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Perspective of an HIV/AIDS Clinic Student

Friday, February 22, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Tayrn Gude
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What’s in a name? Most of us do not think about our names – especially our surnames. We come into the world, a mother and father determine how we will be identified from that point on, and somehow, we become one with our name. Our name signifies our connection to our parents, and our parents’ connection to us. But, what if the facts of life interfere with a neatly package process? More importantly, what does any of this have to do with the UDC-DCSL HIV/AIDS Clinic?

During my semester in the HIV/AIDS Clinic, I was confronted with a client who wanted to have his four-year old daughter’s surname changed to his. But first, he needed our help to adjudicate his rights as a parent. As her sole custodian, he wanted their family-of- two to share a surname.

Historically, at common-law and in the absence of a statute to the contrary, adults were generally allowed to change their own names so long as the change was not made for fraudulent purposes. My client’s case, however, was a little more nuanced because he wanted to change his daughter’s name. But, there was no DNA test that verified he was his daughter’s father, he was not listed on her birth certificate, and the only "proof” he had that he was her father was a custody order referring to him as the "father.”

My clinic partners and I met with the client several times. We discussed his concerns and spent time with his daughter. I came to believe that, if anyone deserves the right to determine a child’s surname, it should be her custodial parent – notwithstanding the District’s well-meaning, but awkward, child-naming statute. I researched his case, drafted pleadings and appeared before a judge in the DC Superior Court- Family Court. While I was not able to complete his case, he is further along in the process, and I learned a lot.

As I recently explained to a law school colleague, the HIV/AIDS Clinic is the perfect course if you want to practice Family Law. The client base in the Clinic is HIV-positive; however, that status is simply the means by which clients qualify for pro bono legal services. If my experience in the Clinic was typical, the average case requires student attorneys to develop expertise in D.C. Superior Court rules; perfect their petition-writing and oral advocacy skills; and, become familiar with statutes and case law pertaining to custody arrangements, testamentary and living wills, and other family-law related topics. Now, we arrive back to the first question: What’s in a name?

Find out more information at the HIV/AIDS Legal Clinic.

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