guardianship was not terminated, but Micah’s dad had six months of weekly visitation then could file another petition.

“He decided not to proceed,” Linda explains. “I haven’t heard from his dad. It’s been hard for him.”

Since her guardianship case was closed, Amber has also helped Linda apply for assistance through the Mountaineer Rental Assistance Program, which allowed her a safety net after the toll the past few years’ expenses—and COVID pandemic—have taken on Linda.

“I truly felt like Amber was my sister,” says Linda. “When I got the letter saying our client-attorney relationship was ending, I felt bad. I really did. But I can still talk to her, and she explained that was just part of the process.”

Linda still has custody of both Micah and Noah and continues to work with them on behavioral health struggles, and she spreads the news of Legal Aid of WV and the Lawyer in the School program far and wide, whenever she can.

“Legal Aid and Lawyer in the School staff are so compassionate. They listen. There are things behind the scenes that no one knows about that happened during my case—and Amber came up with things I would have never known about to help me.”

Mary’s Story

Three years ago, Mary moved to West Virginia to support her niece, who was pregnant with twins at the time.

“I’m the only family she has left,” says Mary. “I was planning to retire, so this seemed like perfect timing, and I could help her and her husband with their little girls.”

After moving, Mary found a pet-friendly apartment downtown where she could walk most places she needed to go, and as a bonus, she really liked her new landlord, who happens to be an attorney in town.

In June 2022, Mary was struggling to pay her rent on top of all of her other bills on her limited income. One day, her landlord mentioned that West Virginia had options through the Mountaineer Rental Assistance Program (MRAP) for renters to get help.

Mary reached out to Legal Aid of West Virginia (LAWV), where she connected with an attorney who helped get together everything she needed to apply for rental assistance.

“With the cooperation of the landlord, we investigated the client’s MRAP eligibility and prepared her application,” says LAWV Attorney Carolyn Beyer. “Within a month, she was approved, keeping her in stable housing where she was allowed to keep her dog.”

The assistance included three months of rent payment, allowing Mary to catch up on some of her other bills. She has been able to stay current on her utilities and rent since working with LAWV.

“I’ve never been in that position where I needed assistance. I didn’t know anything about legal aid,” says Mary. “Working with Carolyn was wonderful. She was very thoughtful and explained everything to me from the process to the status of things. She was professional, and the rent was paid directly to my landlord, so the experience was painless.”

Mary is still living in her apartment, near to her niece’s family, and she has been able to watch her niece’s twins grow—a true treasure in her life.

Celebrating 20 Years – Bobby and Lisa

Clients Bobby and Lisa stand together outside the Legal Aid office where they got help
Bobby and Lisa outside Legal Aid of WV

In the summer of 2019, Bobby and Lisa received a letter from the Social Security Administration (SSA), asking for information about Bobby’s income. Bobby had been receiving SSDI, Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, for more than 25 years, but was working part-time. Bobby has difficulty communicating due to the combined effects of a genetic disorder and a traumatic accident he experienced as a child. Bobby cannot read, write, or speak clearly, which has made maintaining employment difficult for most of his adult life. Bobby’s wife, Lisa, read the letter and sent back the income information requested by the SSA without a second thought.

However, right before Christmas that year, they got another letter from the SSA; this time, it said Bobby’s disability benefits would stop in January 2020. They were stunned.

Lisa and Bobby both worked but relied on Bobby’s disability benefits to keep them afloat. If anything were to happen to Bobby’s employment status, they understood it would be extremely difficult to find another employer that would offer him the disability-related accommodations that he received in his current job. Bobby’s co-workers and employers had adapted to the art of communicating with him, even without the ability to directly hold a conversation.

A few short months later, COVID hit, and Bobby and Lisa found themselves in an all-too-familiar position with no work, but this time, they had no disability income to support them. They reached out to the SSA, but they refused to re-evaluate their decision and kept telling him to “be patient.” Bobby’s employer—his first stable job in years—sent them to Legal Aid of WV.

