Celebrating 20 Years – An Advocate and Client Story
Please be advised: This story includes mentions of abuse and partner violence.
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.”