On March 15, in a room with spring-themed cardboard butterflies, Samuel Patterson Stafford, judicial hearing officer, taught a free class on child custody issues as a part of the Law in the Library series at the High Springs Library branch.
The series rotates around the Alachua County branch libraries and lets people pick the brains of legal professionals on issues ranging from home foreclosure to divorce. The Law in the Library program has met since February 2012.
Stafford’s best piece of advice for people in child custody cases is for both parties to get a lawyer as soon as possible. Things get complicated quick, he said.
Even if one parent has everything in order, he said, the process relies on both to file a series of documents across a web of departments.
And for those documents to be effective, they need approval from entities like the state, and can require a courtroom, which can take six months to get signatures, he said.
“The state handles hundreds of thousands of people clawing at them for assistance,” Patterson said. “Be persistent.”
Patterson had a question-and-answer session with the participants.
No case was too complicated, and each had its own quirk and they all had to be hypothetical.
“What if your ex-husband is in New Jersey?” a woman asked.
“Is the case in Florida?” Strafford responded.
“Chicago,” she said.
“Track him down. Does he have any relatives?” he asked.
“He has a cousin,” she said.
“Find her,” he ended.
After one or two people asked questions, anonymity and hypotheticals didn’t quite stick.
“My ex was incarcerated,” another participant said.
“Did you owe him any money when he went in?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“It’s a shame,” Patterson said. “Even if he’s on work release there would have been child support. It would’ve accrued while he was in there. You’re going to have to start over when he gets out.”
One man whose case had lawyers both sides, wanted to know some more options.
“She wants to take them with her to live with her new husband up in Georgia,” he said.
“Are you still filing together?” Patterson asked.
“We never got married,” he said.
“Are they your kids?” he asked.
“I said I was the parent,” he answered.
“Did you get a paternity test?” Patterson asked.
“No, they’re mine,” he finished.
She also figured out a way to intercept his government benefits.
“I’m glad you got a lawyer,” Patterson said.
A theme for the class was the difference between turning 18 and graduating high school. They’re not the same, and it comes down to the original agreements in the contracts.
“All the courts want is a part of what keeps you alive and functioning,” Stafford said. “A piece of that is going to child support.”
Stafford said problems usually come from one party not having a lawyer, so it’s best to invest in one.
“If someone comes up to you with a contract, say ‘This looks good, but let’s get it into a court.’” Stafford said.
“This is a forum for experienced attorneys to share their knowledge of the law with our community,” said Carolyn Kershner, a lawyer who volunteers for Law in the Library.
About forty or 50 people attended classes on topics such as mortgage foreclosure, healthcare reform and collaborative divorce, she said.
A group of six attended the lecture of Stafford, who has nearly 40 years of experience. for about an hour an a half.
The classes are a result of the local bar association volunteering time and teaming up with the Alachua County Public Library system, which provided the space.
The next class will be about residential foreclosure at the Millhopper Branch library at 3145 NW 43 St., on April 8 at 6 p.m.
The next child support class will be at the headquarters on University Avenue on April 10 at 6 p.m. Full child support laws can be found on the Florida Senate website.
For a complete list, visit the Alachua County Library website.