At first review with Lisa, LAWV staffer Carmen provided her with a list of financial documentation needed to evaluate his case and pinpoint the cause of his benefits being stopped. Bobby was working full-time and making just enough money to no longer qualify—mostly due to pay period timeframes.

“All of a sudden, we got another letter from Social Security,” says Lisa. “When that came through, we learned we were facing a $32,000 overpayment charge. It was a scary time.”

Because of Bobby’s job, the SSA determined they had overpaid benefits to Bobby totaling $32,100, and they would need to pay back as soon as possible.

Lisa continued to explore ways to get help, but Bobby had had enough. He went to the local SSA office with a sticky-note of questions written by Lisa asking for help in understanding what was happening. With no income and now a large amount due, the response of “be patient” wasn’t enough. Without telling Lisa, he also went to the Legal Aid of WV office on his own to get some answers.

“My first encounter with Bobby was one of my most frustrating experiences as an advocate,” says Carmen, who is a paralegal for Legal Aid of WV. “I knew he was upset, but I had a hard time figuring out what he was trying to say.”

He came into the office, and Carmen talked with him. She patiently listened and could pick out a few words from Bobby’s speech but could not get the whole picture. After several minutes together, Carmen asked if he could return later that day with his wife to help facilitate a more productive conversation. Bobby agreed.

In reflecting on that meeting, Carmen recalled, “I remember saying before he left, ‘What’s wrong, Bobby? You mean you can’t just write a $32,000 check?’ He relaxed after that. He knew I understood, and the humor broke the tension.”

Carmen got to work on the case, but they faced delay after delay, largely due to COVID. It took months to even get the proper paperwork through to the remote worker handling the case. Through this process, Carmen was able to get Bobby’s employer’s perspective and a better understanding as to how he was able to perform the work despite his disability. The SSA re-calculated his income with a numeric deduction for the accommodations that Bobby received on the job.

After months of work, Carmen got word that Bobby would get his benefits back. Bobby and Lisa were ecstatic when they heard the news. Not only would his monthly check be reinstated, but the overpayment was also waived and the SSA would be repaying him a lump sum for benefits that he should have received during the months his case was being reviewed.

“It hasn’t been easy.” says Lisa. “There is a real stigma. People say Bobby’s working—and he is—but if he were to go anywhere else or if his workplace closed, he might not be able to find work again. When he tries to communicate, most people just turn away.”

Carmen was someone who was willing to work with Bobby.

“Working with these two—working with Bobby, has been one of my most rewarding experiences,” says Carmen. “I am proud that I was able to help him to resolve his benefits issue, but I have also really enjoyed working with them.”

Bobby and Lisa agree, and Lisa says love, community, and support is what has helped them be who they are.

“To come from what Bobby came from, it was like watching a caterpillar come out of a chrysalis,” says Lisa. “That’s how the Lord works. We feel like he brought us here to Legal Aid, and we need people to know they are here, and they are here to help.”

Celebrating 20 Years – Jean’s Story

Jean lives on her own and likes her independence, and her sister, Sarah, lives nearby. Jean is on public benefits since she is unable to work, so her housing has to meet her financial needs.

In 2020, Jean was living in a federally subsidized apartment when her landlord sent her a notice threatening to evict her. The notice accused her of late rent payments, but Jean speculated that the real reason for the eviction threats was because she got into a disagreement with one of her neighbors, who complained to the building’s landlord. Jean was in a panic about the possibility of being evicted and wasn’t sure what to do, so she called Sarah.

Sarah knew what was happening was wrong, so she and Jean applied for help from Legal Aid of WV (LAWV) and were assigned to LAWV attorney, Paul.

Paul determined that the landlord’s eviction threats were in blatant violation of the her obligations under the lease and under federal regulation, but the landlord continued making unwarranted threats of eviction until Paul helped Jean get a court order, which forced the landlord to cease and to work with Jean and her lawyer to address any legitimate concerns.

Jean and Paul went to her court hearing together, a moment Jean says she could not have prepared for alone.

“It was scary going to Court, but Paul helped me. We got along good,” says Jean. “We got stuck in the elevator with my landlord’s lawyer. That wasn’t good, though.”

