A Home for Kayla

by Kevin Finnerty

I’ve represented fourteen-year-old Kayla Harrison for almost three years. Most of the time she looks as if she’s seventeen but acts like she’s eleven. Sometimes, it’s reversed. I’m not sure what to make of her today. She enters my office wearing a T-shirt depicting a female mouse bent over a toilet purging and immediately sits with her feet up on the seat with her arms wrapped around her knees.

I’d tell her that’s not a proper way for a young lady to sit, but there are more important behaviors to address. Anyway, it’s not my chair.

I work in the law school’s legal clinic as one of two staff attorneys focused on family law. Our space lacks the elegance of the classrooms where the faculty lecture students on corporate, patent and other areas of the law, but it’s a step above the downtown legal clinic with its random collection of donated furniture where I used to work.

Today’s the first time I’ve seen Kayla since I returned from maternity leave two weeks ago. And the first time since we sent Kayla to live in a foster home.

I wish I had a law student with me to ease the transition, but the one who previously worked on Kayla’s case recently graduated, and the school curtailed the number of summer interns it hired during my absence. So I’m alone with the teenager.

We meet in advance of tomorrow’s emergency hearing. The Court needs to assign Kayla to new housing. Kayla stares at me as if I should propose a solution, but I only suggest she wear different clothes tomorrow.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she tells me.

That depends, I find myself thinking like a lawyer. Everything depends on other things in our analysis. In Kayla’s case, it depends on how one defines wrong. And the ability of a fourteen-year-old girl to consent to sexual activity. And the ability of a fifteen-year-old boy to do the same. As well as the ability of two young teenagers who are thrown together but not blood-related to consider themselves members of the same family unit and not as objects of sexual desire and experimentation.

I tell the kid she’s right because she’s more right than not right.

Her father, Ryan, abused her. Verbally and physically. Her mother, Dyann, all too often failed to correct behavior in need of correction, and the Court, upon my recommendation, sent her to a foster home, where she met and began having intercourse with her foster brother.

So what are we to do now?

“Just let me go home.”

Kayla sees my dubious glance when I lift my eyes from her file, which had been acting more as a shield than a source of information.

I’ve known the Harrison family, or at least about them, for longer than I care to remember. Ryan and Dyann make for an odd couple. They frequently fight in public but almost universally rally when any outsider calls into question a family practice. At times, they do good work, not just for themselves but the community at large. But Ryan increasingly engages in erratic behavior. It’s as if he’s concluded the only way to prove he’s a worthy family man is by destroying everything he claims makes his family special.

I want to engage Kayla. I hope we can reach a consensus before tomorrow’s hearing. The judge will make up his own mind, but if a teenager and her guardian ad litem are unified, it carries a lot of weight. But I can’t decide on a course of action myself, so I don’t rush to persuade Kayla.

“I’ll run away, I swear to God, I will,” she tells me when I broach the subject of another short-term foster care.

“I’d never let the court place you in that kind of environment again.”

“You did before. And then walked away.”

“You know that’s not true. I was on leave.”

I feel bad about using the birth of my own child as an excuse and implicitly shifting blame to my colleague, who had more than enough on his plate without having to monitor my cases as well. But I have to re-connect with Kayla. I need to make her believe she can trust someone, even if it’s the person who thought little about her during her six months on leave and failed to learn what had occurred until her return.

“I thought you were on my side.”

“I’m absolutely on your side.”

“Then help me.”


“By doing what I want.”

“You know that’s not how it works.”

How it’s supposed to work is each of the parents, or the parents jointly if they wish, has an advocate arguing on his or her behalf. The guardian ad litem acts in the best interests of the child, which is not always (not frequently, in fact) the same as what the child wants. Finally, the child can speak on her own behalf. When the individual involved is as old as Kayla, the Court generally gives the child’s expressed desire more weight. But ultimately the judge decides what to do.

I’ve practiced family law for almost ten years now and while being the guardian ad litem used to be my favorite role, I now find myself longing for the times when I just represent a mother or father, warts and all, and argue on their behalf to the best of my ability. Maybe I don’t feel any better about what I do in those cases, but the work is easier.

“Will they send me right from court?”

Kayla finally lets her feet fall to the floor. Her legs begin to bounce. And tremble.

“I don’t know.”

She sighs and curls away from me, obviously not believing me, though I gave her an honest answer. I don’t know what will happen in this case.



