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How the Military Pro Bono Project Saved My Family

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Susan L. Davis
  • 319th Air Base Wing Public Affairs Office
I have been checking my mailbox every day since Thanksgiving. The letter I'm looking for is from the U.S. Department of State. When I open it, I will find the overseas birth certificate of my oldest son, who will be nine in March.

There's a special reason why this is so significant. The birth certificate will have a different name on it. Not a new name--my children have identified themselves as Davises for more than three years now. But this one piece of paper will be the key to making it official... to making us a family.

Let me quickly share my story with you. Early in my Air Force career, I was married to my first husband, and the father of my oldest two children. We began having problems, as many married couples often do, and we started making plans to go our separate ways.

But before we could follow through with our plans to separate, I received a bombshell beyond anything I could have ever imagined. He was arrested, charged and convicted of a federal crime. The last time my children saw their father face to face was the day he was arrested by federal authorities nearly four years ago.

The divorce came after that, along with a strained, awkward, long-distance relationship with the kids that came in the form of phone calls on birthdays and Christmases and sporadic, generic, dollar store-style greeting cards, and little else.

In the midst of all of this, I met Brian, the wonderful man I'm married to now. Brian graciously accepted me and my children as we were, and as his own. As time went on, we talked more and more of having him adopt my two children legally, and making them his once and for all.

Enter the Military Pro Bono Project.

The Military Pro Bono Project is a case referral program for enlisted, active-duty members in the grades of E-1 through E-6 with civil legal problems, and places these cases with pro bono attorneys.

"Most of the time the types of cases that are referred to the program have to do with family issues and landlord-tenant issues that can't be resolved another way," said Capt. Dedra Campbell, 319th Air Base Wing assistant staff judge advocate.

Campbell explained that the process isn't overly extensive. Referrals must come through the base legal office, and must include the client's name, rank, and a short narrative of the legal issue as well as the client's desired outcome.

"Once the referral is submitted, it goes up for review," Campbell continued. "If all the criteria are met, and there is an attorney able and willing to take on the case, they are matched up with the client."

Campbell cautioned, though, that an attorney-client match-up is not a guarantee, and that service members should always have a backup plan in case the Military Pro Bono Project can't help them. She also added that clients are not required to hire the attorney they are referred to.

In my case, the objective was clear: my ex-husband's parental rights must be severed, and my current husband's parental rights established.

We were referred to an attorney in Fargo only days after we filed the request. Over the course of almost exactly a year, we filed motions, attended hearings, and counted down the days to the final hearing when the judge would make her decision. I'm overwhelmed sometimes to think of the thousands of dollars we would have spent if this program had not existed to help us, if we could have afforded it at all.

On the day of the final hearing, the judge easily found in our favor. She agreed that a present adoptive father is better than an absentee biological father. She recognized that my husband is here, now, spending time with our children, helping them with their homework, cooking their meals, showing my son how to be a man and my daughter what to look for in a man. She recognized that while he is not their father, he is very much their dad.

The Military Pro Bono Project was a godsend for us. It allowed us to close one chapter of our lives and open a new, brighter one.

We are all Davises now.

Editor's note: If you would like a referral to the Military Pro Bono Project, call the 319th Air Base Wing Legal Office at 747-3602.