After her hearing, the judge determined she was allowed to stay in her apartment. She and her landlord also were set up to attend mediation sessions to help ensure any other conflicts were handled before they escalated.

Shortly after Paul began working on her eviction, Jean’s finances fell into limbo. She had been working with a company and payee who managed her finances for her, but they told her she was no longer in their region and would have to find someone else to help.

Paul had communicated with her payee while working on her eviction case, and when he learned about the problem, he quickly got Sarah set up as Jean’s power of attorney to ensure her financial care was in good hands.

Jean stands and smiles in legal aid office

In the fall of 2021, near the Thanksgiving holiday, Jean’s apartment building unexpectedly burned to the ground.

“I went to pick Jean up—it was probably 2 or 3 in the morning,” says Sarah. “She was outside barefoot in pajamas with a picture of our mother and our relative’s ashes. She lost everything.”

While Jean had no apartment, she stayed with Sarah, who reached out to Paul again. In spite of regulations requiring federally subsidized landlords to offer assistance to tenants, Jean’s landlord seemed inclined to use the fire as an excuse to remove Jean as a tenant.

“Jean ended up living with me for a few months,” says Sarah. “Paul worked with her landlord to get her an apartment in another building that she could afford. We just now have been able to get her new place furnished to where she was before.”

Jean was able to get some help from her community; folks fundraised for everyone in the apartment who lost everything. But Sarah and Jean still had a lot of work to do on their own. Sarah is still working on getting all of Jean’s identification cards that were lost.

“I want to do by right by Jean,” says Sarah. “I have never been a power of attorney before, so I want to make sure I’m doing the right things. Sometimes, I need advice, and Legal Aid is there to help. Legal Aid helped Jean when her husband—they were long-separated—died. They helped her navigate her SSI and Medicaid, and Paul even helped us when we had a problem with a bill from Suddenlink.

“Paul went above and beyond what you would think a lawyer would do for you. He is wonderful. You’ll never get another Paul—without him, I don’t know what would have happened. He is passionate about helping people.”

Celebrating 20 Years – Rebecca’s Story

Growing up in Charleston, Rebecca had a “perfectly normal upbringing.”  

“I was happy,” she says. “Things were fine, and then I met my husband and moved out to Cabin Creek. I loved being outside the city, it was so quiet and pretty.” Her husband had a good job, and soon they added a son and daughter to their small family. “Things were pretty good.”

With her husband working long hours, Rebecca was on her own with two small children, and the stress began to mount. According to her, “It started with drinking some, and then a little more, and then I got to the point where I liked to party on the weekends. Most of the people in my family don’t drink at all, so I was never used to having alcohol around. But once I started drinking, I didn’t want to stop.”

The heavy drinking continued for years, but she and her husband remained happily married, though he urged her to drink less. Instead, Rebecca says, “I kept drinking and then got into pills and other stuff. I just couldn’t stop.”

Family and friends noticed the changes, and her husband also noticed the cash that seemed to disappear from their accounts. “I’d go into his wallet and clean it out,” she says, “but that man loved me and even when he was mad, he never left me on my own.”

After well over a decade of family, friends, and doctors telling her she needed to stop, Rebecca entered recovery one more time, and this time was able to maintain sobriety. Things were good—her family was thrilled. This continued for a while, but then she faced two staggering losses: her mother and her beloved husband both passed away within a year of each other, leaving her with unresolved legal and property issues that not only put her at risk for homelessness but also severe stress that put her sobriety at risk.

Rebecca sits at table talking with Legal Aid staff at Cabin Creek Health Center.
Rebecca (left) speaks with Legal Aid staff at Cabin Creek Health Center

That’s when she turned to Brendan Wood, a Legal Aid attorney embedded at Cabin Creek Health Center through a medical-legal partnership. Brendan helps people recovering from substance use disorder (SUD) resolve legal problems so they can focus their attention on getting—and staying—in recovery.

