When children are trapped in a bitter guardianship dispute, there’s always the chance that the feud can reach a resolution and flare up again. It’s a possibility that exists until the child turns 18.
When it appeared that a settled matter between a child’s grandmother and mother could resurface last month, Rebekah Rashidfarokhi turned to Rawn H. Reinhard and Aidan Gilbert.
She did so with a caveat — if jumping back into a case they already handled was too burdensome, Chicago Volunteer Legal Services could handle it.
“They responded and said, ‘The kid turned 16 in October. We are committed to staying by him for the next 22 months. It’s going to take a lot more than yelling and screaming to put us off,’” said Rashidfarokhi, the CVLS GAL for minors program director.
“For them to say they’re committed to sticking by this kid says a lot.”
Reinhard is a court-appointed guardian ad litem for minors. A partner at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP, he was honored with a CVLS volunteer award in December and joined the nonprofit’s board last year.
In the past three years, Reinhard has handled 22 cases, including a few that have gone to trial. While most attorneys only take one or two cases at a time, Reinhard and Gilbert, a senior paralegal at the firm, usually have five or six open.
They’re the type of team that will voluntarily drive 140 miles to Urbana to conduct interviews at a child’s school and do a home study. Since Urbana is outside of CVLS’ service area, that trip saved the mother the costs of the home study and gave the duo a firsthand look at the child’s living situation if custody was granted.
“They really go above and beyond in every single case,” Rashidfarokhi said. “The combination of taking so many cases and putting so much work into it is pretty outstanding.”
Finding a pro bono calling
Pro bono work was once intimidating to Reinhard.
As a newly minted attorney more than 25 years ago, his first pro bono case was a complex mortgage foreclosure. Reinhard, whose practice focuses on securities litigation, class actions and general commercial and corporate litigation, had never handled a foreclosure before.
“I was in the chancery court, which I was familiar with,” he said. “But the lawyers doing these mortgage foreclosure cases were doing a little dance with the judge tossing up pleadings and back and forth. I had no idea what was going on.”
He doesn’t recall the outcome, but the experience left him nervous about taking other pro bono cases that were assigned to him over the years.
When he joined Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg about eight years ago, the firm sent an advisory that asked attorneys to do at least 50 hours of pro bono service annually. After Equip for Equality, a nonprofit that works with people with disabilities, visited his firm, Reinhard started volunteering for the group’s help line.
Olga F. Pribyl said she now brings Reinhard to corporate trainings to talk to prospective volunteers. He can relate to the initial jitters some people have and encourages them to give it a try.
“He makes people feel at ease and that they don’t need to be intimidated because they don’t know this area of the law,” said Pribyl, Equip for Equality’s vice president for special education clinic and pro bono.
About three years ago, Reinhard attended a CVLS presentation and became interested in becoming a GAL. The first case went so well that he took another one.
As a father of three, the cases resonated with him.
“I like the fact that you feel like you’re not only helping the court and you’re getting some influence in how something gets resolved, but I really do feel like in these cases, as guardian ad litem, it’s my job to look after the best interest of the children and that’s good,” he said.
“As Garrison Keillor says, nothing you do for children is ever wasted.”
GALs are appointed by the court to represent children in guardianship cases involving a parent and a non-parent legal guardian. The guardians are often other family members such as grandparents or family friends. Custody battles between birth parents are not part of this court call.
In his role, Reinhard interviews all parties involved in the case and investigates whether it would be in the child’s best interests to return him or her to a parent.
Among the factors he considers are whether a parent seeking custody has stable housing and employment while also being able to provide for the child’s health, clothing and education needs. If a parent previously had substance abuse or mental health issues, Reinhard checks to ensure the parent is receiving treatment.
The GAL compiles the findings into a report and provides a recommendation to help a judge make the final decision on custody. The average case takes six to nine months, Reinhard said, and there are enough breaks in between interviews, gathering documents and status updates that it doesn’t feel overwhelming.
“You have a lot of control as to when those interviews are because you’re the one who is arranging for the meetings,” he said. “And they, by the court order, are ordered to cooperate with you.”
The task of writing a recommendation can become very complicated for a GAL in cases that feature a parent and guardian who are both fit to raise the child, Reinhard said. In Illinois, the law favors custody rights of a natural parent over a guardian.
Reinhard recalled a case in which the judge granted a mother custody of her daughter who had been living with a former neighbor for 11 years. When the judge gave her ruling, the mother sobbed, and the guardian wailed in anguish.
“It’s tough on the guardians. I mean the cases are tough,” he said. “The guardians have been looking after some of these kids for two to 10 years and they say ‘And now you’re going to take them away from me?’”
The Reinhard and Gilbert team have become familiar faces in the Daley Center’s Courtroom 1806, where a judge in the probate division hears minor guardianship cases.
Gilbert schedules interviews, gathers documents and drafts reports. He also sits in on all of the interviews and attends court with Reinhard.
“Without him, I really couldn’t get through all of the cases that we’ve done,” Reinhard said.
Gilbert had a decade-long career in child welfare and anti-domestic violence policy and advocacy before becoming a paralegal. The firm encourages paralegals to do pro bono work, he said, and along with helping children, the experience has made him a better writer and securities paralegal.
“We don’t always agree (on report details), and I like that we can say, ‘I think you’re wrong’ and talk about that,” Gilbert said. “I’ve never felt that in the end we’ve made a bad decision.”
Gilbert recalled one interview in which a mother wanted custody but still didn’t have a stable job or a place to live.
Those are red flags for the court, and it would have been easy, Gilbert said, for an attorney to be dismissive. Not Reinhard. He told her if she got an apartment and worked hard at finding a job, she could turn her life around.
“Instead what he did was point out all the good things she had done and gave her a road map of exactly what she needed to do,” he said. “When she left, you could see the determination and the light in her eyes.”