There are eight new messages and eight new faces I won't ever see.
I take down the names, the numbers, the problems and then I start dialing. No answer at the first house.
I try the second number. It's a man's voice on the machine and I quickly hang up, hoping they don't have caller ID and I haven't caused further pain for the woman asking for help and a way out.
The third number's been disconnected. I wonder what will happen to her apartment.
The fourth, he answers. We talk. I can't help. I try to explain. I'm only a volunteer. I don't know yet the exact steps to take if you've committed perjury or if two Class B misdemeanors will equal domestic violence charges in Utah, though I know one Class A will. I don't know how to enforce your own divorce decree or exactly the number of days a father has to pay up on his child support before an ex-wife can turn in him to the authorities. I don't know.
I can recite the good faith doctrine in contracts and the theories of judicial review and tell you that when you're writing a memo to your supervising attorney you should use two spaces between periods, not one.
The phone keeps ringing and every one wants help. Not just legal help. They want something fixed that's broken. Seriously broken. A few questions come about bankruptcy and traffic court, but most want the law to be a magic wand restoring their family.
There are vindictive ex-wives who press criminal charges on former in-laws who give their grandchildren a ride home from school. There are husbands who beat and yell and view obscene material in front of their teenage children. There are girlfriends, wives, and ex-wives who are hurt and angry and bitter and the only control they feel they have is of the children they're left with, so they call asking for help to get full custody. They never want to see him again, and neither should their children. There are fathers left with no way out, trapped between bogus restraining orders and crushing child support demands that leave them bankrupt and homeless. There's a husband and his secretary who leave the mother of four with a house in foreclosure and no place to live. There's a custody court in Wyoming that gave guardianship to a step-aunt to two children already under custody of their grandmother in Utah. The aunt takes them to Mexico, and now after losing of both their parents, the grandmother fights for their rights to see siblings and cousins.
I take down detailed notes, give them the place and time they can meet with an attorney for free, and refer them to some Web sites. They thank me for the help, for offering the chance to be heard no one else would give them. I express sympathy and thank them for calling. Sometimes I wish them luck. It's all I can do. But it's all I'm supposed to do. We screen calls for attorneys willing to work for free. We make sure the right problems get to the right kind of lawyer. But almost always, always, always, it's family law.
I try not to worry too much about what happens next. Like them, I hold out hope those attorneys have superhuman powers everyone else they asked for help didn't. As I pull on my backpack, I try to feel confident the mighty sword of the law will fix things in one fell swoop. But I know that's not how it works. Lawyers are just people with their own broken families and the law is just an imperfect tool, designed to get them the most help it can under the circumstances. There will be help and money and resources and hopefully some justice while they watch their lives fall apart, but it will never be perfect because it won't make them whole.
I clean up my things and turn off the lights. I head for a warm room and a supportive husband. A spouse who has never hit me, never ruined my credit, and will never hurt our children. For a split-second I feel guilty I'm one of the lucky ones. He smiles when I walk in. He listens to my stories as we turn on the stove and try to warm our floors with a broken spaceheater. I pull on pajama bottoms and he hands me a resume to edit. I encourage him to apply for the job and he quizzes me on the slides I brought from property class. My mind wanders back to the man fighting for his children, and the woman worried about where to live. I realize two things: I'm grateful I never, ever have to be the woman on the other end of the line. And I realize I still want to help. I can't fix everything, but I can make some things better. It's worth trying at least.
So I'll keep studying, and every week, I'll keep checking the messages.