Brendan assisted Rebecca in navigating and resolving the legal issues she faced, leaving her with a safe home, some assets in her pocket, and her sobriety intact. As a member of, and self-professed “den mother” to a SUD recovery group based out of the Cabin Creek health center, Rebecca was not only grateful to Brendan for the help she received personally but for how it affected her fellow peers in recovery. “They saw someone who was there to help, without judgment. That really means something.”

Celebrating 20 Years – An Adoption Story

Serendipity brought Gabby together with Dona and Rick.

Gabby was born premature and spent the first 4 months of her life in the NICU. Her young mother struggled to take care of her for health and financial reasons. After a coincidental meeting, Dona and Rick ended up taking Gabby into their home just after her first birthday.

After Gabby became a member of their already busy household (Dona and Rick already had four sons, aged 15, 16, 19, and 20), Dona knew she had to take action. She and Rick filed for guardianship in 2005, and they quickly became family—like it had never been any other way.

“Gabby had health issues, but we never let her live a sick child’s life,” says Dona. “She even looks like Rick’s side of the family. People will say, ‘How are y’all related again?’ And I tell them we’re related by love. She has a papa and four brothers, so she’s spoiled.”

The only step they never took was officially adopting Gabby and getting her new birth certificate. In 2009, they got her name changed to include her birth name and their last name before she started school, but Dona and Rick never quite knew when it was the right time to start the adoption process. Gabby had lived with them her entire life, and it seemed things were safe as they were.

“Throughout the last 17 years, we’ve always wanted to adopt Gabby, but our arrangement was working,” say Dona. “We’d run into her parents every once in a while, and there was never a problem. I was terrified to stir the pot, but I did want it to be legal.”

When she was 14, one of Gabby’s friends who grew up with her grandmother went through a custody battle between her parents and grandmother. Her parents were granted custody, and a few years later, the story ended tragically when Gabby’s friend took her own life.

Dona watched her worst fears unfold in another family’s life, and that’s when she realized she needed to officially adopt Gabby one day. She reached out to local attorneys by phone, asking if any could help with her adoption. She got a similar response each time: we don’t have experience with a situation like this.

One night, she was talking it over with a friend and had a thought.

“My grandkids go to East Park Elementary School in Fairmont,” says Dona. “I remembered seeing a flyer in their backpacks about a lawyer who comes to the school and is available to answer questions. I decided to call the school and ask about it.”

East Park Elementary is a site for Legal Aid of WV’s Lawyer in the School program. When Dona reached out, the school gave her contact information for Lawyer in the School attorney Richard Morris.

“Richard was on board,” says Dona. They started the process of adoption, and Gabby was stunned to find out she was not already legally Dona and Rick’s daughter. “She was kind of mad of me when she found out.”

In 2022, after living with Dona and Rick for 17 years, Gabby was officially adopted into her family.

“Honestly, it’s not that much different,” says Gabby. “It was all just a legal change. I’ve been with them for 17 years; they’re my family either way.”

Richard, Gabby, and Dona on adoption day, smiling together at the courthouse.
Richard, Gabby, and Dona on adoption day

“One thing I would like to say is I have great respect for her parents for doing what they did,” says Dona. “I would never say a bad thing about them. They gave me the greatest gift a human being has ever given me.

“Gabby is one of the most incredible young ladies I’ve ever known; there’s so many things she could have used as crutches and excuses in life, but she chose to work harder to be who she is today. I know how blessed we are that we got to be a part of her journey and watch her incredible life unfold.

“The only thing missing was a single piece of paper that meant more to every member of this family than anyone could ever understand. We had a 17-year dream, and thanks to Richard Morris and Legal Aid of WV, our dream became a reality, so to me that is justice.”

Celebrating 20 Years – Bobbie’s Story

Three years ago, Bobbie Dee reached out to Danielle, who she had seen on social media and the news as an advocate for transgender West Virginians, because Bobbie Dee was ready to start her own transition.

“My father had just passed away,” says Bobbie Dee. “I knew who I was, but I waited to transition because I knew it would hurt him.”

Danielle had a similar story of her transition. After 23 years of service, she decided to leave the military so she could finally transition. Danielle was one of the first transgender women who came out in her area, and as a result, she was interviewed quite a bit and became a trailblazer of sorts. She had to do most of her own research finding a doctor, finding community resources and supports; as a result, she now makes it a priority to help other transgender West Virginians find what they need to complete their transition.

