By Tilden Bowditch

When neighbors called Social Services about loud fighting between a woman and her boyfriend, the domestic violence case soon became a case of child neglect for attorney Grace Crickenberger.

The woman’s 2-year-old son sat in his dirty diaper almost all day, rarely got a bath, and was often left unsupervised, even when Crickenberger, his court-appointed representative, made her house visits to check on him.

As the fighting grew increasingly violent, the child’s safety became a concern, and Crickenberger recommended the boy live with his grandmother. The attorney learned that day that her actions often lead to emotional reactions by distraught parents.

Attorney Grace Crickenberger (Photo by Tilden Bowditch)

“She cried and sobbed hysterically and said I was taking her baby, which I was,” Crickenberger says, referring to the boy’s mother. “That was probably the only one I’ve ever cried over.”

“These are some of my hardest cases,” says Crickenberger, who represents children in abuse, neglect and divorce cases.

At 29, Crickenberger is one of the youngest attorneys in Lexington; one of the first children she represented didn’t believe she was his lawyer.

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“I think it was because I was young and female, he expected me to be an old man or something,” she said. When she wore a suit on her second visit, she said he told her, “Today … you sort of look like a lawyer.”

The boy’s mom would call Crickenberger’s office and put the child on the line because he “wanted to speak to his lawyer.”

“My mommy says I have to eat my green beans,” the boy told her. “Oh gosh, yes, listen to your mommy. You have to eat your green beans,” Crickenberger said she told him.

“He was the cutest kid in the world. He was just so funny,” she said.

Crickenberger, who grew up in Lexington in west-central Virginia, says she became interested in family law during law school. While reading case studies at West Virginia University, she realized children are overlooked in divorce cases.

“It becomes more about one parent trying to get a leg up on the other parent and not about really what’s best for the child,” she says.

Knowing she wanted to eventually settle down close to her family, she wasted no time finding a job with a local law firm after college.

After graduating in 2009, Crickenberger joined David Natkin’s law firm as an associate. She says she took as many court-appointed child representation cases as she could to gain experience in the courtroom.

Now almost three years out of law school, Crickenberger handles a variety of cases including everything from real estate disputes to domestic violence cases.

Despite the growing piles of case folders on her desk, Crickenberger continues taking court-appointed cases.

Crickenberger says her goal is to keep the child in the home if possible and will recommend a child stay in a violent household, if the parents can “get it together.”

“It’s better than being put into foster care,” she says.

In the case of the 2-year-old boy, Crickenberger says she wanted to keep the child close to his mother but protected from her abusive boyfriend.

When she represents older children, Crickenberger says she takes into consideration what the child wants.

Sometimes the hardest part in these cases is figuring out what the children want—not what the parents are telling them to want.

She says some parents also try to make their children feel guilty about not choosing them.

One 8-year-old boy told Crickenberger he wanted to live with his grandmother. When she asked him why, he said he didn’t want to choose between his parents.

She later found out the child’s mom was telling him, “If you don’t choose me, then I’m going to think that you don’t love me.”

“I got really mad at that parent,” Crickenberger said.

Regardless of Crickenberger’s recommendation, a judge makes the ultimate decision.

Crickenberger says this relieves some of the pressure she puts on herself.

“I mean, they all affect me,” she says. “It’s just hard because you know that everything they see right now is going to be shaping how their relationships go.”