October 29, 2015
One afternoon Marta* arrived at a Gideon Center—a legal aid and psychological counseling clinic supported by AJS— distraught because she hadn’t seen her three-year-old son, Emilio, in months. After an argument Emilio’s father, Alonso had taken the boy away to live him and his ailing mother. Whenever Marta tried to visit her son, Alonso refused to let her in the house and even threatened to kill her if she took him to court.
Marta, who has few financial resources and no family in the area, tearfully explained her situation to a neighbor. The neighbor had benefitted from both the legal and counseling services provided at the Gideon Center in their neighborhood and encouraged Marta to seek help there. Marta, who didn’t even dream of affording a private lawyer, had one at her service just days later: she’d gone to the Gideon Center, paid a symbolic fee equal to about one U.S. dollar, and been welcomed into the staff lawyer’s office.
According to Jenny, the lawyer, the “easiest way” to resolve the situation would have been to press charges in court, demanding that police remove Emilio from his grandmother’s home. But Jenny and her colleagues at the Gideon Center do not take the easy way out; they make every effort to mediate agreements that are positive for everyone involved. After hearing Marta’s story, Jenny asked Alonso to come talk with her about the case.
A week later Alonso showed up for his appointment, and Jenny explained that his infirm mother was not the right person to care for little Emilio. They also talked about how traumatic it would be for Emilio and his grandmother to go through a forcible removal. The point hit home. Alonso agreed to take Emilio to the Gideon Center the following week for further mediation. And at that, Alonso and Marta agreed that Emilio would live with Marta, and Alonso would pay 1,500 Lempiras (about $80) in monthly child support.
Now both parents understand their rights and responsibilities—which, as Jenny says, is one of the Gideon Center’s main goals: “We seek to raise awareness among the beneficiaries that they need to respect the law and that there are laws that protect them.”
While the custody conflict has been sorted out, its emotional toll on little Emilio is still felt. The toddler “has been manipulated and has been through many family conflicts,” says Jenny. Counselors from the Gideon Center are helping Emilio and Marta work through that, too, so that together they can understand how to manage Emilio’s behavior and heal his emotional wounds.