“All the coverage of my transition was more than I was expecting to happen,” says Danielle. “But after that, it turns out there were a lot more trans individuals in West Virginia, and they didn’t know how to come out and transition.”

With Bobbie Dee, Danielle helped her find a primary care physician and introduced her to Danielle’s fiancée, who is the founder and president of Beckley Pride. Through their mentorship and through many instances where things simply worked out, Bobbie Dee was able to get her surgeries and change the gender marker on her driver’s license.

“I feel so blessed by all of this,” says Bobbie Dee. “I was able to do my transition on my own in less than three years, but when I went to the courthouse to get the name-change packet, I couldn’t really understand it. The folks at the courthouse and some lawyers I had talked to told me about Legal Aid of WV. I didn’t even know it existed.”

Bobbie Dee applied for help from Legal Aid and was approved. She worked with attorney Marie Bechtel on her name change packet. Previously, Bobbie Dee had owned her own business, and it closed, which caused some financial trouble for her, but Marie was able to get the costs of the name change waived, which would have been close to $750.

“It was a wonderful experience with Marie,” says Bobbie Dee. “I cherish her because she gave me my name. Thanks to Legal Aid, my name is here, and I just thank God for it.”

Bobbie Dee stands in front of a blooming tree
Bobbie Dee in 2022.

According to Danielle, cost and safety barriers prevent transgender individuals from completing their transition regularly in West Virginia.

“You’ll find that most trans individuals are financially struggling due to an unwillingness to hire trans people,” she says. “Bobbie Dee has been lucky to get a good job at TJ Maxx, and they are very supportive of trans individuals. The ability to transition without the fear of losing your job and losing other things is so important.”

Bobbie Dee echoes Danielle’s praises for her job and the excellent insurance they provide. “After my surgery, they worked with me on my recovery time off to make sure I kept my job. It was not easy, but I did it, and I kept working.”

Beyond cost barriers, many transgender West Virginians struggle with support systems. Bobbie Dee reached out to Danielle for guidance about transitioning as a process but also needed folks to support her.

Her wife of 22 years and their two children have been in and out of her life since her transition. Like many in the LGBTQ+ community, Bobbie Dee has a found family, and finding support has been crucial to her happiness and progress.

Groups like Legal Aid of WV, her employer, Beckley Pride, and her friends have given her a new lease on life. Though her struggles are not fully behind her, Bobbie Dee has met each obstacle she’s met with the help of her supports.

“Justice for all is not here for my community,” says Bobbie Dee. “Things are slowly coming around. Thanks to Pride and people like Danielle, things are changing. And Legal Aid—when I am here, I feel like a human. I tell everyone if you need help to call; Legal Aid is where you need to go.”

Celebrating 20 Years – Heather’s Story

When Heather was 13 years old, she moved in with her cousins Brian and Lisa. They weren’t close cousins, but Brian and Lisa knew Heather needed somewhere safe to land, and they were happy to provide a home where she would be safe and loved.

Before Brian and Lisa, Heather had been in an abusive household where she was neglected—including educational neglect; she was kept out of school throughout most of elementary and some middle school.

Heather craved opportunities and worked hard, but trauma and neglect had taken their toll. She was behind in every subject, especially math, so Lisa enrolled her in a private middle school where she got more attention and accommodation to try to catch up on her education.

Deana Cummings stands with Heather smiling in front of blooming spring flowers.
Deana (left) and Heather in 2022.

Lisa knew Deana Cummings because they went to church together, plus their kids were about the same age. She started talking to Deana about Heather’s schooling—she had been placed two grades below the standard for her age in an effort to fill in the learning gaps. As a FAST Advocate with Legal Aid of WV, Deana recognized right away that she might be able to help Heather.

“I knew Deana, so I trusted her,” says Lisa. “During Heather’s time in private school, they were applying accommodations that were helping a lot, but things changed when she transitioned to public high school.” 

