Searching for Ley'Gacy

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Searching for Ley'Gacy

One volunteer's career begins with a manhunt

Ajay N. Sundar, Associate at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP

At Skadden Arps, lawyers are free to take on pro bono assignments as though they were billable assignments. The fall months were slow, and my hours didn’t start counting until January. “You should take a GAL case,” my girlfriend suggested one November evening. Ingrid was right. CVLS’ GAL program was just about the only pro bono work that got me excited. There was something different about being a Guardian Ad Litem. Something real.

Then, I got my first and very real case.

The mother had a history of homelessness and untreated bipolar disorder. She refused to take any prescription, preferring to self-medicate with marijuana. “I’m a be honest – I smoke a LOT,” she said, her eyes unflinching. But despite this, she was smart. She knew her grandmother had guardianship. She knew she had rights as the mother. And she was willing to fight to make sure that everybody understood that fact.

The grandmother was a sweet, elderly woman on government benefits. She lived with her disabled husband and eight grandchildren. The grandmother had lost her house to a reverse mortgage scam, and now rented month to month. Despite this, she felt optimistic about the future of her and her kin.

Any hesitations I had about the case melted away when I saw Ley’gacy, a vivacious eight year old with the resilience of a Spartan. Despite what she’d been through, her eyes were bright with wonder and optimism. “It’s snowing,” she said. I looked out the window and saw a few flakes. “I heard we’re supposed to get a couple of inches this week,” I said. “I hope so,” she replied. “I love snow.” “Me too,” I said, although it has been years since I had an opinion about snow. She smiled, and in her eyes I saw why I signed up for the case.

The first month of the case went by in a gray blur of appointments and investigations. As luck would have it, I quickly became embroiled with a billable deal, a massive M&A assignment that absorbed time and energy. I was balancing my work until, one day, the phone rang while I was drafting the first agreement of my career. “Ajay,” the grandmother said, her voice cracking ever so slightly, “Ley’gacy is gone.”

She’d been kidnapped by her mother, her whereabouts unknown.

I called the police. “… so what exactly is your involvement with the case?” “I’m an attorney-”. I hadn’t even finished my sentence before I was met with a dial tone. It would take five unsuccessful attempts before I finally got the police to talk to me. But they couldn’t find her. Then, after weeks of phone calls to relatives, Facebook sleuthing and scouring public records, the grandmother was contacted by the Redlands California school district where the mother had enrolled Ley’gacy in school. We had a location.

I called the Child Abduction Unit in the California District Attorney’s office. Eventually, I managed to convince the DA that yes, I am the child’s attorney and yes, I could actually make this work. The next thing I know, I’m on a plane to San Bernardino County. Through Skadden’s network, I got help from an amazing public interest lawyer in California, who guided me through the research I needed. Finally, after last-minute preparation and time spent brooding over the intricacies of California Civil Procedure, I headed to court. The DA was there to support me, but ultimately I was on my own.

The mother was there. I didn’t have anything against her – didn’t want her to go to jail, or for her life to be ruined in any way. But I was going to get the kid back, no matter what. After two hours of passionate pleading, the judge rendered his verdict.

I won. The next fourteen hours melted away, as I accompanied the most well-behaved eight year old on the planet back home. Ley’gacy was safe.

I plan on taking on another GAL case soon. The thrill of a successful outcome is matched only by the poignancy of realizing that there is so much more that I could be doing for so many other children. There is more work to be done. But for a time, at least, I was able to make a positive impact in one child’s life.

Not bad for my first year.