“A passion for social justice and standing up for those who need a voice is what led me to pursue a career as a public interest attorney.”
Patti Tutone, JD
Director of Custody Advocacy
Patti Tutone has been a staff attorney at Council for Children’s Rights since 2016, becoming Director of Custody Advocacy in 2019. Before joining the Council, Patti was an attorney at Legal Aid of North Carolina from 2006-2015, representing myriad clients including those who were victims of domestic violence, facing eviction or loss of Section 8 vouchers, or denied unemployment benefits. She was recently awarded Women Lawyers of Charlotte’s 2019 Woman of the Year. Born in Staten Island, NY, Patti has called Charlotte home since 1992. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.A. with Distinction in journalism and mass communication and a J.D. with Honors. She values her close relationships with family and enjoys a tight-knit group of friends. She stays busy with Jazzercise and her supper club, book clubs, game night crew, and trivia group.
Even before the COVD-19 pandemic changed everything, Family Court was already a challenging terrain for unrepresented parties to navigate. Those who cannot afford a custody lawyer were always facing an uphill battle. Fighting your own high-conflict custody battle when you don’t know how to subpoena a witness, properly introduce evidence, or cross-examine the opposing party must feel like an insurmountable task. And while our Custody Advocacy Program does not represent parents in custody cases, as best interest attorney and custody advocate for the children in the case, we are the only attorney in the room when the parents are unrepresented.
Cases where both parties are unrepresented, or pro se, make up a large portion of our Custody Advocacy Program’s case load. In those cases, part of our service to the children and to the Court is in helping both parents navigate the complexities of the court system, while ensuring the judge hears all the relevant evidence.
COVID-19, and the necessary move to virtual proceedings, only intensified the need for this aspect of our role. Parents were having to navigate filing pleadings by leaving them in receptacles and crossing their fingers, rather than having face-to-face interaction with a clerk of court who could point them in the right direction. Web Ex hearings and trials meant that parents would have to learn how to use virtual platforms properly and how to upload exhibits to these confusing platforms. Courts shutting down completely for a period of several months led to a backlog of cases, and, not surprisingly, those cases that did not have attorneys zealously advocating for new dates quickly fell through the cracks.
In pro se cases where we are appointed, though, we get these cases onto trial calendars in a timely fashion; we move for in-person hearings and trials when we have concerns that parents are not going to have a fair “day in court” virtually; and we gather and present all the relevant evidence and make recommendations as to what’s in the best interest of the children, so that the Court does not have to rely on the “he-said/she-said” of it all.
While we don’t represent the parents, getting their case through the court process smoothly and efficiently is most certainly in the best interest of the children we represent. Children need resolution in their parents’ cases so that they are not staying in unsafe or unsuitable environments, changing schools mid-year, or in limbo about where they’re going to be living. And anything that leads to litigation coming to an end and the parties being able to shift their focus away from fighting that battle and towards caring for their children, is always best for our child-clients.