Browsing Posts in Client Story

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.”

Celebrating 20 Years – Client Amy Thomas

“You know a guy is a dirtbag when he steals money from his children’s piggy banks,” cracks Amy Thomas. When you meet Amy, her sense of humor is one of the first things you notice about her. You would never guess that she’s had 22 surgeries to repair injuries to her face and body inflicted by her former partner (and the previously mentioned piggy bank thief). You would never guess she’s been anything but a bright, confident woman who believes in herself and knows she deserves kindness and respect.

But that wasn’t always true. When she came to Legal Aid of West Virginia nine years ago, she was terrified and confused. Her partner and father of her two young children had recently been escalating his abuse against her. She explains, “When the kids were really little, it was easier to hide the beatings from them. I blamed my injuries on this and that—basically everything but their dad. But it was harder once they became more aware and mobile. I thought about leaving so many times, but I had no idea how to do it since I had no car, no money, no family, and no home without my partner. All I cared about was my kids, and I just couldn’t stand the thought of possibly losing them—so I stayed.”

That was until the day her ex took a baseball bat to her head and body—in full view of her children. She says, “He had been trying to start a fight all day, and I knew it would probably end up getting physical. But all of the sudden, he just picked up the bat and began hitting me. I could hear my skull crunch as he beat me, and I knew if he didn’t kill me today, he would kill me some day. And if I were dead, that meant my children would only have him. So I got a protective order, even though I was afraid of what might happen—there was just no other way to go on.”

Problems began brewing immediately, as her ex began breaking the terms of the protective order by contacting her, following her, and parking his car just outside the bounds of her “protected space” so he could watch her and the children. “He would get a few days or weeks in jail and a fine, but violating a protective order is a misdemeanor and he just didn’t care,” she says.

That became obvious when, roughly 5 months after she received her protective order, she heard a noise at the door, and suddenly her ex was next to her, beating her with his fists until she fell to the ground. He dragged her and the children to the back bedroom and locked them all in together. What followed was a horrifying ordeal where she was held captive and beaten. He told her and the children that none of them would leave the home alive. He made her look up male friends on Facebook so he could interrogate her about them, accusing her of being unfaithful. In a moment of incredible clarity and bravery, she quickly texted a neighbor “CALL THE POLICE” while pretending to search Facebook.

The police were there in minutes, and her ex was immediately taken into custody and charged with numerous felonies. After that, she called Legal Aid of West Virginia, desperate for legal help that would help her keep her home and secure full custody of her children. Former Legal Aid attorney Mark Toor took her case. Looking back, Amy says, “I credit a handful of people for saving my life— the police officers who came to my home the day my ex broke in, and Mark.”

Mark began working immediately to untangle the ties that bind couples with children, working out the custody and property issues that she knew she couldn’t have faced on her own. He also supported her as the criminal case against her ex moved forward, a process that ultimately ended with a 10-year jail sentence. Amy says, “Mark made sure my kids would always be safe from my ex and his family members, and that we had a home. That didn’t mean things weren’t hard going forward— my kids and I walked everywhere for three years until I saved up enough money to buy a used car. And they still go without things that their friends have. But we are safe, we are together, and we are happy—that’s what really matters.”

While Amy believes the legal work done on her behalf was critical to rebuilding her life, she also points to the humanity and kindness of her attorney and the supporting staff at Legal Aid as a huge factor in getting her where she is today. She explains, “I didn’t have anyone when I met my ex. My mom had died when I was young, and my dad left when I was only seventeen. I was on my own and felt lonely and scared. I think that’s why I got sucked into that relationship. And over time, he slowly isolated me to the point where I really had no ability to build an outside support system. He told me I was worthless, and no one wanted me. And I believed him, because at that point, he was the only person in my life.”

She says, “When I went to Legal Aid, it was the first time I ever really felt that there were people who cared about me and believed in me. I began to think, ‘Maybe I’m not stupid or weak. Maybe there are things inside of me that I could use to help other people.’ “She credits her decision to go to college to this newly acquired confidence. Over time she has earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and is halfway through a doctorate in social work, though she rolls her eyes and laughs when she talks about it, saying she’s not sure if it’s going to prove the right path— she’s busy enough with two teens, being a volunteer advocate for survivors of domestic violence, and her full-time job with Child Protective Services.

“I don’t think any of this would’ve been possible without Legal Aid,” she says. “What I think people don’t realize is that Legal Aid attorneys not only help you with your legal issues, but they put you in touch with other resources, they encourage you, they treat you like a human being. This is so important, especially for women like me who have been brainwashed into thinking they deserve punishment. With their help and their belief in me, I was able to go from being a domestic violence victim into a domestic violence survivor.”

Debbie’s Story

Debbie Thomas has two children: a teenage daughter from a previous marriage and an elementary-age son from a more recent relationship. Debbie separated from her son’s father, Charles, because he had been verbally abusive to both children and verbally and physically abusive to her.

After the separation, Charles repeatedly broke into her home and made threats. She sought and was granted a domestic violence protective order; however, the order stated that they share custody of their son and exchange custody at a supervised location. Despite the order, Charles kept showing up at Debbie’s home and workplace and followed her to “check on his son.” He even climbed through a bedroom window one night when no one would answer the door. The kids were so terrified at night that they wouldn’t sleep and would often miss school the next day.

Constantly living in fear was disrupting her family’s life, so Debbie visited the Lawyer in the School clinic while she was picking her son up from school. A volunteer attorney advised Debbie on how to file a contempt petition for violation of a protective order for some immediate relief. Legal Aid was also able to assign her case to a volunteer attorney to provide court representation to file for a modification of custody and child support in family court. The case has since been resolved: Charles no longer threatens the family, and last semester, Debbie’s son won an award for perfect attendance.

Constance’s Story

Constance is a retired widow living on a small pension. She raised two children of her own and helped raise her niece after her sister died. That niece struggles with drug addiction and had a baby born addicted to drugs. Her parental rights were terminated shortly after the child’s birth. The baby, Annie, was placed with Constance, and she has cared for her as a relative foster care provider for five years. Annie’s father lives in another state and was incarcerated when she was born, but he was recently released. 

Constance came to the Lawyer in the School legal clinic seeking to adopt Annie because she was worried that her father would try to take her to live with him out of state. His rights were never terminated, and he has sporadically sent money and gifts to Annie and visited her on a couple of occasions. A volunteer attorney working with the program agreed to help Constance.

After consulting with Constance and Legal Aid staff, it was clear that the biological father was not likely to consent to the adoption, and she could not prove abandonment based on their interactions. Annie would also not be eligible for certain public benefits she was receiving if Constance adopted her. Because of her attorney’s assistance, the biological father was willing to enter into a custody agreement giving Constance primary legal and physical custody, with visitation as agreed upon by the parties. The Court also awarded child support payable to Constance for Annie’s care.

These legal proceedings occurred without any notable interference with Annie’s education. Annie received a perfect attendance certificate on awards day at the end of the school year and was also named Student of the Month for her grades.