Deana worked with Heather and her high school to set up an IEP (individualized education plan) based on her needs. Heather mentioned during one of her IEP meetings that she would like to graduate at the same time as her same aged peers. The school administrator suggested they look into the Option Pathway (Pathways) program for Heather.

Pathways was created to help at-risk students that are at least one year behind their classmates to earn their high school diploma, and Heather’s IEP case manager helped coordinate her acceptance into the program.

“We were all invested in Heather and her success,” says Deana. “The case manager understood Heather’s needs and how to change and adapt to achieve her ultimate goal of graduating on time.”

In addition to classwork accommodations, Heather had options for her physical and mental health. She suffered from pseudo-seizures brought on by stress and anxiety, but her IEP allowed her to spend time in designated safe spaces when she felt overwhelmed. She was also allowed to have lunch with one of her favorite teachers instead of the cafeteria, which was a minefield for her mental health.

“I was going through a court case at the time, and sometimes other kids would ask me questions about it. That made me uncomfortable,” says Heather. Deana, her case manager, and the high school administration made sure all of Heather’s teachers had eyes and ears on her in case other students crossed boundaries. “I feel like once Deana got involved, I could get more out of school because I felt safe.”

By the time the COVID pandemic struck in 2020, Heather’s educational support structure was so strong that she excelled through the turbulence.

“She was so focused on her goals,” says Lisa. “Even when my other kids hadn’t done their homework, Heather’s was done. She worked hard and stayed dedicated.”

In March 2022, Heather was mere months away from graduating on time; she was about to complete a major milestone when things looked like they might fall apart. She was required to pass a set of testing for Pathways in order graduate but was informed the district had not received the final tests and did not know when they would arrive.

Deana jumped in immediately.

“I requested all their documentation and policies,” says Deana. “I was gathering everything I needed to file a complaint. I was going to make sure that Heather reached her goal to graduate on time no matter what. After I started asking questions, Heather was told she could take pre-tests that could stand in for the final test. Heather passed them all and was able to graduate on time.”

Just last month, in May, Heather officially graduated high school alongside her peers on time—well, almost.

The ceremony got delayed for rain.

“My goals were to make friends—I did that: made lots of friends—and to work hard to graduate on time. I was kind of nervous to walk on-stage in front of all those people,” says Heather. “My new goal is to get into the Penn Foster Vet Tech program.”

“Deana is a bulldog when it comes for advocating for people who need help, have struggles, and need accommodations,” Lisa says. “Special education needs are widespread, and the more people who know about advocates like Deana, the more people can get help. Kids might be timid to advocate for themselves, but after they’ve worked with Deana, I’ve seen them get the courage to stand up for themselves in a room full of adults.”

Deana watched Heather walk across the stage at graduation via livestream from California while vacationing with family and even got Heather a graduation card and gift.

“I did my job, sure, but Heather is the hero of this story,” says Deana. “We helped give her the tools to get there, but she did the work.

“Sometimes I wish I didn’t have a job and students could get what they needed without advocacy, but even if they mean well, adults have a tendency to think they know better, and that’s not always true. I give children a voice because they have a lot to say if we as adults will take the time to stop and listen.”

About FAST

Legal Aid of WV’s FAST Program (Family Advocacy, Support, and Training) is a statewide parent and youth network that engages families in the planning, management, and evaluation of their child’s mental health treatment and service needs. FAST Advocates provide special education and mental health services to children across all 55 WV counties. Learn more by visiting our FAST webpage or their Facebook page.

Celebrating 20 Years – Shelbi’s Story

Shelbi felt a lot of stress after she and her boyfriend broke up—he would frequently tell her he was depressed and didn’t want to live anymore without her. Their relationship had been hard, especially towards the end. “It was an abusive relationship—mentally, emotionally,” she says. “We weren’t good for each other.”

When he reached out, she felt obligated to talk to him, even hang out with him, because she couldn’t imagine feeling responsible for his life ending. So when he came over to talk after their break-up, she allowed it. Even though it wasn’t what she wanted, she let him stay in her life because she thought it would help them both with the transition into being single—alone.

She didn’t expect him to assault her.

