Katrina* is 12 years old. Her parents are divorced, and Katrina lives with her mother, Megan, in Minnesota. The court gave her parents joint legal custody and ordered that Katrina have regular visits with her father in North Dakota. She was with him for four weeks over the summer and never wanted to go back again. She kept hoping something would come up to cancel the next visit.
Time passed. Her next visit was only a month away. Then a week. Finally, on the Tuesday before vacation, she told her mom she didn’t want to go. She told Megan what had happened over the summer and on the visits before that. She told everything, and Megan believed her.
The next morning, Megan called Child Protective Services (CPS), and she called Staff Attorney Sarah McGuire, who works with the Stearns County Domestic Violence Court. Months earlier, Megan had been the victim of a domestic violence felony, so she had McGuire’s direct contact information.
McGuire advised Megan to call the police. Plans for the visit stopped, and the problem was solved for the moment. But even with the police and CPS investigating, McGuire knew further legal steps were necessary.
“We all moved quickly to protect Katrina,” says McGuire. “Megan thought she was safe when she was with her father and was so upset to learn that wasn’t true. We immediately filed for an Order for Protection (OFP).”
Asking for an OFP gave the judge an opportunity to consider the new information and provide legal protection for Katrina. When Katrina’s father was served with the OFP, he called and said he was going to get a continuance. He said he’d come up for the hearing with an attorney. That would mean Katrina would have to testify, in front of her father, under cross-examination.
The day of the hearing came with a severe winter storm. Megan and Katrina drove through blowing and drifting snow, and the three-hour drive turned into five hours. Katrina’s father didn’t show up.
“The judge was wonderful to Katrina,” McGuire says. “He was very kind and acknowledged the discomfort of the testimony. He asked me not to go into any more depth than necessary.”
The judge issued the OFP. Katrina’s father is not to contact her for two years. That will give Megan and the Legal Aid team time to get a new custody order.
“We wanted Katrina and her mother to feel supported,” says McGuire. “We wanted them to know that we believed Katrina and took her concerns seriously. We also wanted Megan to know that she did nothing wrong. She reached out for help immediately, and we are all working together to protect her daughter.”
Paralegal Heather Helmer, who also worked on the case, says, “Kids in a situation like this who have no support are trapped. If nobody had listened to Katrina and taken her seriously, she’d be forced to continue living in a harmful situation that was potentially very dangerous.”
“It was so good to work with Heather and Sarah,” says Megan. “They are lovely women and they got me through the process. Katrina is relieved, but I don’t know if she understood the seriousness of the legal situation. The lawyers were such a blessing. Without them, none of this would ever have gone through.”
*Names have been changed.