From WLALA/BWL Project to Family Law Lifeline:
The Harriett Buhai Center For Family Law
by Katherine M. Forster
The night that Ana’s* husband broke a bottle and held the jagged end to her face could have been her last. Four years later, a legal barrier threatened her oldest son’s life.
Without the Harriett Buhai Center, Ana and her son might not be alive today. Ana had gathered the courage to leave her husband after nearly 13 years of abuse. She cleaned houses and sewed in a clothing factory while her husband was in and out of jail and rehab. He made no attempt to contact or support his children, not even after Ana alerted his family that their 12-year-old son had developed a condition that required him to be on dialysis.
Without sole legal custody of her children, Ana did not have full authority to make medical decisions for them. Divorce was now a necessity. Without resources, Ana turned to the Buhai Center for help. Center staff quickly began divorce proceedings and Ana was awarded full legal and physical custody of her children.
Later, her son developed end-stage renal failure, and a kidney transplant was his only hope. The Center once again stepped in and helped Ana navigate a number of legal hurdles to ensure that the transplant would be covered by Medi-Cal.
“I am so happy and so grateful for all the help that the Buhai Center has given me and my family,” Ana says tearfully. “I didn’t know how it was going to get resolved. I thought it was the end of the road for us.” Her face brightens as she talks about how life has changed for her children. Her youngest is in 9th grade, and her daughter is in college. Her older son, now a healthy 11th-grader, speaks publicly on behalf of organ donation.
All of this was possible because of what started in 1982 in a small South L.A. storefront as a joint project of WLALA and Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, Inc. (“BWL”). The Family Law Project, whose goal was to ensure equal access to the courts for disadvantaged families, was an innovative, unprecedented collaboration between two women’s bar groups. The following year, the Family Law Project received the California State Bar Pro Bono Award in recognition of its contribution to the community, and the Los Angeles County Bar Association soon joined as a co-sponsor.
The project was renamed the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law in 1984 in honor of the late Harriett Buhai, a former WLALA board member known for her activism on behalf of the disenfranchised.
Every day, the Center provides free family law assistance and legal education to disadvantaged members of the community who confront some of life’s most critical problems, including domestic violence and poverty among low-income single parents and their children. By leveraging the efforts of hundreds of volunteer lawyers, paralegals and law students who contribute thousands of hours of their time, the Center empowers disadvantaged individuals, helps assure meaningful access to the courts and improves the well-being of children and their families.
On April 16, 2011, the Buhai Center will hold its annual Theater Benefit, featuring the hottest theatrical show in L.A. this year: God of Carnage (2009 Tony Winner - Best Play). The top-rated cast includes Tony-Award winning actress Marcia Gay Harden as well as James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis.
Along with the 2010 Volunteer Award Recipients, the Center will honor Lynette Berg Robe and the family law firm of Kolodny & Anteau.
For tickets and sponsorship opportunities, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 213-388-7505 ext. 317. Online purchases can be made at www.hbcfl.org under “Donate Now.”
* Name changed for privacy.
Katherine M. Forster is a Past President of WLALA and currently serves on the Board of Governors as Buhai Center Liaison. She is a partner in the labor and employment group at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.