Sandra Gregory was hunched over the counter in Room 258 in the Los Angeles County Courthouse shuffling a pile of papers as thick as a suburban phone book.
The documents that she was supposed to fill out had titles such as “Order of Notice,” “Notice of Hearing,” “Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Act” and “Proof of Service.” For days, these forms had confused her and slowed her efforts to, as she said, “Get my miracle from heaven.”
The “miracle” is a 6-year-old girl whom Gregory has had custody of since the child was a month old. The baby had been given away to a neighbor by her mother, who could not care for her. The neighbor had hired Gregory to baby-sit.
“I just fell in love with her, so she gave her to me six years ago,” recalled Gregory, of Los Angeles. “My own son was killed 20 years ago when he was a baby and I felt God had given me another child.”
But Gregory, like hundreds of others seeking legal guardianships, has found the court procedures confusing, intimidating and expensive.
The court’s guardianship system has for several years been staggering under increased caseloads. In the last two years, the number of applications has doubled as more and more parents--many of them drug-addicted and homeless--are unable to care for their children, and relinquish them to family, friends or neighbors.
“It was totally bananas,” court clerk Ozzie Cortes said. “Some take a day off from their jobs to do it. They’d come for their court appearance in tears, with crumpled court papers in hand, incorrectly filled out or not filled out at all. “They’d beg us to do it for them, and of course we couldn’t right there in the courtroom. So we’d tell them to get help and come back.”
But there was no help for those who could not afford to hire an attorney. So they would end up going back to court again and again, clogging the system with delayed court appearances.
Late last year, Superior Court Judge Martha Goldin gave a talk at a meeting of the Beverly Hills Bar Assn. about the plight of the guardianship applicants.
The group, headed by attorney Barbara Bailey, organized a volunteer program in which 25 attorneys and paralegals from across the county volunteer their time to help those seeking guardianships.
The volunteers do not give legal advice. Instead, they take turns assisting applicants every Tuesday and Thursday morning in the court’s Probate Department. They help them fill out the paperwork and make sure they have all the necessary documents for their court appearances.
The founders believe that it is the first of its kind in California, and they have had requests from other court systems wanting to try a similar project.
Along with the legal work, Goldin also provided some practical aids.
“Most of the applicants bring along the babies and children,” she said, adding with a laugh: “We got tired of them changing diapers on the counter, so we installed changing tables in the second floor bathrooms for them.”
The typical guardianship applicants, Probate Commissioner Ann Stodden said, are grandparents or relatives who have had to take over the care of a child because the parents are on drugs, in jail, on the streets or have simply disappeared.
There has also been an increase in the number of women who join the armed forces and must have guardianships for their children while they are in basic training, she explained.
In 1988, a total of 443 guardianships were granted in the county, but in the first six months of this year the number of guardianships processed was 398.
There are two types of guardianships available, Stodden explained, those of the “person” and those of an estate.
The attorney volunteers can assist only those who want to take over the custody of children, by far the most common. Those seeking guardianship of a minor’s estate must obtain bonds and hire attorneys to help them set up trusts for any money the child has inherited, usually insurance money and bank accounts of deceased parents.
Sometimes people keep children for years without guardianships, but discover that they need legal control of them when they go to enroll them in school, obtain medical care and receive welfare benefits for the child.
The guardianship fees are $329, but the county waives them for those who have low incomes. As part of the guardianship process, the applicant must also undergo a criminal background check and an investigator visits the home.
To obtain a guardianship of children under the age of 18, the applicant must serve papers informing the real parents that a guardianship request is taking place. Rarely do the parents--whose whereabouts are often unknown--contest such actions, officials said.
If they do contest them, the case goes to trial.
Guardianships differ from dependency cases, which are legal proceedings in which children are made wards of the court, usually because their parents have been criminally negligent and abusive.
Earlier this week, half a dozen people had taken numbers and were awaiting their turn with the volunteer attorneys in Probate Court.
Sandra Gregory had returned again on this day to finalize her legal work.
“I am so excited, I can’t wait,” she said. “I can’t wait for the judge to tell me my little girl is mine.”