Meeting your member of Congress
What follows are some notes from recent efforts of Mothers and Fathers to visit legislators in Washington.
For this first installment we just want to talk about the "mechanics" of the visit. We will discuss "why" it was important later. We all learned a lot from the visit and our experiences will hopefully make it easy for more of you to do the same. We will include several example letters which were used that will hopefully give you or your group something to start with.
A. Finding your Member of Congress
http://www.house.gov/ - follow the "Member Offices" link and it gives you an easy way to find the web site for your member in the House of Representatives.
http://www.senate.gov/ - follow the "Connect with your Senator" link to get to the sites of your states two US Senators.
All their website normally have a "constituent service" or "contact" page. It will include the address and phone/fax numbers for their offices located in your state and also in Washington.
Washington Office locations - If you look at a map of the area, find the US Capitol Building (That is where the Congress meets consisting of the House of Representatives and Senate. You DO NOT visit them there, but in their offices.) The Senate office buildings are on the North (Senate) side of the Capitol, and the House offices are on the South Side. As we found out, if possible, try to schedule all your Senate/House meetings at the same time. It is about a 15-20 minute walk from one side of the Capitol to the other. First Street is a North/South Street which goes between both sets of offices buildings and passes in front of the US Supreme Court. On the north side it connects to the Union Station Metro stop. It is only a couple of blocks away. There is also a "Capitol South" Metro stop near the House offices (more on the "metro" below).
You just need to know the building and office number. Once you are in the buildings there are maps in most halls and it is "fairly" easy to get around.
B. Visiting the Washington DC area
Washington is blessed with one of the cleanest and safest subway systems in the country. A bit more expensive than others, it is truly a pleasure to use. For a route map go to http://www.wmata.com/ and click on the "System Map".
You DO NOT want to drive into the city. Your best bet is to find a hotel outside of the 495 beltway, that is near a metro stop. Almost all the Metro Stations have park & rides. NOTE - leave yourself some extra time. It took us about 20 minutes once we were on the train to go from "College Park" (North of DC in Maryland on the Green Line, to Union Station -- fare was $2.00 one way), but it took us about 30 minutes to park first! The Park & Ride was full by 9AM, and we had to park on a street a few blocks away.
C. Scheduling a visit
About two weeks prior to the date we planned on being there the trip coordinator, John Murtari, started making calls to the offices of Members we planned on visiting (we had people coming from their state). The pattern was almost the same with ever office:
a. Initial Phone call - "Hi, I'm John Murtari, a coordinator for a parent's group concerned with Family Law Reform. We have some mothers and fathers from (your state) who will be making a trip to Washington prior to Mother's day and we'd like to schedule a meeting with (the member of Congress). (NOTE - don't feel embarrassed or to "small" to ask for a meeting with "the boss." The rights of parents and children to have an "undisturbed" relationship is one of the most important things we have. What else is more important?)
They will tell you to submit a "scheduling letter" via fax, make sure you get the name of the specific person who handles scheduling. You may need to follow up on the phone with them later.
The office building are open from about 9AM to 6PM (Mon-Fri), it is easier to schedule meetings later in the day. If Congress is in session, Tuesday thru Thursday is your best chance of actually seeing your member of Congress. Aids are available any day of the week.
b. Send the letter - below is an example of what we used with one member. Each letter (ONE page) was tailored to that Member of Congress.
------ Letter Congressman Walsh,
I am the coordinator for a Family Law reform group called AKidsRight.Org As part of observing Mother's day we will be visiting Washington on Thursday, May 9th, with moms and dads who have had their relationship with their children effected by government action. We will be a small group of 5-10 people and will have some parents from Central New York with us. We hope to visit a few Senate & House offices between 9am and 3 pm on that date and hope you might have the time to meet briefly with us.
These are "regular folks" who have taken off time from work to make the long drive to DC for the sake of their kids. It would certainly mean a lot to them to meet a Member of Congress. We had the chance to talk to your staff locally last year and want to thank you for your letters regarding this matter. We hope to continue the dialog and want to bring to your attention the opinion of Constitutional Lawyer, Chester Darling, who has both argued and won cases in the US Supreme Court. I had the chance to speak with him at a recent parent's conference and he feels that the civil rights of parent's and children are being violated in many states. That this is a federal issue. He would be happy to testify before Congress to that effect.
We are asking for Congressional hearings into national reform and also the passage of a Family Rights Act. Our web site has a lot of details, http://www.AKidsRight.Org/
We understand the legal "traditions" that have resulted in States having jurisdiction over family law, but hope that hearings will show the necessity of giving the parent/child bond the Constitutional protections it truly deserves. Very similar to criminal law, each state is allowed to define its own rules & procedures - but, they must remain with the protections provided to all citizens of this country by the US Constitution, e.g. proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the protection of a jury, and the right to legal counsel.
We hope that after discussion and review, you will also join us in feeling that the family bond needs those same "due process" protections which should be respected everywhere in these United States.
We look forward to your response. You can reach me at any of the numbers below.
c. Get a meeting time - These letters were sent out on a Thursday, by the following Monday we had received phone calls from about 75% of the offices (it was better than expected). All said we would have to meet with a legislative aid (a few of the Representative's offices said the Member would try to attend a short part of the meeting). At that point you just call back, play "phone tag", and try to arrange a good time (a 30 minute meeting is a good goal). Again, make sure you get a name.
