Mentors, Young Mothers Learn From Sisters In Law Pairings

By Jennifer Feehan The Blade, Toledo, Ohio

WWR Article Sumary (tl;dr) With the "Sisters in Law" program, female lawyers act as pro bono legal counsel for several low-income single mothers at Mom's House. Mom's House works to break the cycle of poverty that single mothers from low-income families often get caught up in.

The Blade, Toledo, Ohio

When a young woman enrolled at Mom's House needed legal help, Executive Director Christina Rodriguez made a quick call to her friend, Toledo lawyer Gretchen DeBacker.

When two more emergency calls followed in the next few months, Ms. DeBacker got an idea.

She called on a small army of female lawyers to act as pro bono legal counsel for the low-income single mothers at Mom's House, and before long, the aptly named Sisters in Law program was born.

That was 2014.

Today, the 21 lawyers Ms. DeBacker recruited are providing more than free legal representation. They are mentors and role models, fellow mothers, and friends.

"It's critical for the young ladies to learn how to navigate the legal system especially when it comes to their child," Ms. Rodriguez said. "However, using that component to build relationships -- that's where the uniqueness of the program comes in because now we have these professional women that have this connection to these young ladies."

Located at 2505 Franklin Ave., not far from Mercy Health St. Vincent Medical Center, Mom's House works to break the cycle of poverty that single mothers from low-income families often get caught up in.

The organization attempts to impact two generations by helping the moms finish their education and by giving their children high-quality day care and preschool that ensures they're ready for kindergarten.

Twenty-two-year-old Maraysia Dean was paired with her mentor, Kathryn Sandretto, in 2014 shortly after the birth of her now-3-year-old daughter, Aniyla. They talk or text regularly and get together for lunch once a month.

While Ms. Dean is working on her licensed practical nurse degree from Hondros College of Nursing in Maumee, her daughter is in the secure and nurturing care of Mom's House. Ms. Dean calls it their second home, Ms. Sandretto her second mom.

"I had a legal situation that she guided me through but other than that, we are more like a friendship. She is like family to me," Ms. Dean said. "I talk to her like I would talk to my Mom and my friends. She gets on me sometimes. My big thing is organization, and I'm working on it. She stays on me."

Ms. Sandretto, an assistant Lucas County prosecutor, has two young daughters of her own, and she said she believes she's a better parent because of the time she spends with Ms. Dean.

"Mentoring is not about teaching. It's about listening," Ms. Sandretto said. "The most important thing she's taught me is how to listen. I'm a better mother because of her."

They talk about parenting, potty training, all of those new waters mothers must learn to navigate.

"We talk about that as peers," Ms. Sandretto said. "Her 3-year-old is two years younger than my youngest, and so that makes us very much equals and gives us a lot of common ground."

Ms. DeBacker said Sisters in Law is a natural addition to Mom's House.

"One of the reasons I was interested in setting this up was because of the instability and insecurity that comes with not knowing when the dad is going to come pick up the kid," she said. "Am I getting child support? Am I eligible for child support? Whose paying for health insurance? How am I going to pay for this day care? Can my ex's mother come and pick up my son whenever she wants? Those are things that cause anxiety, insecurity, instability in a family, especially a young family."

Ms. DeBacker said the lawyer mentors' primary role is to help the mothers with custody and child support issues. At times, they also help the young women get civil protection orders and help them through the legal process if they become victims of domestic violence.

Ms. Rodriguez said the Sisters in Law program was launched at the right time.

"One thing we have seen is an increase in domestic violence," she said. "We've had nine protective orders in the last two years."

Ms. Rodriguez said she's also seen the young ladies change and mature as their relationships with their mentors develop.

Ms. DeBacker said it's her hope that the women at Mom's House are supported -- and inspired -- by their mentors. "It's really been a very affirming, gratifying experience that so many of these female lawyers just decided that, 'Yes. I will do that,'" she said. "I think it's a tremendous testament to them. I think it's a tremendous testament to the local bar."

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