Pro Bono Custody

Posted on Jan 19, 2018 by Katie Carter

Everybody wants pro bono help for their custody cases. I know, I know – it’s, like, probably the scariest thing ever, thinking you might lose your kids, especially if dad (or their grandparents, or whoever is fighting you) is abusive or would do everything in their power to keep the kids away from you.

It’s scary. It’s overwhelming. It’s…expensive. There’s no doubt about it, a custody case is probably one of the most expensive kinds of cases. After all, it’s not like divorce, where you can put a real value on something – there’s a limit, for example, to how much money you’ll spend fighting over something that is worth a finite amount. You’d spend up to maaaybe half of that, because, beyond that, you just won’t get your money’s worth out of the fight. At some point, it’s cheaper to let it go than to keep fighting. And, at some point, almost everyone makes that kind of analysis.

You can’t, though, place a monetary value on your children, or on having custody of them. There’s just no way. And, besides all that, there’s also the fact that custody is modifiable based on a material change in circumstances. So, over time, if things change, custody can change, too. Your child’s father or grandparent or whomever can take you back to court, over and over again, to change custody, child support, or visitation, whenever there’s a material change in circumstances—up until the child turns 18.

Yikes, right? That would suck. Going to court, over and over, for years and years – with no amount of money that would suddenly make the fight not worth it anymore. Custody doesn’t lend itself to that kind of valuation, after all.

Will the court appoint an attorney to represent me?

No… It really doesn’t work that way. Though I’m sure you know that the constitution provides a right to assistance of counsel, that really only applies in criminal cases. Why? Well, the court is looking for cases where a person’s liberty is at risk (so, where there could be jail time). In a civil case (and divorce and custody are civil, which basically just means not criminal), there’s not a risk of jail time. No attorney will be appointed to represent you for free.

Guardians ad litem

To add insult to injury, in a custody case, there’s often also a Guardian ad litem appointed to represent the children’s interests – that’s ANOTHER attorney who you could have to pay! Typically, though, at the juvenile court level, the Guardian ad litem is paid for by the court; at the circuit court level, though, (which is where you’ll be if your custody case is part of an underlying divorce action, or if you – or the other side – appeals an order from the juvenile court) you’ll have to pay for the GAL yourself.

Yikes, right? Of course, a GAL costs like a regular attorney — $200 an hour on up, depending on their specific fee arrangement.

What if my kids and I need a protective order?

A protective order is criminal, so that’s actually different from a divorce or custody case. You can often (though not always) get an attorney to represent you for free for your protective order case. That’s not to say that the attorney will be obligated to continue to help you, or to answer any questions about any custody case you may also be facing – generally, they won’t. (And, even if they could, they wouldn’t have time!) It also doesn’t mean, of course, you can choose any attorney you want; you have to use the attorney the court appoints for you.

In Virginia Beach, for example, protective order hearings are heard on Fridays, and the court has an attorney from the CLASS program (I think it’s Concerned Lawyers Advocating for Spousal Safety, though don’t hold me to that) there and available to represent anyone who can’t afford an attorney on their own. They’re attorneys like me (I’ve done it before, and so have most of the attorneys in my office) who are specifically designated to handle a certain day. They show up, and handle whatever cases are on the docket. So, sometimes, you won’t get much time with your attorney before your hearing (there can be just too many people there to talk to anyone for very long), but you can have an attorney there to help you make your petition.

If you’re facing domestic violence, and our spouse or partner has also been violent towards your child(ren), you can ask that the child(ren) are included on the protective order as well. With that, you can also ask for a specific (though temporary) visitation schedule, or none at all; you can also ask that a neutral third party be present to help facilitate visitation with the children so that you and your husband or child’s father don’t have to come face to face, particularly if that is dangerous for you or the children. Be prepared to offer examples for why your child’s father is dangerous both to you and the kids, and remember that it should be more concrete than just a general fear that he MIGHT be violent towards them at some point.

So I can’t get help from a lawyer for my custody case?

Probably not totally free help, if I’m being honest. I don’t know much of anyone who’d take on an entire custody case for free, especially because these tend to be the most expensive and time consuming cases out there.

If your income is super low, though, it’s certainly worthwhile to at least try to contact Legal Aid. Even if they don’t take your case (they generally only take uncontested cases, because they can use the same amount of resources to help a lot more people), they can often meet with you and give you some pointers to help get you start headed in the right direction, whether you decide to represent yourself or do something else.

If you need to take advantage of free resources, why not request a copy of one of our free books, reports, or information on one of our live seminars? For custody cases, we have Custody Bootcamp for Moms, and for divorces with custody as part, you could attend our Second Saturday Monthly Divorce Seminar.  They’re really helpful, and can help give you the information you need to know.

I can’t afford even a nominal fee to attend your seminar!

No problem. We offer fee waivers to our Second Saturday seminars. If you just talk to your mental health provider, victim advocate, or representative at Fleet and Family services or similar program, he or she can touch base with us to get you a referral. It’s easy!

For Custody Bootcamp for Moms, we offer one free scholarship per seminar. To tell us why you deserve to review our upcoming scholarship for our next Custody Bootcamp seminar, send an email to me at What am I looking for? Well, specifically, to hear whether our seminar would be super helpful for you, as you prepare to represent yourself in a custody case. I’ll let you know, about a week before the seminar whether you’ve been selected to attend.

It’s really scary to think that you’re facing a custody case without help from an attorney – and we don’t want you to feel like you’re totally SOL. You don’t have to go to court alone, though; you can get all sorts of valuable, attorney-created, Virginia specific content online that will give you answers to the questions that are keeping you lying awake at night.

For more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our attorneys, give our office a call at 757-761-8798.