Julie Marks answered her calling, but her heart kept her there
The Legal Aid Society of Birmingham was founded in 1952 to secure justice for and to protect the rights of the needy. As we celebrate our 70th Anniversary, it is only fitting that we also celebrate the accomplishments of one of our dedicated senior attorneys who has been a part of Legal Aid’s history for 35 of those years. Julie Marks is a guardian ad litem (GAL) for Legal Aid in the Jefferson County Family Court Birmingham Division. She has served as a staff attorney, managing attorney, and so much more including representing thousands of dependent children. Here is my conversation with her about her calling and what motivates her to continue.
Who was the executive director of Legal Aid when you were hired? I started working at Legal Aid in November of 1986 after passing the Alabama State Bar. Hampton Brown was the executive director.
How many employees were at Legal Aid at the time? Eight, maybe? There were three assigned to Family Court, Hampton, Marilyn Majerik, Hampton’s secretary, and maybe three assigned to Birmingham and the other municipalities.
How many are there now? 22
What was your first exposure to Family court? I did an internship with the District Attorney’s Office my last year at Cumberland and went to Family Court to observe. I was able to see the great Doug Davis and the Honorable Raymond Chambliss try to settle a delinquency case with a young man who was charged with killing his mother. They believed the young man was covering for his father. It was a fascinating interview. Then I observed a dependency trial where the mother was accused of stabbing her boyfriend in the presence of her children. The boyfriend had been abusive to her and her children. The late Judge Sandra Storm, then Judge Ross, gave the mother an impassioned speech about standing on her own two feet, getting a job, and learning to care for herself before she would return the children to her care. The mother did not get the message and responded by asking Judge Ross if she had a good boyfriend next time, could she still get her children back.
When you got the call to join Legal Aid did you realize that this would be your true calling? When I got the call to come work at Legal Aid, I thought it would be a good place to start and never envisioned myself staying here 35 years. I initially stayed because there was a young vibrant group that I worked with and socialized with. We ended up making lifelong friendships, but they left for other jobs. I stayed because of my kids. Over the years, I felt more and more that the children that I represented were ‘my kids.’ I try to make sure that I do not only do what is in their best interests in the Court system, but also try to make sure that some special and normal life experiences are available to them.
What is your most memorable case? My most memorable case includes the infamous case of the twins left in an abandoned home in Roebuck in 1993. Those children were just shy of 5 and found locked in a room in just diapers. They weighed less than a normal one year old. Their parents had moved to a new home with their older children, leaving the twins with no food or water in a bedroom locked from the outside. The door to the home was locked. Luckily, the landlord came to mow the yard and saw one of the girls looking out the window. He broke into the home and found the malnourished children in the bedroom. The children gorged on food rushed over by well- intentioned neighbors. The children were then taken to Children’s Hospital where they were found to be malnourished, failure to thrive, and sick from suddenly being fed the food by the neighbors. The Department of Human Resources became involved, and all four of the children were removed from their parents. While there were relatives of these children, they had shown no interest and had not previously been involved in the children’s lives. When they did see these two children, they overlooked their appearance and did not investigate their welfare. Due to the differences in the way that the children had been raised by their parents and the nature of the case, I was one of four GALs appointed. The GALs worked together to build our cases, even though the needs of each of the children differed and we each advocated for our individual child.
I learned so much in preparing and trying that case. I learned the investigative skills necessary to prepare a large case. I learned a lot about DHR’s policies and procedures and hopefully, some of these changed considering our work on that case. Up to that time, if you called in a complaint or report to DHR after hours, you would have to leave a message on a recorder. There was not a 24-hour response or on call team and reporting abuse was really not anonymous. That changed after the completion of our case. The twins in that case are now 33 years old and I am still in touch with their adoptive mother. I was invited to see them prepare and go off to their prom.
One of the things that I learned from this case is the process that DHR goes through in placing children for adoption following termination of parental rights when there is not an identified adoptive resource . I also attended some of the adoption fairs that were held prior to the development of the internet. I attended some of the meetings where children were introduced to their prospective adoptive parents. After seeing some of the children at the Adoption Fairs and watching as they were to introduced to the families looking to adopt, I always thought we could come up with a more child friendly way to find and recruit adoptive homes.
