In Texas, an estimated 1.6 million children are being raised by a single mom or dad. Like many states, the Office of Attorney General (OAG) is charged with collecting child support to secure the economic security of children who rely on this support. But the OAG is prohibited from enforcing custody or visitation rights and answering the many questions that accompany this process.
The Texas Access and Visitation Hotline, operated by Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, is the next place parents can turn to for help. It provides noncustodial and custodial parents with free phone access to attorneys who provide legal information and assistance related to child custody and visitation issues, as well as paternity and child support information. Hotline attorneys do not represent parents. Rather, they explain legal orders, provide tools and guidance for resolution of child access issues, and answer parents' questions regarding visitation orders, custody, paternity, and child support.
However, sometimes information is not enough to help a noncustodial parent facing issues with the visitation of their child. This is when a unique, niche program operated by Texas Legal Services Center (TLSC) can help.
The Parenting Order Legal Line: Extra Help for Non-custodial Parents and Their Children
Texas Legal Services Center is a nonprofit legal office that has a variety of programs to assist low-income people who have problems accessing healthcare, low-income victims of violent crimes, persons who have suffered abuse or neglect in residential care facilities (such as nursing homes), victims of identity theft, and persons who have problems with pensions. In 2010, TLSC established the Parenting Order Legal Line (POLL) with the primary focus of increasing parenting time for the non-custodial parent. Following a legal hotline model, staff attorneys provided legal advice and assistance on issues involving divorce decrees, child support orders, and parenting plans.
Types of Services Provided
Because every decree that establishes custody and support is different, individualized advice and brief services are often needed regarding visitation rights, instances of parental relocation, modification of orders, and questions regarding obligations to provide insurance or healthcare. In short, brief services encompass assisting callers with preparing their cases, but not actually representing them in court. An attorney-client relationship is established and the client is provided with limited scope representation. Potential POLL clients are screened and referred from the Texas Access and Visitation Hotline, leave a message on the POLL hotline, and then an attorney returns their call at a mutually convenient time to begin help on their case.
One of the first steps POLL clients are asked to take is to provide the program a copy of their order, which helps establish the active and participatory role the client will be taking in their case. Often, the attorney will then provide the client a Visitation Enforcement Kit, developed over the years by the program, which helps explain the process involved in enforcement. (This kit is available online at TexasLawHelp.org.) The POLL attorney can then offer step-by-step advice in clarification, modification or enforcement of their current order. In the POLL program’s third year, attorneys also became involved in settlement negotiations. While these cases generally take more time, the investment teaches parents problem solving skills and the benefits of communication when it comes to their co-parenting arrangements. The POLL program does not offer assistance in cases involving domestic violence, active protective orders, or cases involving child protective services.
The number of parents served and incidences of brief services have increased significantly with each year since the Parenting Order Legal Line began. For the year ending in 2015, nearly 3,000 parents received services from the POLL. An average POLL client is approximately 35 years old, Hispanic, and has one child. He and the child’s mother have, typically, never been married to each other, and he usually earns less than $10,000 in a year.
In a representative case, “Mr. Castro” is the father and non-custodial parent to a seven-year-old son. He contacted POLL after the child’s mother had denied him access to the child for more than four months. POLL offered settlement negotiation services. The child’s mother said she was concerned because Mr. Castro had recently moved and had a new girlfriend. She told POLL she wanted to inspect his new residence and meet his new girlfriend before she allowed her son to go with him.
POLL helped the child’s mother understand that, while she was entitled to know where Mr. Castro was living, she was not entitled to “inspect” his home for cockroaches before she allowed her son to go with him. POLL helped Mr. Castro explain to his son’s mother that he was keeping the house clean and pest free, and that he was not ready to introduce his son to his new girlfriend, so it was premature to introduce the child’s mother to her. POLL helped Mr. Castro communicate to the child’s mother that he also prioritized his son’s best interest before his new relationship, and he planned to take things slowly with the new girlfriend. These assurances helped the child’s mother feel more comfortable, and Mr. Castro and the boy have resumed regular weekly contact. They are looking forward to enjoying a long summer visit as well.
Another client, “Mr. Brown,” is the father and non-custodial parent to a three-year-old daughter. His court order included a geographic restriction, limiting the child’s residence to Dallas County, but the custodial parent planned to move to Louisiana. POLL drafted enforcement paperwork, but the custodial parent moved with the child before she could be served and gave no forwarding address. POLL searched public records, but the custodial parent moved so frequently the public records databases could not keep up with her many moves.
Eventually, POLL tracked her down. Mr. Brown was able to serve the custodial parent and see his child, but he worried that his daughter was developmentally delayed. He feared that she suffered emotionally and educationally because her mother wasn’t providing her with a stable residence, and he had suspicions that the mother’s boyfriend was abusive toward his daughter. The custodial parent left the child with Mr. Brown for a visit, but moved again without telling him the address, so he was unable to return the child. When the custodial parent finally contacted Mr. Brown, she agreed that a change in custody might provide her daughter with more stability. POLL prepared the modification paperwork for an agreed custody change, and Mr. Brown’s daughter is now thriving.
Unique Interagency Collaboration for the Benefit of Texas Families
Since 2008, the Division of Family Strengthening Initiatives of the Office of the Attorney General and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation have collaborated on legal services designed to assist parents who otherwise would not likely be able to afford an attorney to better understand the rights and responsibilities created by their parenting orders. The POLL project, operated by the Texas Legal Services Center, continues to receive financial and collaborative support from the OAG and TAJF, and effectively works with the Texas Access and Visitation Hotline to provide a meaningful service to parents trying to make their shared parenting arrangements work for the benefit of their children.