Winning as a team

Last December, Fatima flew to Bosnia with her husband Julian and their two young children to see Julian’s family, for what she thought was just a routine visit. But as their scheduled return date neared, Fatima realized that Julian didn’t intend for her or the kids to return to Chicago. Instead, he planned to keep her and the children there against her will, thousands of miles from home, in a remote area of a country where she didn’t speak the language.

Fatima contacted the U.S. Embassy, who sent the police to Julian’s parents’ home. About a week later, with the help of a friend, Fatima eventually managed to flee Bosnia with her children. Two months after she returned home, Julian filed what’s known as a Hague petition, claiming that the children’s “habitual residence” was really in Bosnia, and that any court proceedings to decide custody should take place there, not in the U.S. If Fatima lost the Hague Petition hearing, it was almost certain that Julian would take the children back to Bosnia and make Fatima fight for custody there.

That is when Fatima came to LAF for help. LAF Supervisory attorney, JoAnn Villasenor and staff attorney, Teresa Sullivan and JoAnn Villasenor, took the lead on Fatima’s case, but the complexity and the urgency of the case made it a priority for the Children and Families Practice Group.

When LAF accepted the case, the scheduled hearing was only five days away. Proceedings for Hague petitions are conducted on very short timetables, and for good reason—the law is designed to return home children who have been illegally taken from their home countries as quickly as possible. But this presents an enormous obstacle to someone like Fatima, who couldn’t afford private legal representation, and even to other legal aid agencies that lack the deep bench and the expertise required to pull off a defense so quickly.

“We couldn’t have done this without the help of the whole team,” said Teresa, “our success in this case is a testament to the camaraderie within the practice group, to our ability to support each other when the stakes are high.”

The team supporting Fatima included not just LAF staff, but also Fatima herself, who Teresa describes as “a dream client, a real partner in winning her own case.” Fatima found witnesses, secured documents that established the children’s residency here in the United States, and provided valuable background for Teresa and JoAnn’s depositions. “You need that ammunition to do a thorough deposition with 24 hours’ notice,” says JoAnn.

In the end, all that preparation paid off. Even though LAF only had a week to prepare for a full-blown trial, and even though Teresa and JoAnn received some 47 exhibits, half of them in Bosnia, the night before the trial was set to begin, Fatima won a resounding victory.

The court’s decision only pertains to which country should handle the custody case, not the actual custody decision itself, but though “it sounds like a technical decision, it ensures the children stay here where they belong and that [Fatima’s] life isn’t uprooted to go litigate in a foreign country in a language she doesn’t speak,” Teresa says.

Though her fight isn’t over yet, Fatima was just as excited about the victory as the team from LAF. Walking out of court, Fatima ran into LAF’s executive director John Gallo, who was trying to make it in time to catch the trial’s afternoon session. Thanks to Teresa and JoAnn’s savvy in the courtroom, it turned out the trial was already over; he was too late.  But he did get to meet Fatima, who greeted him with a joyous, “Are you the boss? Can I give you a hug?”


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