We were able to schedule & have meetings with the staffs of: Senator Arlen Specter - Pennsylvania (We got to say hello in person.) Senator Charles Schumer - New York Senator John Edwards - North Carolina Representative Tom Reynolds - Upstate New York Representative James Walsh - Syracuse, New York Representative Maurice Hinchey - Binghamton, New Work
D. Have the Meeting
The meeting is chance for you to speak face-to-face with your Member of Congress (and their staff). Make sure you get the business card and contact info for the person you met. We will have more details on how our specific meetings went in a later message. Make sure you also bring a "packet" of material to leave with the aid for later review. We prepared a "cover letter" which summarized our goals and attempted to overcome "expected" objections. Our example is below:
---- Letter to Members of Congress:
We hope you will take the time to carefully review this letter and especially the personal petitions which have been included as attachments. We are mothers and fathers asking you to please call for Congressional hearings into the need for a Family Rights Act. In the past year we have had the chance to meet with the members of some of your staffs, but have seen little progress since then.
It seems we have a problem of "priority" and of "size". Right now we appear to be such a small group and I'm sure you all have very busy staffs. Some would say that we need to do a better job of organizing and presenting the issues (and there is some truth there). This letter may cause you to reconsider the amount of initiative and leadership you may be able to show. As a group we are committed to the principle of NonViolent Action; that Faith, Love, and Personal Sacrifice can make a difference. But we sure can use your help!
The issue is Civil Rights
We believe recognizing parents have a basic Human Right to participate in the lives of their children is obvious - but is the time right? I have had some small personal experience in the political process and Family Law was not even an issue for me, until I was visited by an awful divorce proceeding. I am asking each of you to take the time to listen and see what is really happening - and to also draw analogy to the past, as you consider the many Members of Congress who have proceeded you in this Nation's history.
Have you ever wondered what those members were thinking of TWENTY years before:
What would the response have been by you and your staff to:
Would you have told them to go back, get better organized (and maybe - you have to wait, we are in the middle of a war or other crisis?). We all like to be "proactive." You are very talented and I'm sure ambitious people. Would you have taken the risk and lead on the issue before the rest of the Nation was ready to follow? The "Freedom Riders" sat in the front of the bus and were hauled off to jail. Do we have to make that same Sacrifice for the Love of our children also? We are parents asking you to recognize the God given right we have to be with our children, for protection from well intentioned government interference. Will you help us?
We have attached some letters and photographs of parents and children who have had their most basic Civil Right violated:
· Ms. Billy Sue Atkinson (Morris Run, PA) - has struggled to gain an equal relationship with her children and found no help from our system.
· Ms. Lisa DiMarzo Duffus (Concord, NC) - has sacrificed to be near her children as a non-custodial parent. Visitation rules were violated, but she found that in North Carolina she has NO access to the Court System since she cannot afford an attorney, there is no legal aid, and she cannot file papers without one.
· Ms. Mary Jo Marceau-Hawthorne (Macedon, NY) - was having problems controlling the behavior of her teenage daughter. Went to social services for help and found herself the victim of an investigation - social workers thought the mother/child bond was expendable.
· Mr. John Murtari (Lyons, NY) - wanted an equal relationship and was willing to communicate. His spouse wanted sole custody and refused to cooperate in any way. Finding of failure to communicate. Now a visitor in his son's life.
· Mrs. Cindy Thomas (Augusta, WV) - a grandmother who saw an unfair proceeding result in children taken from her daughter and placed with strangers in preference to other family members.
These are just a sampling, our web site contains tragic stories from almost every state, it is our Hall of Shame ( http://www.AKidsRight.Org/shame.htm ).
Protection of Family Rights
We have a DRAFT Family Rights Act at our web site, http://www.AKidsRight.Org/act.htm . It is an attempt to restore balance in Family Law nationwide. Each state had the ability to establish its own criminal code and procedures, but was still required to remain within the U.S. Constitutions guarantees of: a presumption of innocence, real proof, and the protection of a Jury. There has been an explosion in well intentioned Family Law produced in each state, but without the firm guidance of our Constitution. The words "best interest of the child" have been used to justify any state action. WE ARE NOT calling for MORE FEDERAL INTERFERENCE, but less. The recognition of established constitutional protections to protect families
We only ask the same principles used to protect liberty, also protect the bond between parents and children (probably an even more valued freedom) - the presumption of equal parenting, real proof, and the protection of a Jury. Government abuse to children is rampant and performed with the perverse notion that it is 'in the best interests of the child'. We need reform now to save our families. Judges who rely solely on the testimony of one parent versus another, or a social worker from Social Services, and who never hear others even when they are allowed to speak are committing the worse atrocities in our society and denying the very freedom and justice that they are sworn to uphold.
Being an NCP
Almost all of these people are NCPs (Non Custodial Parents). An official term which we hope will soon join the other "N" word from segregation. What an oxymoron? As an NCP our child can be involved in a serious accident, linger in the hospital, die, and be buried - and there is no legal requirement we even be notified. Why even use the word "Parent?"
Why do some of us risk jail and why are we asking for your help? Which is worse, not knowing your child is seriously ill or just being asked to ride in the "back of the bus." In similar words used by Abraham Lincoln to describe the institution of Slavery, "Many people like the concept of the NCP, but I have yet to find a parent who wanted to be one."
We ask each of you to please take the time to give us a response to this letter that we can share with our membership. We would like you to take a public stand and call for Congressional hearings into the need for National Family Law Reform to begin this September. Besides moms & dads, we have attached some potential expert witnesses, including a Constitutional Lawyer who has won cases in the US Supreme Court.
AKidsRight.Org, c/o Software Workshop Inc., 55 E.
Genesee Street, Baldwinsville, NY 13027 Signatures attached
E. Follow UP
The day after we returned we FAXd a "Thank You" to each of the people we had met with. Because of the Anthrax scare and screening there are delays in getting regular mail through -- FAX seems to be the best way for now.
In the next week or so we will be calling back, checking for any response. We will also be starting the process again to establish meetings with more people as part of Father's day.