Disability Rights Advocate and LSC Alum Haben Girma on making her way in the world with help from her guide dog

This piece, by disability rights advocate and LSC Alum Haben Girma, was published by the Washington Post on August 7, 2019. Girma is the author of Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.” 

My guide dog crossed the street, then jerked to a halt. “Mylo, forward.” My left hand held the leather harness that wrapped around his shoulders. “Forward,” I repeated. The harness shifted, and I knew he was peering back at me. Some barrier, unseen and unheard by me, blocked our passage.

Cars created little earthquakes in the street on our left. Behind us ran the road we just crossed. I made the decision: “Mylo, right.” He turned and headed down the sidewalk. I directed him around the block to bypass whatever had stood in our way.

My dog never knows where I’m going. He has his theories, of course. You went to this cafe yesterday, so clearly you’re going there again, right? Or he’ll veer toward an open door. Seriously, Haben, we need to step in here for a sniff.

People assume guide dogs lead blind people, and once upon a time, I thought so, too. My senior year of high school, I fretted about navigating college as a Deafblind student. Perhaps I would get a guide dog to ferry me wherever I needed to go. A companion would give me the confidence I needed.

“You want to depend on a dog for confidence?” a blind friend asked over instant messenger.

“It sounds funny when you put it that way,” I typed.

“If a blind person doesn’t have confidence, then the dog and person both end up lost. Don’t depend on a dog for confidence. Build up your own.”

So instead of training alongside a service animal at guide dog school, I spent my pre-college summer honing my blindness skills at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I learned nonvisual techniques for crossing busy streets with a white cane, baking banana cream pie, even using electric saws.

I tapped my way through college with confidence. My self-assurance didn’t come from the cane but from my hard-earned orientation and mobility skills. How could I have thought that would be different with a four-legged guide?

Still, confident as I was, something felt missing from my life. My heart ached for a travel partner whose eyes and ears would share more of the world I navigated.

Maxine the Seeing Eye dog joined me for my last year at Lewis & Clark College and all three at Harvard Law. We glided around obstacles so much more smoothly than when I traveled with a cane — imagine switching from a bicycle to a Tesla.

I learned to read her body language, and together we strode with six legs. Her big, brown eyes and pointy ears opened new dimensions for me. Having a German shepherd at my side even curtailed the sexual harassment I faced. For nine years, she stood by my side.

In 2018, Maxine died of cancer. I missed her intensely, and the loss still pains me. I also knew I could not, would not, go back to life with only a cane. I was without my partner of nearly a decade, but I was not without direction.

The school that trained Maxine matched me with another dog. That summer, I joined Mylo for three weeks at the school’s campus in New Jersey. We lurched over curbs and crashed into chairs, but in each new experience, through gentle corrections and an abundance of praise, our teamwork improved.

Now, we wander as one. In the year we’ve spent together, we’ve traveled to 12 states and four countries. One morning during a trip to Park City, Utah, for a friend’s wedding, I woke to Mylo bounding onto my hotel bed, ready to start the day. After a few strokes of his puppy-soft ears and some tugging of his toy whale, we left our room.

Mylo beelined for the elevator, and then, reading the Braille labels, I pressed the button for the main level. The doors opened, and I directed Mylo across the lobby toward the front doors. “Right.” He turned down a hallway. “Right.” He turned into a room that felt empty. “Sorry, not this one. Mylo, left.” I gestured for him to go back to the hall. “Right.” He turned into the next room.

The delightful aroma of food and coffee at last wafted over from the far wall. “Here it is! Forward.” After I ordered my hard-earned breakfast, another wedding guest approached us.

“Haben, hi! It’s Michael. Who brought you here?”

I passed the credit to Mylo; constantly confronting ableism is tiring work. But someday the world will recognize that a Deafblind person charts her own path through the unknown. For now, I know it — and so does Mylo. He takes his lead from me.

Student Loan Truth: Jessica’s Art Institute Story

Jessica is a plaintiff in the lawsuit Sweet v DeVos, in which she and six other former for-profit college students are suing the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos, seeking to force the agency to follow the law and issue the debt relief to which the former students are entitled. The plaintiffs are suing on behalf of more than 158,000 former students who have filed applications for borrower defense to repayment because their schools cheated them.

How did you hear about New England Institute of Art (NEIA)?

After getting my associates degree at Mount Wachusett Community College, I really wanted to continue my education. I was the only person in my immediate family to go to college and it was important for me to keep going. At Mt. Wachusett, I relied on my advisors all the time, so I was expecting a similar experience at NEIA. I trusted Art Institute advisors to help me make the right decisions for my education.

What made you decide to attend NEIA?

