Occasionally, attorneys have the opportunity to take on matters that represent more than money, more than property, more than business – they are matters of humanity. Often, these cases are accepted on a reduced fee or pro bono (gratis) basis to help struggling families. That is the type of case that Parsons Behle & Latimer (Parsons) attorneys John E. Cutler and Gabe A. Davis contributed their time and effort to help resolve this summer.
In August 2018, a mother in Mexico gave birth to a daughter. During January of 2019, the mother’s sister and brother-in-law – who are U.S. permanent residents – came to Mexico to visit. As the infant’s mother had separated from her long-time partner and the baby’s father, the sister and brother-in-law offered to take the infant across the border using human smugglers and have the baby reside with them in the United States. Citing concerns that this course of action would be too dangerous, the mother refused. In June of 2019, without the mother’s permission, the sister and brother-in-law took the child across the border and posed as the infant’s parents.
For four years, the child’s mother in Mexico fought for her child to be returned home, working with Mexico’s Secretary of Exterior Relations and the U.S. State Department to find an attorney who could assist. Cutler says the process to deal with cases such as this arises under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (Hague Convention). A left-behind parent first submits an application for return through their country’s central authority that conveys the application to the country where the child has been taken—in this case the U.S. State Department. The State Department has a network of pro bono attorneys who can accept or decline cases referred by the State Department. Outside the limited number of pro bono attorneys registered with the State Department, left-behind parents are provided contact information for the legal aid society within the state where the child has been taken. Because the Hague Convention is a specialized area of law, legal aid societies are often not equipped or willing to take on these cases for left-behind parents. Language barriers can also be a challenge for legal aid groups as many left-behind parents do not speak English. Given these dynamics, there are often more cases than available attorneys. Adding to the challenges, under the Hague Convention the longer it takes to file a petition for return, the more difficult it can be to obtain an order requiring return of the child to the left-behind parent.
Attorneys at Parsons had assisted in other similar, cross-border cases involving custody issues, and eventually, this case came to the attention of attorneys Cutler and Davis. The attorneys began to lay the groundwork for the case, including refuting demonstrably false charges by the child’s aunt and uncle that the girl’s mother was abusive, had drug abuse issues and had neglected the child. During the case that ran from January through March of 2023, the team used arguments based on international law and the Hague Convention and provided documentation, including a psychological evaluation, to refute charges against the child’s mother. In June, Cutler and Davis were granted a court order to return the child to her mother. The child, now four years old, was reunited with her mother in Mexico in July and given the opportunity to meet her baby brother, who had been born during her absence.
A long-time advocate of pro bono work, Davis says, “I want to continue to include these types of matters in my practice. I did several pro bono cases in law school. They are incredibly rewarding and make it meaningful to be an attorney.”
Cutler is already undertaking another similar case. He says that he would encourage any attorneys who are considering getting involved with pro bono matters to do so. “Assisting with issues like these is important. Doing things that are meaningful makes the rest of the work easier. Helping with these types of issues is not difficult to get a handle on, and more attorneys donating their time would make a difference. Unfortunately, we can’t help every person. The demand is higher than the number of attorneys working these cases. These clients could really use additional attorneys to help.”
This case was especially poignant for Cutler and Davis, who both have young children. Cutler says, “I have a little girl the same age as our client’s. Every time I saw my daughter, it made me think of this little girl.” Davis also has a young son. He says, “I can’t imagine someone taking my child away for that length of time and not being able to see him. Those are years you can’t get back. Winning this case for our client has been bittersweet.”
John Cutler and Gabe Davis are litigation attorneys in Parsons Behle & Latimer’s Idaho Falls office. They can be reached by calling 208.522.6700 or by sending an email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.