The family courtroom looks and feels different than the rest of the courthouse. Cushions and curtains cover the wood and marble found elsewhere, and once a week one finds a teddy bear or doggie left on a table or in a pew.

Most of those Kayla’s age who come here bring an attitude. They almost universally carry experiences with drugs and sex. They often appear before the Court as the victims, and occasionally the perpetrators, of crimes of violence.

Kayla walks in wearing a plain white T-shirt and pink shorts, each at least one size too small. I know she’s tried to heed my advice, and the items probably were appropriate enough when she was twelve, but I now imagine them enticing fifteen or sixteen-year-old boys into believing she wishes to encourage amorous behavior.

She sits in the first pew. I ask her to join me at the table. She does so meekly.

Judge Clemons enters the room looking like someone who has just presided over a vicious custody hearing, which I know to be the case. I’m sure his brain still functions, but his soul could use a respite.

Judge Clemons offers everyone a half-smile in recognition of familiar faces counter-balanced with the disappointment concerning the circumstances leading to the reunion. He briefly sucks on the bottom half of his bushy, white mustache.

“Counsel, counsel,” he says, nodding to my counterpart and then to me.

I almost laugh at the formality. We’re not a by-the-book, let’s-put-all-this-on-the-record sort of jurisdiction. Especially not in family court. Were our clients not present, I’m sure Judge Clemons would have addressed the lawyers by our first names.

He knows all the family law practitioners in the area. Knows us so well, he invariably grasps when we truly believe the position we take as human beings and when we argue the way we do because we’re legal advocates assigned a particular role in the system. Most of all, Judge Clemons understands when there isn’t a good solution to a problem.

“Shall we begin?”

It’s a rhetorical. We all know we’re knee-deep into the shit already.

Q. Daniel Simms, my least favorite, semi-frequent adversary, stands and leans forward confidently. It’s not that he’s a terrible person or that he’s unethical. It’s just so over-the-top with him.

“It’s an outrage that this Court continues to keep my clients and their daughter apart, given the sort of parenting that takes place in this country. The Harrisons are the sort of family to which others aspire. The actions designed to undermine their autonomy are the product of a few individuals who wish to threaten their way of life.”

Judge Clemons and I share a knowing glance. I know that he knows this sort of blather isn’t helpful. Q.D., as I call him, always says these sorts of things no matter the circumstances or client.

Q.D. handles divorces between souses of significant wealth much more often than what I consider true family court cases, but the Harrisons have money to burn and they choose to burn some on Q.D., so he puts on a show.

I find the union strange. Q.D. wears custom-tailored suits; he studies and follows fashion trends. But he’s overweight and nonathletic, and most people find him socially inept outside a courtroom.

Ryan always wears a black T-shirt and worn jeans despite his blessed bank accounts. They highlight the muscular physique of the former athlete. Men and women gravitate towards Ryan whenever he enters a room. Only some come to realize that he uses his appearance, like his wealth, to take advantage of those susceptible to the superficial.

Ryan gets to his feet before Q.D. has finished and starts speaking over his own counsel. I turn my body away from him, partly so I don’t have to look, partly to shield Kayla.

“This whole proceeding is ridiculous.”

“Your Honor, I apologize for my client.”

“No need to apologize, Dan,” Ryan says. “I know you’re trying to help, but I refuse to accept that this Court has a right to intrude in this family matter any longer.”

“You do?” Judge Clemons opens his eyes wide. I’m not sure if that’s a sign of suspicion or growing alertness now that someone has interrupted Q.D.‘s canned speech.

Q.D. takes a seat and throws his flabby arms across a couple of chairs.

“What happens to a family in the home is no business of the government.”

“Whose business is it?”

“That’s between the father, mother, child and God. So it’s fair to conclude that the actions of this Court over these last few years have infringed upon my religion.”

“Your religion requires that you abuse your daughter?”

“You believe this guy?” Ryan says as he turns around and addresses the non-existent audience in the back of the courtroom. He jerks his thumb towards Judge Clemons. “I’ve never abused anyone. I’ve protected my daughter as best I know how. I don’t apologize for any acts I’ve taken in this regard. My only regret is having failed to protect my son the same way.”

“Please excuse my husband.”

Dyann gets to her feet. She’s more frail and sports more gray hair than her husband. One might initially mistake her for Ryan’s mother rather than his wife.