I really wanted to be visual effects video editor. When I contacted NEIA, I was told their Media Arts and Animation program would prepare me for a career in visual effects, even though they advertised the program as focused solely on gaming and animation. The advisors told me their program was difficult to get into, but that graduates were highly sought after in their fields. They created a lot of pressure and a sense of urgency for me to apply right away. I didn’t find out until much later that none of this was true.

What did the school tell you about getting a job after the program?

During the whole process, NEIA consistently claimed they had the connections I would need to get a job in the industry. They said the name of the school carried weight in the visual effects industry and it would be easy to find a job. I went on a tour and they made a big deal about having a high tech green screen that students would be able to use. Later on, as a student, I learned that we weren’t actually allowed to use the green screen. Instead, they had us tape green paper to the wall to film our projects.

What was your experience like once you started attending New England Institute of Art?

Everything I was promised was a lie, just like the green screen. I was told that I’d be using state-of-the-art technology in class, but instead, we were either given old and obsolete equipment or we had to make our own. The classes were a joke.

Did your experience at this school help you obtain a job in the field you studied?

Part of their pitch to get me to go to NEIA was how great their connections to the industry were. However, the reality when I got there was the exact opposite of what I had been told. When I reached out to the Career Services Office about getting an internship in visual effects, I was either given no response or a link to Craigslist with a document entitled “Tips for Applying to a Job from Craigslist”. I never found a permanent job in the field. People wouldn’t hire me because of my degree. I’m currently working on my own small business.

Did going to New England Institute of Art make your life better or worse?

It made my life significantly worse. My credit is destroyed, I can’t get a car or a house. My mental health has suffered. I refuse to get married because I’m afraid of associating my partner with my debt. I debated not having kids at all. My life has been placed on hold. It’s devastating.

How long have you been waiting for an answer on your Borrower Defense application?

I filed for Borrower Defense to Repayment in 2015. Four years later, I still don’t have an answer. Just radio silence. The debt is bad enough, and then adding even more uncertainty from not getting an answer is devastating. I can’t plan for my future.

Some policy-makers doubt that for-profit colleges are a problem – what would you say to them?

I would tell them that despite putting in the time and effort at school, the degree that NEIA gave me is useless. I can’t get a job because companies don’t trust the school. I can’t go back to school because other schools don’t recognize my NEIA degree. A bank wouldn’t give me a loan to further my education if I asked.

The Department of Education has refused to cancel the loans of thousands of former students of for-profit colleges. They ignore the many thousands of students who filed for borrower defense. What would you say to them about the need to cancel these loans?

It’s their job to do the right thing. I’m beyond disappointed about the fact that the government isn’t doing anything to stop these schools from defrauding students in the first place. Students should be able to trust their schools and advisors. The fact that there is no protection for a vulnerable 21 year old signing a loan for the first time and being taken advantage of isn’t fair or responsible. You shouldn’t need a lawyer to be able to go to colle

LSC Hosts Samaritans Inc. for Presentation on Suicide Prevention

Written by: Ellie Schelleng

It may be no exaggeration to say we are experiencing a suicide epidemic. Suicide is increasing at an alarming rate and, as a result, we are living in a time of heightened awareness. According to the CDC, suicide rates have increased in nearly every state from 1999 to 2016. In half those states, the suicide rate has increased by more than 30%. Some of the most at risk populations are veterans, LGBTQ+ youth, and middle-aged white men (who account for 70% of suicides).  Often, spikes in rates of death by suicide can alert observers to underlying issues, such as opioid abuse. In late 2018, a rise in suicides among New York City taxi and ride-hail drivers sparked a New York Times investigation. Charged an exorbitant amount for their taxi medallions and given predatory loans to pay for them, eight New York City drivers felt that suicide was their only option. Members of our Consumer Protection Clinic are currently litigating the consumer protection violations of these predatory loans on behalf of several taxi drivers.

Man at vigil for taxi driver suicides

A taxi driver at a vigil for Roy Kim, a driver who died by suicide late last year. Picture from the New York Times.

Cab drivers are just one of many populations with an elevated risk of suicide. The CDC has listed physical health and legal, money, or housing stresses as major contributors to suicide risk. All of our clients are facing a combination of those stresses and many face additional risk factors. For example, many of our clients are veterans; the suicide rate of veterans is 1.5 times higher than that of civilians. Domestic violence survivors also make up a large portion of our clients. Approximately one in four domestic violence survivors attempt suicide; in the general population, the rate is three out of one hundred.

Our clients aren’t the only people we’re concerned about. When ranked by profession, lawyers have the fourth highest incidence of suicide. They also have other risk factors like higher rates of mental illness and intense stress from peer competition and high stakes cases. It’s not just our attorneys that we are concerned about. Most of our office is staffed by law students and undergraduate legal interns. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among undergraduates and 40% of law students suffer from depression after three years of law school.

Kendra McDonald of Samaritans, Inc.

