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HIV/AIDS: Deeper than the Diagnosis

Tuesday, April 23, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jonathan A. Webb
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I can’t help but confess my ignorance of UDC-DCSL HIV/AIDS Clinic’s motto of assisting those "infected or affected by HIV/AIDS.” I wasn’t as perplexed by the "infected” part as I was about the "affected” part. Does affected mean those who sympathize or empathize with the infected? Does affected mean those who suffer as their infected loved ones suffer? Looking back at my experience, I can confidently say that I finally understand. The virus touches us all, whether we admit it or not. The HIV/AIDS clinic sheds the ignorance and stigma surrounding the diagnosis and looks at these people as just that—people.

In February 2013, Tayrn Gude wrote an article entitled, "Perspective of an HIV/AIDS Clinic Student.” In the article, Gude discussed her experience as a student attorney with the HIV/AIDS clinic, and representing a father who wanted his four year old daughter’s name changed. She discussed her efforts in pursuing this goal, including attempting to have the father’s paternity adjudicated. Due to the time constraints of the school semester, Gude was unable to complete her representation. My partner and I began where she left off.

Now that same little girl, who recently turned five, is learning to write her name in cursive, and despite the fact that our new client protected, provided, loved, and cared for his daughter, he could not be legally recognized as the father. Whose name should she use as she learns to write her name? Should she use the name of the man who has been there since birth? Does it matter? Should she go her whole life without a legal connection to her father? Will not having her father’s name really serve to alienate them from one another? These are all questions I asked myself before meeting our client.

All these questions fell by the wayside after the first meeting. My partner, Colleen Krisulevicz, and I looked into our client’s eyes as he told his story, giving intimate detail of the three-year battle and the pain it has caused. Strapping ourselves in, my partner and I had less than a month-and-a-half to prepare for the hearing that might finally bring him solace.

First, we had to get the judge to agree to adjudicate paternity during the hearing. The mother of our client’s daughter had refused to sign an acknowledgement of paternity at birth and has since disappeared from their lives, leaving our client to raise their daughter by himself. As a result of her refusal to sign, our client is not listed as the father on his daughter’s birth certificate and his daughter has taken the name of a woman she has never known.

Once paternity was adjudicated, we sought to change his daughter’s name. In order to complete a name change, DC statute requires applicants to publish the change in a newspaper once a week for three consecutive weeks. The purpose of the publication is to make any creditors or other individuals aware of the proposed name change so that they may come forth and advise the court on any claims they may have against the change. That being said, this is a case about a five year- old girl with no creditors, liabilities, or awards of social security. Also, our client is indigent; thus, the cost of publication, roughly $100, would prevent him from changing his daughter’s name.

My partner and I filed a motion with the court to waive publication. Given that this was a case of first impression in the District of Columbia, we turned to Maryland law as persuasive authority. Maryland has long since recognized the burden publication imposed on indigent families, and has changed their requirements from once a week for three consecutive weeks to only once and in some cases waiving publication altogether. We sought to drive the point home by citing the policy behind the District of Columbia’s in forma pauperis statute (or indigency statute), which allows waiver of court costs and fees. The statute was designed to grant District residents the full range of civic remedies. We argued that if the court refused to waive publication, they would effectively bar our client from exercising his rights as a District resident.

At the hearing, the court agreed and granted our motion to adjudicate paternity and waive publication. Just after the judge made her ruling, I felt my client’s husky arms around me and saw tears flow down his cheek. Trying my best to remain composed, at least until we received the judge’s signed order, I comforted him. As we all walked out the courtroom, order in hand, I was the first to extend my hand to our client and say, "Congratulations Dad!”

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