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Houston family-law attorney Robert S. Clark has fended off a rare attempt to disqualify him from serving as guardian ad litem in a contentious custody battle marked by controversy over an order — now vacated — that prohibited the mother of a 6-year-old from speaking Spanish to the child at home. Judge Lisa Millard wasn’t as lucky as Clark; the Houston family-court judge was recused from the suit in August after lawyers representing Natalia Gonzalez, a Mexican national, alleged that Millard was biased and interfered with Gonzalez’ constitutional rights by prohibiting her from speaking Spanish around her daughter. But lawyers for Gonzalez also sought to disqualify Clark, a sole practitioner, on the grounds that he failed to protect the interests of 6-year-old Natalia Carolina Gonzalez, who apparently was taken out of the country by her mother in early August. After hearings on Oct. 3 and 4, 311th District Judge Douglas Warne, the Houston family-law judge presiding over the custody battle between Gonzalez and her ex-husband since Millard’s recusal, denied the motion to disqualify Clark, saying he has made a “good-faith effort” to represent the child, known as Carolina. Clark and Houston’s Thomas Conner, a lawyer for Carolina’s father, tried during the hearing to find out from Natalia Gonzalez’ lawyer where Carolina is living. But J. Michael Solar testified on Oct. 4 that he does not know the whereabouts of the child. He testified, however, that he did notify his client, Natalia Gonzalez, about an order from Warne to produce the child in court by 3 p.m. on Oct. 4. After the child was not brought to court on Oct. 4, Warne issued a preliminary order awarding sole managing custody of the 6-year-old to her father, Ramon Gonzalez, and ordering Natalia Gonzalez to deliver the child to her ex-husband’s house by 6 p.m. on Oct. 8. Ramon Gonzalez has not seen the child since July 31, when he turned her over to her mother under terms of a custody agreement. He testified that when he and his son and daughter-in-law went to pick Carolina up on Aug. 6, no one was home and her mother’s house was empty. Natalia and Ramon Gonzalez were divorced in March 1997, but their fight for custody of Carolina has been raging for months, apparently culminating in Natalia Gonzalez’ departure from Harris County with the child. The suit has been hotly litigated, but the no-Spanish order and the resulting motion to recuse Millard because of her alleged bias thrust it into the limelight, with Hispanic community groups in Houston criticizing the unusual order. Millard did not return a call seeking comment. Solar, of Solar & Associates of Houston, says Carolina should have a new ad litem attorney because Clark did too little to protect the child from onerous orders — such as the no-Spanish order. Solar also complains that Clark did too little to investigate allegations raised by the child’s mother that Carolina was sexually abused by her father and his girlfriend. (Dr. Ramon Laval, a court-appointed psychologist, testified on Oct. 3 that he found no evidence Carolina was abused. A sexual-propensity evaluation by another doctor, also ordered by Millard, is pending.) “He was appointed, and it was 13 months before he saw the child,” Solar said about Clark’s work. “He basically sat back and let other people assume his responsibilities.” Solar criticized Clark for allowing Millard to lift an order prohibiting contact between the child and Ramon Gonzalez’ girlfriend (now his common-law wife) until results of the sexual-propensity evaluation are complete. “This child was largely left to flounder out here without supervision,” Solar suggested in court. Conner, a partner in Conner & Lindamood, says the abuse allegations are unfounded. “Two independent mental-health care people found no sex abuse and the only person who did was Natalia’s hired psychologist,” Conner says. Solar also suggests that Clark showed bias by supporting Millard at the recusal hearing. “He did not object to the conduct that formed the basis of the recusal motion and adamantly argued on behalf of the court in the underlying proceeding,” Solar says. Without giving a specific reason, 9th District Judge Frederick Edwards of Conroe signed an order on Aug. 24 granting a motion to recuse Millard. But in denying the motion to remove Clark, Warne said Clark has made a good-faith effort to represent Carolina Gonzalez’ interests. The judge pointed out that many of the orders in the custody suit are agreed orders. He also said he would not expect Clark to question a child personally about sexual abuse allegations — and, in fact, would remove any ad litem who did so. He suggested it’s not unusual for ad litems to be criticized for doing too little — or doing too much and running up costs. “I don’t think this motion to disqualify is properly about the English language issue,” the judge said. APPEAL CONSIDERED Solar grilled Clark for several hours about what he did and when, while representing Carolina Gonzalez. But Solar found the table turned when Ramon Gonzalez’ lawyer, Conner, put Solar on the witness stand to testify during a hearing on an emergency motion to give Ramon Gonzalez custody of his daughter. Solar was asked numerous questions about the whereabouts of Carolina and her mother. He testified he does not know where Carolina Gonzalez is living and if she’s with her mother or subject to her control. Asserting attorney-client privilege, Solar did not have to answer questions about Natalia Gonzalez’ intentions, such as whether she would abide by Warne’s Oct. 3 order to produce Carolina Gonzalez. Solar testified that he spoke to Natalia Gonzalez on the evening of Oct. 3, when she telephoned him. He said he last saw her in late August at the office of her attorney in Mexico City, but he does not have a telephone number or address for his client. “She contacts me. I have expressed an interest in talking to her from time to time,” Solar explained. Clark asked Solar to assist him in setting up a face-to-face meeting with Natalia Gonzalez and her daughter, but Solar testified he would have to consult with counsel first. “I want to do the right thing by my client,” Solar added. Clark was unsatisfied: “Your client is complaining through this motion that I don’t have enough contact with her, yet you don’t know if you can assist me in contacting her?” Ramon Gonzalez testified that his ex-wife has not provided him with an address or telephone number, but did have him served with a custody suit she filed in Mexico. Warne said he expected to sign an order granting sole managing custody to Ramon Gonzalez at another hearing on Oct. 6. after Texas Lawyer’s press time. He said he would delay signing the order until after he reviewed previous testimony of Susana Rosin, a child psychologist who reported Carolina’s sexual abuse allegations against her father and his girlfriend. Although Ramon Gonzalez’ lawyer says he is pleased with Warne’s preliminary order giving custody of Carolina to her father, Conner says it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Conner expects Ramon Gonzalez to have to go to Mexico to get his daughter, despite Warne’s order. “I don’t think you’ll see this lady on this side of the Rio Bravo anytime soon,” Conner says. Solar says he’s extremely disappointed with Warne’s rulings and is considering several options, including appeals, to protect his client’s interests.
Kids and the Law: Juvenile Justice and Child Law Practice. November6-17.

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