Kendra McDonald, the Community Education and Outreach Coordinator of Samaritans, Inc.

We are acutely aware that suicide is a growing problem in our community and as advocates need to be well-informed for our clients’ sakes. So, on Monday, July 1st, the Safety Net Project invited Kendra McDonald from Samaritans, Inc, a Boston based suicide prevention organization, to talk to us about how we can prevent suicide in our community. Kendra, who we met at the Boston Public Library Community Health Fair, is the Community Education and Outreach Coordinator with Samaritans. Inc.

Kendra went over the warning signs and risk factors to look for in our clients and peers, giving some great tips on how to talk to people who express suicidal thoughts or who show other warning signs. Kendra also underscored how tough it is to be in our position: seeing someone in crisis takes an intense emotional toll. Kendra used part of her presentation to encourage us to perform some self-care, saying “Each of you should spend at least an hour today doing some self-care, whatever that looks like for you.”

 

Self-care graphic from presentation

A graphic from Kendra’s presentation to remind us all that self-care is a daily activity and that it looks different for all of us.

All of our interns felt that this presentation was deeply important, even though it was at times hard. Sydnie Tiseo, an intern with the Veterans Justice Project, summarized it best, saying: “It’s easy to glaze over because we don’t like talking about it, but it’s an important topic to be reminded of.” Daniel McCarthy of the Estate Planning Project said, “It’s easy to forget how difficult our client’s situation is; it’s helpful to understand what our clients are going through.” Dan also mentioned how the presentation has changed his client interactions: “It’s prompted me to be on the look-out for mental health issues and suicidal thoughts in my clients.” Sydnie, who sits next to Dan, chimed in: “It’s also applicable to friends too.” One of the goals of this presentation was to help us become more comfortable with peer intervention. Katrina Fisher, an undergraduate with the Estate Planning Project, has already taken that to heart. “It’s helpful to know before going into the profession,” she said, “I’m paying more attention so I can see the signs and I’m listening to what the law students’ friends are doing that’s dangerous behavior; I’m more aware now of the risks for lawyers.”

Emily Skahill, an intern in the Safety Net Project, found the presentation really useful in pointing out ways to respond to people in crisis. “There was an emphasis on reaffirming their experiences and how we have these normal human responses that aren’t helpful in that situation.” Nikolas Paladino, also from the Safety Net Project, expressed a similar opinion. “In this line of work, I’m very logical and I’m often trying to fix problems that my clients bring up. Part of what Kendra was saying was that you don’t have to fix all of their problems. Sometimes people are just venting because they need to vent.”

For one of our interns, suicide hits particularly close to home. Arielle Lui of the Safety Net Project is a student at Claremont McKenna College, which had two deaths by suicides this past spring semester. “At bigger universities, they’ll send out an email saying ‘Someone died,’ but we’re such a small campus that it’s different. You know where they lived, you can walk to the room they were in when they died,” she said. “The administration didn’t really know how to handle it, so they just tried to move on as if nothing happened,” she went on. Ari added that friends of the victims on her campus felt like they had seen these deaths coming and that the presentation was the most comprehensive discussion and walkthrough on how to help people in crisis that she had ever had. In the end, Ari had this to say: “There is nothing more important than life and preserving that.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide or are worried about a loved one, call or text Samaritans at 1-877-870-HOPE (4673). You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Presentation slide with resources

One of the final slides of Kendra’s presentation, with local and national suicide helplines and emergency services providers.

 

My Student Loan Truth: Theresa’s Brooks Institute Story

When Theresa graduated from the Brooks Institute in 2006, she never imagined that she would find herself suing the U.S. Department of Education years later over her student loan debt. But after being cheated by her school and years of waiting for answers, she is a plaintiff in Sweet v DeVos – representing over 158,000 students who were cheated by their schools and have been ignored by Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education. This is her story.

 

My name is Theresa Sweet.

On the day I graduated from college, my fellow students and I were lined up in a cordoned off area, under the perfect Santa Barbara sun, waiting to enter the theater and accept our diplomas. Myself and several other students turned our heads toward a commotion beyond the ropes only to see an exasperated administrator tailing my father, sternly telling him that he needed to wait until after the ceremony to speak with his student. My mounting concern quickly turned to laughter when he hurried over, gave me a quick hug, and said, “I just wanted to tell you again how proud I am of you.” That moment remains among a literal handful of times in my life that I ever saw my father cry.

While The Brooks Institute (then owned by Career Education Corporation) is no longer in operation, I know that there are plenty of predatory, for profit trade schools still operating in California today. I am here today to share my story in the hope that I can prevent others from living through a similar experience.

I attended the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara and Ventura, CA from January 2003 to June 2006, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Photography. Once a source of pride, my education quickly became a ruinous source of personal and financial stress.