What do you consider as your greatest accomplishment? In 2005, I read an article in Parade Magazine about a Heart Gallery. It talked about the genesis of the program in New Mexico and the opening of a gallery in New Jersey, telling the stories of the families brought together by the Gallery. Realizing that this was an opportunity to change the way that children are placed for adoption when they do not have an identified adoptive resource, I reached out to DHR. I partnered with Michelle Bearman Wolnek, Karen Nomberg, Suzy Harris, DHR attorney - Diane Dunning, Connie Rogers, Elizabeth Curtwright and Marie Youngpeter. Together we founded Heart Gallery Alabama. Within months, we achieved nonprofit status and had our first Gallery in the Birmingham Museum of Art. The premise behind Heart Gallery is simple: arrange for professional photographers to photograph the children in their best light. We desired to go further and added audio interviews and video interviews with the children so that their individuality was able to shine through. I was on the Board of Directors for over 5 years. Today, Heart Gallery is still my proudest achievement. They have added mentoring programs for the children who are not adopted as well as birthday clubs to remember the birthdays of the children in foster care who are still waiting to be adopted.
In 2010, I visited an Adoption Day festivity hosted in the Governor’s Mansion by Diane Bentley. There, I saw two precious boys playing with my friend’s son. Later, when their mother spoke about her journey to adoption and introduced her sons, I realized that they had been my clients. Their case had been a long, drawn out one with a history before I became their GAL. The proceedings to terminate parental rights was a hard-fought battle. I had seen the children in their previous foster homes, and they had looked like little lost waifs, not the happy healthy boys running around that night. I knew that they had been adopted through Heart Gallery but had not been able to see them myself prior to their adoption. I cried happy tears that night seeing that my work for Legal Aid and Heart Gallery had been successful in producing two happy young men.
Any recent victories you would like to share? Every case where a child achieves permanency is a victory. Whether it is by returning to a family member now equipped to provide the care that the child needs or if we must terminate parental rights so that a child can be adopted; seeing a child in a healthy, safe, and permanent loving home is a victory.
I also have children who have been in foster care and not been adopted. Making sure that those children know that someone cares about them and is here for them is important to me. Two of those young men had Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy and required care that their families could not provide. They were in wheelchairs and required a lot of medical care. One of the young men was a huge Alabama fan and his room in his foster home was decorated in crimson and white, with pictures of Nick Saban and the team all over the walls. He dreamed of being a sports commentator and taking over for Eli Gold. I made a few calls and was able to secure a trip to an Alabama football practice. His foster mom took him to Tuscaloosa where he and his foster family got a tour of the Alabama studio and they got to stand on the practice field watching the team exercise, warm up and perform scrimmages. Nick Saban and the team members came over, throwing him ‘swag’ and signing autographs. When I spoke to him later, he said he had the time of his life.
My other client lived in a skilled nursing facility, as there was not a foster home able to meet his special needs. When he first came into care, I had worked to get him a trip to Disney World through Make-a-Wish. He was a huge Auburn fan. I had problems contacting Auburn until a friend connected me with Bruce Pearl. Within a week, I had secured two tickets to the next home football game as well as field passes for the pre-game warm up. Heart Gallery donated the funds to rent a handicapped van. Another agency provided a volunteer (a young lady who had been an Auburn ambassador) to accompany the young man and drive him to the game. Bama Fever-Tiger Pride donated a wardrobe of t-shirts, pom-poms and hats so he would be dressed appropriately. He had the time of his life and the pictures that I have of him at the game reflect his joy. He was able to take pictures with cheerleaders and others at the game. Sadly, COVID hit, and he was not able to go back to Auburn. This spring, his condition worsened, and he was hospitalized with no hope for recovery. I worked to arrange that he was not alone in the hospital. I contacted his former foster parents and social workers to come to sit with him. His nurses from his skilled facility, his social worker, as well as the young lady who took him to the Auburn game and I all took shifts, so he was not alone in his final journey. I contacted his high school and was able to get his diploma a month before graduation so that he could know he had achieved this goal. Sadly, he passed away, but he died knowing that he had a family in his social workers, GAL and the other lives that he had touched during his lifetime.
Julie continues to fight the good fight daily, in court and out of court. Many of her former clients keep in touch with her long after Court involvement.