Since its founding in 2006, our Methodist Justice Ministry (MJM) has served hundreds of women and children from low-income households by obtaining and enforcing court orders for protection, custody, denial, or restriction of visitation by abusers, as well as child support and medical support. And, in addition to helping with varying degrees of legal complexities, the MJM has also provided counseling and support for more than 1,400 individuals in desperate need of help.
Led by Brooks Harrington, an ordained United Methodist minister as well as a licensed attorney, MJM has grown to include two additional attorneys, Linda Gregory and Jodie Connaughton, and a support team that includes Yajaera Chatterson and Norma Serrano, all of whom carry into this work each day its scriptural motto, “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy.” (Proverbs 31: 8-9)
Earlier this year, Brooks sent an email to share with others a recent MJM case that illustrates particularly well what this remarkable ministry does, day-in and day-out, year upon year, to help those who cannot help themselves.
“One of our staff attorneys, Jodie Connaughton, took in a new case just today,” he writes. “The case concerns legal custody and protection of two children — one 10 years old and one 8 months old. The children have the same mother but different fathers. The identity of the father of the 10-year-old is unknown, even to the mother.”
The email goes on to elaborate that the father of the 8-year-old is a drug addict. The 29-year-old mother of both children is bipolar, diabetic, organically mentally impaired, and, because she refuses to take her prescribed medications — and instead “self-medicates” with heroin — she is also drug addicted. It is likely that both this father and mother live (with these two children) in a house out of which drugs are sold.
This sounds like a rough situation, to be sure, and within this brief description it’s easy to recognize hints of the issues likely involved. And, as Brooks goes on to outline the particulars of this case, the tragic elements of the lives of these two innocent children layer one upon another to create what feels — even to the reader — as heartbreaking as it is insurmountable.
For the 10-year-old, suffering comes in the form of autism, ADHD, and bipolar disorders, with some sensory issues that often cause her to lose her balance and fall. Her misshapen teeth are badly in need of braces, and her eyeglasses have the thickest lenses anyone involved has seen in a long time.
The 8-month-old was born with opiates in her system due to her mother’s heroin use during pregnancy. Now being monitored by Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), no developmental delays caused by her mother’s drug abuse have been identified — yet.
After Child Protective Services (CPS) removed these children from their living situation, they referred the aunt and uncle who took them in to MJM for help. The uncle is in his mid-60s and the aunt is in her mid-50s; they are barely eking out a living on about $1,400 in monthly social security disability and retirement between them, plus about $200 in food stamps — and they are already caring for the aunt’s mentally disabled brother.
“Like so many of the caregivers we have encountered over the twelve-plus years of this Ministry,” Brooks relates, “this couple seems innocently unaware of their own sacrificial generosity. Not helping these two children — and the adult brother — is just not an option for them, whatever their lack of material resources, and their own ages and health issues. God put this love for these children on their hearts, and there that love abides.”
So Jodie and the MJM staff went to work to obtain legal custody of the two children for the aunt and uncle, along with measures that will protect the children from their parents. But that crucial legal groundwork was just the start of MJM’s involvement and support for this family, extending far beyond legalities to help provide:
- Financial support for housing with more space,
- The children’s clothes and special needs, including help with the braces,
- Emergency support for utilities, car repairs, and other emergency financial challenges of people with fixed and limited incomes who take in challenged children, and
- Direction and help to access the community services available for these children.
While Brooks is quick to acknowledge that the unfairness and sadness in the lives of these two children is undeniable — they clearly did nothing to deserve their plight — he also acknowledges the plight of the mother. “She also did nothing to deserve her bipolar, diabetes, and organic mental impairment,” he adds.
“If there is some way to get her into treatment and care, we will try to facilitate that as well so long as we can carry out our first responsibility of protecting and helping to provide for these children.”
This seems to be the place that marks the great distinction of this ministry over other legal aid and social work entities. It is easy to condemn the mother. It is natural to feel for and want to protect the children. And of course, it’s easy to offer support for this heroic aunt and uncle who have changed their lives radically to take in, love, and raise these children. However, the MJM is offering care and support in all facets of this tragic situation — from making sure the children are safe and actively and thoroughly loved to offering care, support, and relief for the mother who is incapable of caring for her children, to making sure this older couple has the resources and assistance they need to help these two children who face inestimable hurdles in their lives ahead.
“God has provided this, and we will do our best to keep this so,” Brooks says, referring to the solutions found and offered to this family. He adds that while he would like to say that this case is unusual, our Methodist Justice Ministry takes on this kind of responsibility daily to serve children and families to whom life has been cruelly unjust.
And often, he adds, heroes appear to assist MJM in its work. “With regularity, heroes like this wonderful aunt and uncle are moved by God to step forward to protect and provide for children in need,” Brooks says. “When they do, we at the MJM are here to enable and support their heroism. We are not the heroes. They are.”
Fortunately for the women, children, and families served by our Methodist Justice Ministry, the manifestly unfair cruelties that life sometimes deals are made more manageable. Through the tireless work of this dedicated team now entering its 13th year of ministry thanks to the generous support of all who believe so deeply in its work, God’s love arrives in tragic circumstances such as these to bring light into darkness — and hope into devastation.
Read this story and more in CONNECT Magazine | 2018 Issue 1
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