I’m Dan Couvrette, the publisher of Family Lawyer Magazine and DivorceMag.com, and today I have the pleasure of speaking with Maryland family lawyer Brian Pearlstein. This is part of a Thought Leadership Interview Series I’m doing with top family lawyers across the country. I’m talking with Brian today because of a pro bono case involving child abduction. Many lawyers take on occasional pro bono cases, but in this instance, Brian went far above and beyond the call of duty for a complicated pro bono case.
This is a story of a heart-wrenching child abduction case that took three years to resolve. That’s what I’m talking about: going above and beyond the call of duty and the extraordinary steps that Brian took to reunite the child with her mother. Not only by bringing the child into his own home, but also by going to France on behalf of the mother because she couldn’t obtain a Visa to get back into the US. The story became a subject of numerous French publications, and a French TV show recently aired about this case.
Brian Pearlstein is the Managing Partner of Brodsky Renehan Pearlstein & Bouquet, a law firm that’s exclusively focused in the area of family law in Maryland and in DC. Brian is an experienced and effective litigator who has the reputation of being a tireless advocate. He had to be tireless to be working on a case like this for three years, and he’s often involved in complex and emotionally charged family law cases.
I’m talking with Brian about his combined legal ability and conscientious approach, and how he threw his heart and soul into this pro bono case. Brian, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.
Brian Pearlstein: Thank you, Dan – it’s a pleasure to be here.
Dan Couvrette: I understand that this case started in 2015, and as I mentioned, it took three years to resolve. Let’s start with some background on how you came to represent the mother, whose name is Fanny. She’s a French citizen. How did that come about?
It was purely by coincidence. At that time, I was being considered as an approved and preferred attorney for the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. to provide services for their constituents and other French American citizens in the US. I happened to be at a meeting with the General Counselor discussing my practice, my abilities, et cetera, and he asked whether or not my firm – and me in particular – did any pro bono cases. I said that I do, and he started to describe a particular case that he was aware of – and purely coincidentally, Fanny had just retained my services. He started to tell me about a very young French citizen who was in the US as an au pair. She became pregnant and had a child, then her child was abducted by the father. She then had to return to France and was not able to get back into the US, and asked whether I might be of assistance. And that started the relationship that became an ordeal of sorts.
Was there anything in particular that made you decide to take Fanny’s case, and did you assume it was going to be a long, drawn-out process and battle to get custody again?
It was a pretty heart-wrenching case. The fact that this young woman was in the US as an au pair, got into a relationship, had a child, and then had her child literally ripped from her arms. She had not seen her child for years. The fact that she simply could not get assistance either from the French government or from any other US attorneys meant she really had no hope, and I wanted to try to provide some hope. I had no idea that it would be a three-year ordeal. I knew it wasn’t going to be resolved in the short term in light of the fact that the father was missing with the child, so to speak. But I was in it for the long run.
I also understand that the case involved domestic violence and, of course, immigration issues, because she was an au pair here in the US. Please give me a sense of just how complicated the case was from your perspective.
The immigration issues were that she was here on a J-1 visa as an au pair. She got into a relationship, had the child, and there was domestic violence throughout the very, very tumultuous relationship. There was a point in time, as I understood it, where they were trying to work on their relationship. At the same time, Fanny’s father had fallen ill in Mexico. Fanny, her daughter Giulietta, and the father traveled to Mexico to see her father. Once again, there were arguments and domestic violence, and then the father fled with the child back to the US unbeknownst to Fanny. She had believed that he had been working on securing an extension of her Visa. He had not done so, and she was not permitted to return to the US. That created considerable complications for her. She had no ability to get into the US.
During this time, how did your relationship with the mother, Fanny, and the daughter, Giulletta, develop beyond what you thought it was going to when you started the case?
It’s interesting because, in this area of practice, you really do need to maintain objectivity to provide best counsel and objective, logical, thoughtful actions to create results. And in this particular case, I had never met Giulietta. I knew about her. I was in pretty regular contact with Fanny, who was living outside of Paris at the time, and it was your typical attorney-client relationship at first – although that changed near the end of the case when we were able to get traction with the court. Things went on for years in terms of what was filed with the court, but it was very slow moving. In large part, the major complication was the father had absconded. We had no idea where he was, and so locating him and Giulietta was first and foremost to really move the matter forward, to get service of process, et cetera.
It wasn’t until there was an incident that resulted in Child Protective Services getting involved that we found him. The father was squatting in various hotels with another woman and another child at this point. Now Giulietta had a half-sister, and they were literally squatting in motels and hotels. There was domestic violence between the father and the new girlfriend; Child Protective Services got involved and took both children away from the father and the girlfriend and put them in foster care, in social services, which ended up being a godsend for Fanny because now Giulietta was with the state. We had a location for the child, and we were able to then proceed.
Brian, I know you’re a top family lawyer, one of the best in your neck of the woods, and I know that you would do everything legally and do it right. But this case drove deeper into your soul, I think: you knew it had to be fixed and you stood your ground and that’s more than just knowing the law. You’ve got to persist when it doesn’t look like it’s going to work out sometimes, and you’ve got to have that commitment to this type of case, don’t you?
That’s an excellent point. It’s not just about using the law, using what’s there, but it’s about at times being creative and thinking outside the box, and this was one of those cases where we really had to think outside the box. It wasn’t just a dispute between a mother and a father and having the court system to resolve it. Now we had social services and other lawyers involved.