But he did.

After she was raped by her ex-boyfriend, Shelbi felt lost. “Things were very dark and twisty,” she says. “It’s hard to remember exactly how I decided to get help.”

She started at HOPE, a non-profit for domestic violence survivors in northern West Virginia. “I don’t really remember the whole process, but I know it was short and sweet,” says Shelbi. “HOPE provided therapy and a referral, and the people working there were super warm and kind. There was a calm and safe energy in the whole building. I wanted to run away. I wanted to move. I didn’t feel safe. And they said, ‘Well, we can come get you from wherever you are and bring you to your hearing.’ They were amazing and had such a positive impact in my journey. I’ve only mentioned a couple of things they did for me; they went above and beyond.”

After telling her story to HOPE staff, they referred her to Molly Russell, an attorney at Legal Aid of WV, to talk about more about her legal options for protection. Molly set up an appointment with Shelbi for her to come in and talk about her case.

Molly Russell (left) and Shelbi Perdue in May 2022

“The first day we met, we went for a walk to make me more comfortable because I was feeling anxious,” says Shelbi. “She literally walked out of her way to make me feel comfortable. The legal part of my situation was incredibly difficult and intimidating. I came in knowing a little bit about law but nothing about rape. She made me feel safe and emotionally cared for and physically safe.”

Molly says she often has to take time to meet clients where they are, particularly when they have experienced trauma. “I could tell she was nervous,” says Molly. “Going for a walk seemed like a good way to get to know each other and give her a chance to get calm. We talked about ‘normal’ stuff; we didn’t talk about her case right away.”

Shelbi filed for an Emergency Protective Order, but it was denied by the Family Court. Molly appealed to the Circuit Court, where it was remanded back to Family Court. Again, Family Court denied the protective order, so Molly and Shelbi went to Circuit Court again, where it was finally granted.

“It’s unusual to go to four hearings for a case like this,” Molly says. It was a long process that wasn’t yet over. Shelbi’s ex appealed the case to the Supreme Court. “I got pregnant and had a child during this case if that gives you an idea of how unusually long it was.”

The Supreme Court handed down its decision on Shelbi’s case in January 2020. In it, Justice Workman wrote “’No’ means no in this state.”

By the time the case wrapped up, Shelbi had been working toward rebuilding her life for more than a year. She has been sober for 6 months from sleeping pills she was abusing as a coping mechanism; she lives with her husband and dog and is still doing the work to heal from the prints left in her life by trauma. It has been and will continue to be a difficult journey, but Shelbi is determined and empowered by her support system, which includes Molly’s check ins with her.

“I just want to touch on that quote: ‘no means no.’ Some of the men in the courtroom didn’t seem to grasp that,” says Shelbi. “In every aspect of your life, the word no is definitive. So in the bedroom, that word is definitive. Regardless of if you’re married to that person, you’re dating them, you were dating them, you were friends for a long time. NO means no, in every situation. It’s very important that people learn that. Knowing that my name and my story will be connected with that statement in West Virginia makes me want to cry tears of joy—something positive came out of what happened to me.”

Shelbi plays at the park in May 2022. Photo taken by Molly Russell.

Celebrating 20 Years – An Advocate and Client Story

Legal Aid of WV Attorney Jeri Bradley and Paralegal Adrienna Moore Keaton work across the hall from each other and often work together on cases where clients could benefit from the services where they both specialize. So when Healthy Grandfamilies, a program that provides free resources to grandparents raising grandchildren, extended an invitation to their monthly meetings, they agreed to split the responsibility of attending.

In 2017, Adrienna was attending a Healthy Grandfamilies meeting when she met Connie, a grandmother who had been taking care of her granddaughter Sasha full-time since 2015. Connie introduced herself and asked Adrienna if Legal Aid could help because her granddaughter was struggling in school.

“I sat with Connie during all the breaks and after the meeting that night listening to her,” says Adrienna. “She explained to me that Sasha came to live with her after her mother’s death and was having difficulty sleeping and functioning in school. She was getting WV WORKS for Sasha, but she really needed more support, and I wanted to help them apply for SSI.”

