Heather McCabe of McCabe & Russell Law Firm has been practicing family law for eighteen years in Maryland and D.C. and has taught at both Georgetown University and American University.
McCabe chose family law because she felt it was the area of practice with most direct impact on the important things in people lives—protecting and restructuring their families. After campaigning for Hilary Clinton at the local level, McCabe turned her rage from election day into resistance and motivation to help impact positive change through political action. She co-created opportunities such as an all women diverse law firm and a scholarship for women who want to pursue law.
McCabe spoke with Ms. about her experience at the Women’s March in DC and the impact of recent legal changes and executive orders on families.
The information in this article is meant as general information. The information presented on this article should not be construed to be neither formal legal advice nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship.
Any major changes that you have seen in Family Law practice?
One of the biggest changes has been the introduction of same sex marriage. Prior to that, our firm helped LGBT folks—but the avenues for protection of the families that they were creating weren’t permitted and were largely contract based outside of second parent adoption. There has definitely been a huge change, I think, for the better in terms of equal access to important areas of family law in everything from parent recognition to acceptability of alimony and ability of the court to deal with property issues in an equitable manner.
Up until now the tide has been toward equality, acceptance and equal access and that families come in a variety of packages. We are not just the stereotypical 1950’s nuclear family. That is actually a rare form of family these days in my view. Not very many people [lack] within the arch of their family a step-uncle or step-parent, an unmarried couple with children, a same sex family member in a relationship. There certainly is, not to abuse the metaphor, a rainbow of set ups out there and the trend has been toward protection of family in all its considerations but the political climate now has certainly dampened some of that momentum and the hopefulness about the future.
I’m thinking very heavily in the past few days about immigrants and how their families are being impacted by the fear of deportation. We don’t do immigration law here but certainly the executive orders impacting those communities will have tentacles into family law for sure. How those families get disrupted by the potential of deportation of a family member who is undocumented and the children who are left behind and how they function without a parent who was largely responsible for taking care of them. I think there a lot of things to have trepidations about right now. That would include protections for LGBTQ families.
You attended the Women’s March in DC. What was your experience and your thoughts on its impact on global women’s rights?
My experience was amazing. I was overwhelmed with the feeling of unity among all kinds of people—men and women—and the momentum of the moment. In a very dark time it was the first day that I remember feeling hopeful and powerful. We got into D.C. and we were immediately swept up into this mass of women and sometimes you couldn’t even move. You were surrounded with wall to wall people who were expressing a similar sentiment. Once we were marching, it was a great example of the power of coming together, unity and purpose.
In terms of the impact of that, I think we are seeing a swell of involvement and political action at a level that I have never seen in my life time. I think there were similar levels of political activity in the Vietnam era but I don’t remember ever feeling so enmeshed in the daily call to action in terms of phone calls, emails, and letter writing to our representatives and thinking outside of the box on how to impact change. I think the marches around the world were the pivot point for that action. […] I hope we can use that energy to affect some change despite the resistance from the powers that be. I’m happy to be the resistance to the turning tide of fascism or whatever it is that we are seeing from the White House that is making me absolutely crazy.
What would be really helpful for women and families to do to be proactive amongst these changes?
This is a good question. I think they should be maximizing the protections that are available to them currently and not saying, “I’ll get to that later.” Not to beat a dead horse but the best example I have of that is second parent adoptions. It is available and it is not difficult to get. Non-biological mothers for instance should not be sitting on their heels and say, “I’ll get to that next year.”
I’m a hopeful person by nature. I hope that the executive orders come to a quick conclusion either because there is a republican intervention or because our president is impeached. But I think if the recent history tells us anything about the future is that, that is not going to happen and that there is going to be a flood of executive orders that are going to impact traditionally marginalized groups. What folks can do is, of course, is be politically active, recognize what protections are available to them now and take advantage of those while they are available.
In terms of second parent adoptions, is that only for gay couples or does that also apply to straight couples who may have kids from other marriages?
Second parent adoption is a term that we use for LGBTQ folks. Married straight couples have available to them step parent adoptions. Step parent adoption provides a level of protection that the step parent relationship itself does not provide because now, of course, you are elevated to the level of parent of the child who potentially is an immigrant, potentially is undocumented, and potentially does not have the protections available to them that comes with the parent relationship.
There are a lot of limitations when you are dealing with kids who are here undocumented in terms of the age of the children. But it is certainly something that I would encourage people to assess and to think about as the government seems to be clamping down on issues. There is sort of a window here I guess of maximizing the potential for a legal relationship with a person with whom you have an emotional and moral relationship and taking for granted that it will be recognized in the eyes of the world it is not the right thing to do right now. The right thing to do is to legalize the relationship; you can’t help benefit both the parent and the child. If someone came to me with this case I would refer them to a family law practice that specializes with immigration cases.
In regards to healthcare access, can you speak to how that will impact family law? Is this a case where access to healthcare in terms of contraception, covering minors, if you do have second parent adoption or step parent adoption that it would help if one of the parents has lost their Obama Care coverage and the other parent has access to non-Obama Care health insurance?
This is a good example of why solidifying the legal relationship is important because we know that traditional health care insurance extends to the legal members of the family. If we are using a traditional definition of a family the folks who are going to be covered are [legal] spouses and children in the family.
There are some insurance [coverages] that cover step-parent relationships. If the question is whether you should legalize your relationship with a child that you see as your own regardless of what the law says? You might as well take the extra step and protect that relationship legally so that you are sure, in the face of uncertainty, that you can protect your child in all kinds of ways including providing health care through a non Affordable Care avenue.
Why should people do the letter writing and calling be something that everyone should do especially if you are feeling disconnected and why it makes a difference?
As a personal point, I feel if you are not active then you are part of the problem. It is important for our representatives both at the state and federal level to see us. The way to be visible is to voice your perspective. I’m all about the phone call even though lately getting through has been a challenge. My social media is always filled with great ideas on how to become increasingly visible in the face of these roadblocks like a faux voice mail or a phone ringing off the hook. People are faxing now. Emails are great but can be ignored.
I think overwhelming our representatives with our numbers is important because that is how they get re-elected. Without knowing we are many in number and dedicated to our perspective they might be inclined to behave differently but I do think that is important for our representatives that we are here and when they are doing the right thing that we support them and are appreciated by their constituents. In terms of swing states issues or swing jurisdiction issues I think it is important to support or to advocate in those places. We certainly did not do enough of that in the fall. The more we do that the more we are able to impact outcomes.