Kayla’s file suggests Dyann once had a drinking problem, but her mind is sharper and more focused than Ryan’s. I once held hope for Kayla with Dyann. She appeared to understand her child’s needs better and possess a greater desire and ability to work towards a solution. But I came to recognize a significant defect. It’s not as severe and as frightening as Ryan’s, but it’s present nonetheless. Dyann cares more about Kayla than Ryan does but not anywhere close to as much as she cares for herself.

“I don’t condone everything my husband has done. He can be belligerent, he can be tyrannical. But he is a good provider.”

“That from an excellent spender.”

“And he’s taken certain steps I believe to be necessary to ensure our family’s safety.”

“So you have no qualms with your daughter returning home?”

“Not if she’s released into my custody, Your Honor, and my husband is only granted time with Kayla under my supervision.”

“That won’t work. The only reason Kayla cares to be with my wife is because she knows Dyann can’t say no to any request she makes. I want my daughter to become self-sufficient.”

“You want to toughen her up all right.”

Judge Clemons grabs the back of his head with both hands. I know what he’s thinking: We’ve been here too many times. All the promises of change, but we always cycle back to the same bad habits. Nothing improves. It’s all talk.

Or maybe that’s just what I’m thinking. I like to believe I’m a person who exercises considerable judgment. I like to think I carefully considered Kayla’s case before coming to Court. That said, if I were honest, I’d have to admit that when I came here today I intended to recommend Kayla be allowed to return home, but as I get to my feet and brush my skirt to buy a few additional seconds, I realize that’s not what I will tell Judge Clemons.

“Your Honor,” I begin, taking a few more seconds to be certain where I’m going. “I’ve carefully reflected on this matter and … I’ve come to believe what’s in the best interest of Kayla … would be to place her in another foster home.”

I hear others jump to their feet, but I remain focused.

“And I think the family should be one that has raised children who have since left home, preferably to college. A mature couple. Now I know Kayla loves her mother and father and wants to return to them, but I cannot make that recommendation in good conscience.”

I hear Ryan and Dyann’s voices trying to talk over mine and Q.D. telling them to wait their turn. With my attention diverted by the Harrisons, I come to an abrupt conclusion, unsure of what else I’ve said and wondering how embarrassing the transcript will read. As I conclude, I observe Judge Clemons holding his gavel aloft and imagine that some NBAer has taken an outside jumper at the buzzer. All eyes in the building are focused on the object. But there is no climactic finish, no scream of excitement, no groans. Judge Clemons gently lowers his hand, and silence descends upon us. I sit, intending to gently tap Kayla’s hand but cannot do it.

She runs past me to the podium but turns back my way when she reaches it. “What’s love got to do with it?”

I hear Tina Turner’s voice.

Kayla shakes her head and addresses Judge Clemons. “That’s not why I want to go home. But what other choice do I have? Even if you were to let me go out on my own, you think I’d really be free?”

Kayla stops speaking. I expect her to beg and to make an emotional appeal, but at the age of fourteen she comports herself better than most semi-seasoned lawyers who think more is more when usually it’s less.

Judge Clemons leans back in his chair for a moment and closes his eyes. He tilts his head towards the ceiling. After a full minute, he leans towards us.

“I’m not here to judge the totality of anyone’s existence. I’ve seen this family enough to know of its many accomplishments and significant shortcomings. But family law is different than the civil or criminal matters that are tried before me or a jury. There, one side wins, another loses.

“Would that I could make things right, perfect. But I can only rule. Kayla, you’re too young to have been taken from your childhood and thrown into the world of adults. And I’m sorry if that world, including yours truly, has failed you. We can only try to do better. And I can only hope that you struggle through no matter where I — with my imperfect vision — send you.”

Judge Clemons continues talking and ultimately rules, but I conclude the order is not what’s most important. We’re all born into families without having been given a choice and forced to make the best of something over which we hold no control. Some are treated better, some worse. Even within a particular family.

I reflect on my childhood when as kids my friends and I would make silly comparisons about the relative talents of our mothers, incomes of our fathers, successes of our siblings. Why did any of that matter? What was the use arguing about who was best?

Ultimately, whether Kayla or my newborn or anyone else succeeds depends far too much on luck. Sure, a few can overcome tremendous obstacles and others can dig their own holes to stumble into. But what’s the use of pretending there’s any fairness to a farcical system where people start out at different points on the course and the rules can be changed at any point along the way?

Kevin Finnerty received his MFA from Columbia College Chicago. His fiction has appeared in VLP Journal, Blue Lyra Review, and Parting Gifts. He lives and works in the Twin Cities.