Lawyer dedicates career to fathers, children
By Diego Garcia
By 1999, Chicago attorney Jeffery M. Leving had already carved a niche for himself in the legal realm as a defender of fathers and protector of children. He was nearly 20 years into managing his own law firm, he had co-authored Illinois’ first real joint custody law, and his acclaimed first book, Fathers’ Rights, had just been published by Basic Books.
Then, a 5-year-old boy named Elian Gonzalez set sail from Cuba with his mother and 12 other passengers, in a small aluminum boat bound for Florida. The boat’s motor failed, and the boat was overcome by 13-foot waves in a storm. Eleven of the passengers, including Elian’s mother, perished; little Elian, placed by his mother in an inner tube, was found floating in the ocean by fishermen, who turned him over to the U.S. Coast Guard.
U.S. immigration authorities placed Elian with paternal relatives in Florida. However, his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, in Cuba, said that as the boy’s surviving parent, he was the only one with the authority to decide where his child would live, and he wanted his son back to live with him in Cuba.
To many, this was a political tug-of-war: The anti-Castro Cuban community in Miami was not interested in repatriating a Cuban who had made it from Cuba to the United States. But to Leving, this was a simple case of a father’s right to make decisions for his minor child being superior to the right of other relatives, regardless of where any of them are physically situated.
Leving was asked to take up the case by a Washington, D.C.-based organization. He filed an amicus brief, and led that litigation team at the INS level that supported the determination in favor Elian being reunited with his dad in Cuba.
Subsequently, the case was litigated in federal court, where Leving supported reunification of Elian Gonzalez with his father, Juan Miguel. In 2000, Elian was brought back together with his dad.
This is a case that brought Leving publicity, with radio and television appearances worldwide. Though this level of international acclaim was new, Leving was already well positioned for a case like this, having been a trailblazer in advocacy for fathers.
Before 1986, it was assumed that in a divorce, the mother would normally have custody of the children, and the father would have visitation, as it was then called, only on the mother’s say-so. The father was often relegated to the role of an uncle-daddy. The law which Leving co-authored to correct this injustice allowed a judge to award joint custody over the objection of one of the parents, if it’s in the best interest of the child. “This is a way to support a child having two involved parents,” Leving says.
It’s a crusade for Leving to keep fathers involved in their children’s lives, for the sake of the children, even after the parents’ divorce or separation. “Father absence is the №1 predictor of crime in America,” Leving says. “Fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school, and children whose fathers are absent consistently score lower than the norm on reading and math tests. Dads are important.”
Leving’s law firm is now approaching four decades of accomplishment — in the courtroom and in the Legislature, in the press, among politicians, regulators and policy makers, and in the court of public opinion.
He and the dedicated attorneys at his firm live by the philosophy that just because a man breaks up with his wife or girlfriend doesn’t mean he should have to lose his kids too.
Leving and his firm represent fathers who are often desperate, as they see their children’s mother preparing to move their children out of state or out of the country, or put them in an unstable or possibly dangerous home with a new boyfriend. Time after time, Leving wins for these men: Parenting time, custody, injunctions against removing the kids from Illinois.
“When fathers know they have rights, they’ll stand up for their children,” Leving says. “I’m honored when they choose me to stand next to them in the courtroom and fight for their children, their future and justice.”