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A Conversation on Family Law

For the past ten and a half years, Graciela Olvera has served the citizens of Dallas County as an associate judge in the family courts. Today, she’s here to talk with us about her passion for helping families in transition. Welcome to the show!

Graciela Olvera: Well, thank you for having me here.

Jennifer: I would love to learn about what led you to family law. How did you become involved in family law?

Gracie: Well, I was in undergrad and I was studying or I was working towards a Bachelor’s of Social Work and I ended up working with my brother. He’s an attorney in Oakleaf and he’s been an attorney for about 30 years. But I started working with him and he did a lot of family law. Eventually, I ended up going to law school and I ended up in family law. That’s how I ended up there.

Early Aspirations and Family Law Practice

Jennifer: And one of the things we were talking about earlier was the fact that you knew early on, you really wanted to be in a position of helping people.

Gracie: Yes.

Jennifer: And of course, in family law, there’s lots of opportunities to help people. Tell us a little bit about that passion.

Gracie: Well, I always saw myself as a social worker. Maybe working at a community center or doing disaster relief or something. I even saw myself as a CPS worker at one point. But when I went to law school, I saw the opportunity that you can help families, you can do CPS work, and that was one of the things that I like the most about practicing is doing CPS cases. I started getting the appointments from the court representing parents and representing children, and I loved it. I really did.

The Realities of Family Law vs. TV Dramas

Jennifer: You make such a difference when you’re working with families who are in a stressful situation. Obviously, if CPS is involved, or also if you’re going through a divorce, or ending changing a relationship. I mean, those are all really stressful times. So, I think people, often when they’re facing litigation, a lawsuit, which that’s what a divorce is, or a custody case. They have a lot of ideas about what happens in the courtroom and I get those ideas oftentimes from TV dramas.

Gracie: TV.

Jennifer: Right?

Gracie: Yes.

Jennifer: What do you think is important for people to know when they are facing a lawsuit? In what ways does reality differ from what we see on TV?

Gracie: Well, it’s not like TV where one person is going win everything and the other one just gets turned out or put out without anything. It’s not like that. Somebody told me a very long time ago, that family law is just good people going through a very hard time in their life and it’s true. You’re going through a lot of stress, you’re going through a breakup, you’re going through the possibility of losing your child or having much less time with your child. Your finances are getting broken up so to speak or divided up and that leads some people to make some very bad decisions sometimes. What we need to just remember is that we are all prone to that or we can all fall into those pitfalls so to speak and we all make mistakes and you got to give people some grace.

The Courtroom Experience

Jennifer: And so, of course, in the courtroom, I think one of the things people don’t know and understand is how limited we are in our time. We’re limited by the rules of evidence in terms of what the judge is going to hear. Often, what we’re doing is focusing on those few really bad decisions that somebody made. Because you’re right, we are humans. Everybody makes bad decisions from time to time and in the courtroom were really going to magnify those very bad decisions.

Gracie: And that’s good in that when you’re an attorney. You’re going to bring them all out. You’re going to present them to the court so that your client gets more of what they want. But, I mean what the downside of that is now you’ve come to the court and you’ve basically trashed your ex, and this is a person that you’re going to have to deal with. If you have a child together, you’re going to have to deal with this person for some time. And, if you’re thinking, “I don’t need to talk to him past the divorce,” That’s unrealistic if you really want to parent together.

Post-Divorce Communication and Co-Parenting

Jennifer: It is unrealistic and not only for some fantasy idea that you’re going to be best friends with your ex-spouse when this is over. Nobody thinks that. Although sometimes it does happen. But, the reality is for your children’s sake. Your ability to communicate with your ex to be able to have discussions about things that are going on, to share information, is going to make not only your life better but make your children’s lives better.

Gracie: It makes a world a difference. When you can pick up the phone and call your ex and say, “Hey, I’m having problems with this child. Come and help me.” Besides that, I mean, who should you look to for help when you’re having issues with your child? You can’t take care of them because of one reason or another, or you just need a little bit of financial help. Who should you look for? The other parent.

The Impact of Court Proceedings on Family Dynamics

Jennifer: But if you’ve gone to court and you’ve aired all the dirty laundry, and told all the intimate secrets that were shared in the confines of your intimate relationship, it’s really hard to do that. Unfortunately, we see so much damage being done to families.

Gracie: Yes, and you see the endless litigation. Like we were talking earlier, there have been cases that have started when I started working there and they are still going. I have left and they’re still going and they’re probably going to keep ongoing for some time. You don’t want to be one of those persons where you can’t be in the same room as the other parent. That’s just hard on your kids.

Jennifer: It’s really hard and it’s hard on your kids. But it’s also hard on you because you’re carrying around all that anger, resentment, and stress.

Gracie: Yes.

The Role of a Judge in Family Law

Jennifer: So of course, if people can’t reach a resolution having a judge to make those decisions is a form of resolution and it does help bring some closure. Hopefully, to the case. What do you love about being a judge?

Gracie: I think I like working with families. I think the one thing that I like the most and I know that they’re really difficult cases where the CPS cases but you do know bringing in the parents, and being able to talk to them, and looking at them face to face and telling them, “Hey, I’m not your enemy. I’m here to provide some support, some help.” Because I know at the end of the day, if I can help the parents or CPS can help the parents get their lives back together, so to speak, it’s going to be better for the kids. I know that I have a lot of people that are telling me, “What do you give them so many chances? Why do you do this for them? They’ve messed up.” But okay, again, I come back to the thing. We all make mistakes and people are going through a very difficult time. Find me one parent that is not going to take it very personally when you take their children. So, if they see the court as an adversary, they’re going to come in, they’re going to be combative, they’re not going to want to work with you. It’s going to be so difficult. But, if they see the court as somebody supportive, somebody that’s there to lend a helping hand, all of a sudden, it changes. It changes. And the way that they talk to you, is different. The changes that they make sometimes in their lives are astounding and you get to send the children home and that is one of the best feelings. When you see a parent really change their lives and get their kids back.

Check out the rest of our conversation on our Youtube channel!