We had to make sure that we were utilizing all our resources as well as coming up with creative ways to get the matter moving forward. And that’s when it was time to make a determination as to where Giulietta was going, that Fanny was in the best possible place. The fact that she was in France meant she couldn’t appear in-person, and there were complications with that. I can’t even imagine what would’ve happened if this had been during COVID. I often think about that now that she was returned on August of 2019. Had it been a year later, I’m not so sure what would’ve happened. A lot came together and worked out well in the end.
The little bit I know about you, Brian, makes me sure it still would’ve happened – COVID or no damn COVID. Tell me about the day in court when the judge made her decision to award custody of Giulietta to her mother.
Just a little bit of background on that. What had to happen first was that once Giulietta was in foster care, the father was then active in the system. Not only in the system meaning that he was incarcerated, but also being active in the case, what’s called a CINA case (a Child In Need of Assistance). We had already filed for divorce and for custody. We were able to get a custody order signed off on, get the divorce decree signed off on, so we were well on our way. But then there was the issue of the CINA proceeding where the court had to make a determination as to whether or not one or the other parent was ready, willing, and able, which is the standard to care for Giulietta.
The complicating factor with that – and it pretty much was assumed that it certainly wasn’t going to be the father – was to get the court to enter an order that Giulietta would go to the care of her mother. Of course, her mother was in France, so social services weren’t able to do a home visit. We worked very hard with social services and the other attorneys to present the best possible case. During the CINA proceeding, I was called as a witness to essentially corroborate and testify on behalf of Fanny. I was on the stand, they were going through their questioning, and the judge turned to me and said, “Mr. Pearlstein, you understand that if we find that Fanny (who was testifying by telephone) is a ready, willing, and able parent, and that she’s able to take care and custody, that Giulietta must be released from social services today. Where is she going to go?” I didn’t even hesitate: I simply said “My house.” There was a little bit of silence in the courtroom. The the judge turned to me and said, “Okay,” and made her decision, finding Fanny to be a proper parent to have care and custody. Then it was a matter of getting Giulietta to Fanny.
What did you do to make that happen?
The court signed off on the orders: Giulietta was going to be in the care and custody of Fanny, but now it was a matter of reuniting the two. About a week prior, myself and my associate Samantha Pollin traveled to the state department to get Giulietta a passport. In fact, that was the first time that I had met Giulietta – a week prior to the court proceeding. There were of course hiccups with the passport process. They had spelled her name wrong, and I had to plead with the individuals at the passport office to issue a new passport while I waited. So we had the passport in hand. Now it was a matter of Fanny coming to the US. She had been denied three, four times to get a Visa to come to the US.
The court proceeding was on a Tuesday, when it became apparent that Fanny was having a lot of trouble getting a Visa. We worked with Fanny to try to get to Canada, and then I could meet her in Canada. While she was working on that, Giulietta was released to my care and custody. But even before I had taken care and custody, I had to make sure that Fanny was okay with it. I spoke with her – and she speaks about this in the French TV show – and I asked, “Are you okay with me taking Giulietta into my home?” She said, “Absolutely!” The court asked me, “When can you pick her up?” And I said, “I need about an hour, hour and a half.”
I had to go get a car seat installed in my car. I then went and picked Giulietta up at social services, took her to dinner, and then took her to buy clothes because when I picked her up, she walked out with only a ratty little bag. We went to my home, and I then called one of my female partners to have her come every night to bathe Giulietta and get her ready for bed. Giulietta started living with me that Tuesday night. We were constantly face-timing with Fanny so that Fanny could see what was going on.
Probably one of the most heart-wrenching things that occurred during that period was that first morning when I said, “What do you want for breakfast?” And she said, “What can I have?” And I said, “Sweetie, you can have anything you want.” I made her pancakes, eggs. I asked her about fruit, and she said, “Do I just get one?” She was a bit malnourished. Clearly, she did not get much to eat in the past, and it was a wonderful opportunity for me to have this.
On Wednesday, I brought her to the office, and the rest of the attorneys attended to her while we worked on the Visa issue for Fanny. It became clear that Fanny could not get to the US, so I said to my assistant, “If Fanny does not have a Visa to get to Canada by Thursday noon, book flights to Paris.” On Thursday, Fanny still didn’t have a Visa, so we booked flights for myself, my wife, and Giulietta, and we were on a flight Friday evening to Paris.
You’re truly a full-service family law firm!
That might be one way of describing it!
That’s concierge full service. Brian, I’ve never heard of somebody taking care of a client that well – forget about a pro bono case – going to that extreme. and I also get that you loved the process because you knew you were going to win at the end of the day. You were just not going to quit. The emotional reward, it just must have been so satisfying to be the victor and hand Giulietta back to her mother Fanny when you got to Paris.
It was certainly the highlight of my career. But I will always remember what happened subsequent to putting her in her mother’s arms at Charles de Gaulle airport. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. I stay in touch with them, and I’ve seen how she is flourishing in school with friends. She’s a beautiful little girl now, and you can see how happy she is to be with her mother – and how happy Fanny is to be with her daughter and to be a family again after four very long years apart. It’s extremely rewarding. Ultimately, we try to achieve what a client wants. But reuniting a child with her mother – I couldn’t imagine anything more gratifying in this practice.
Brian, I want to thank you for taking the time. It’s a remarkable story. I say you’re a remarkable family lawyer for taking this on and going through the process to bring this to a successful conclusion. Congratulations!
If you want to learn more about family lawyer Brian Pearlstein and his firm, go to his website, www.brpfamilylaw.com. They serve both the Maryland and DC markets. I highly recommend that you check them out. Brian is definitely a lawyer with a heart of gold, but you also don’t want to get in his way when he’s working for a client. He’s going to get it done! This is just one example of many in his career. Thank you again, Brian, for taking the time to talk with us today.
Thank you very much, Dan. I appreciate it.