While Adrienna spoke with Connie, Sasha’s story kept unfolding. She had lived with her mom and dad several states away since she was born. Her dad was abusive toward her mom, and she shared a bedroom with them in their home, so she witnessed a lot of the abuse. In 2015, Sasha’s dad killed her mom, and CPS took her into custody; she was soon placed in a foster home. Once Connie found out Sasha was living in foster care, she rushed to pick her up and bring her home to West Virginia, where she became her guardian.

Sasha’s trauma was deep and lasting; it impacted her social skills and her abilities to sleep and be alone. She desperately needed counseling and support, and Connie wasn’t sure how to help. On top of that, she was grieving the loss of her daughter while suddenly raising a young child alone. Healthy Grandfamilies had been a great resource but could only do so much.

“By the time I met Connie, I had quite a bit of experience applying for SSI. It’s not typically given to children, but Sasha’s was an extraordinary case where I thought it was needed,” says Adrienna. “There are six determining factors for disability, and I highlighted that Sasha easily met four of the factors and possibly all six. It took a year, but we finally got the benefits for Sasha.”

Six months later, Connie called Adrienna. “I’m ready to adopt Sasha. What do we need to do?”

That’s when Jeri joined the case.

Jeri was already familiar with Sasha’s case, and she knew it would be a challenge, but she agreed to help Connie adopt her granddaughter. Sasha’s father was in prison at the time, and his parental rights were never terminated, so Jeri would have to get him to agree to the adoption or prove abandonment for the adoption to be granted.

He would not agree to the adoption, and being incarcerated is not the same as abandonment. They would have to figure out something else.

After a long discussion, Adrienna and Jeri came up with a possible plan: first, they got in touch with the guardian ad litem appointed to Sasha’s case in her home state and second, they called the prison where Sasha’s father was incarcerated and asked how he could keep in touch with his daughter. They found out that he could buy her gifts or make phone calls through the prison commissary.

Jeri subpoenaed his commissary records, and she and Adrienna worked through them together. They found that although Sasha’s father had regularly used the commissary to call his other children, he had not placed one single call to Sasha. Birthdays and holidays had passed without a card or gift to mention.

After several hearings, Connie was allowed to officially adopt Sasha.

“The excellent brief that Jeri wrote and support from the guardian ad litem are the reason this adoption was granted,” says Adrienna. “Our hard work paid off because this was not an easy case. Everything just worked out for us and helped us win that adoption for Connie.”

Jeri helped Connie get Sasha’s new birth certificate. By the end of the case, Jeri had logged more than 200 hours of work on the case.

“If a private attorney had taken their case, I don’t even know how much that would cost,” says Jeri. “It was a huge undertaking. But no matter how many hours we work a case, Legal Aid doesn’t charge. I also spent hours talking to Connie. Her pain—that creates a need to talk about what she’s going through—she was raising a child and grieving. You can’t grieve and take care of a child, so it’s put on hold. So I sat with her and let her talk. I don’t know if I could do that at another law firm.”

It might seem like that was the end of the case, but Adrienna’s phone rang again a few months later, and Connie was on the other end. She told Adrienna, “I’m getting old. I am. I wanted to make sure Sasha is taken care of when I’m gone.”

Jeri and Adrienna talked over that request, and Jeri knew Sasha would need to have a trust set up because of her SSI. “I don’t believe in giving something a try if you don’t know what you’re doing,” says Jeri. “I had never done a trust before.”

They sent the case details to LAWV Pro Bono Coordinator David Frercks. It just so happened that a pro bono volunteer had recently taught a clinic on wills and trusts, so David reached out to him for advice. Instead of suggestions on where to look, the attorney took on Connie’s case free of charge and set up Sasha’s trust personally.

As of 2021, Sasha is now excelling in school. She still struggles with trauma; she will for the rest of her life, but she is sleeping alone and is able to focus on her schoolwork. Connie can now focus on enjoying life with her granddaughter, and they are facing life’s challenges together.

“She’s the sweetest girl,” says Adrienna. “And Connie says she looks just like her mom.”