Since graduation, I have never had a job where I used the education I received at Brooks. I have never had a job that has helped me earn an income that is remotely close to what is necessary to pay off these loans. I can’t finance a car, much less a home. It is unlikely that I will ever be able to marry or adopt children as I would essentially be condemning my family to a lifetime of poverty.

I currently work as a Certified Nursing Assistant, and I would love to be able to further my education and obtain a Nursing degree. Unfortunately, Brooks, like so many other for-profits, actively misled students as to the transferability of the course credits they earned. In addition, Brooks also made sure to guide students to borrow the maximum amount of Federal Student Loans allowed in pursuit of a Bachelor’s Degree, making me ineligible for student loans and financial aid to pursue nursing.

Brooks used unethical, high pressure sales tactics such as pain points about me being the first person in my immediate family to attend and graduate from college. They relied on the fact that there was no one in my life who could help me ask the right questions. They made a point of never answering questions via email, only over the phone. They created the false impression that the admissions process was competitive when, in fact, all they cared about what getting the maximum number of students enrolled and filling out student loans applications. In reality, Brooks admitted anyone with a high school diploma or a GED, as long as that person could get a student loan.

Although I had no way of knowing it at the time, after I graduated I found out that the “Admissions Counselors” were just commissioned sales people. They weren’t paid to give me accurate information about the school, to tell me how much it could cost me, or to counsel me on whether the school would help me reach my goals. They were only paid to get me to enroll.

After graduation, the “Career Services” office regularly contacted me with financially meaningless opportunities for unpaid jobs that they found on the local Craigslist page.

Perhaps worst of all, Admissions Counselors blatantly lied about the employment rates of students after graduation as well as the amount of money these graduates were making, knowing that the lies they were telling were giving students false impression that they would be able to pay back their student loans. You wouldn’t have to look very hard to find evidence of all of this.

In short, while I worked multiple jobs to stay at school, Brooks and CEC were happily raking profits by defrauding thousands of students. And NO ONE was stopping them. No one was alerting the public or prospective students. No one was there to help any of us recoup our financial losses, to say nothing of the disastrous effect this high level of debt has on personal relationships.

If this seems outrageous to you, GOOD! It is outrageous, and it isn’t hyperbole. There are hundreds of former Brooks Students who have already filed Borrowers Defense to Repayment claims, and that number is sure to grow. I filed my own paperwork in 2016. I’ve been waiting for a response for three years. It is one of 158,110 applications that sits at the Department of Education unanswered right now.

The Department of Education is determined to sit on their hands, doing nothing to help. So us students have been forced to turn to the courts for justice. We are done waiting.

 

By Theresa Sweet

 

Learn more about the lawsuit Sweet v DeVos

Servicers Are Wrongly Denying Closed School Discharges to Art Institute of Phoenix Students. Why?

In December 2018, scores of Art Institute campuses closed their doors. Before the closure, students got three options: (1) transfer to another Art Institute campus to complete their degree, (2) participate in a teach-out at a different school to complete their degree, or (3) request a closed school discharge of their federal student loans. Borrowers are eligible for a closed school discharge as long as they didn’t complete their program or transfer credits to a comparable program and were enrolled within 120 days of the schools’ closure date—in this case, December 14, 2018.

Students who wanted to discharge their loans—and move on with their lives—had a plan. That is, until some students tried applying for a closed school discharge.

Some Art Institute of Phoenix students who were enrolled in the school within 120 days of the school’s closure have reported that their servicers are denying their application for a closed school discharge. The servicers have claimed that, because the Art Institute of Las Vegas remains open, Art Institute of Phoenix students are ineligible for a closed school discharge.

One student received the following response from their servicer:

Our records indicate that the main campus of ART INSTITUTE OF PHOENIX, also known as formally known as ART INSTITUTE OF LAS VEGAS remains open. As the main campus is still open, you do not qualify for School Closure discharge. If the main campus has in fact closed, you must provide proof. Proof must be on school letterhead.

This is wrong. The Art Institute of Phoenix was a “branch campus” of the Art Institute of Las Vegas, but just because Art Institute Las Vegas remains open does not mean Art Institute of Phoenix students are ineligible for closed school discharge.

Art Institute of Phoenix students can discharge their federal student debt because their school closed. Federal regulations governing closed school discharge say that “‘school’ means a school’s main campus or any location or branch of the main campus, regardless of whether the school or its location or branch is considered eligible.” That means that if a branch campus closes and the main campus remains open, students from the branch campus are eligible for closed school discharge. The Art Institute of Phoenix is (and was) recognized by the Department as a branch campus of the Art Institute of Las Vegas. So, even though the Art Institute of Las Vegas remains open, students from the Art Institute of Phoenix are eligible for closed school discharge (as long as they didn’t finish and attended the school within 120 days of December 14, 2018).

So what gives? And why isn’t the Department intervening to fix it?

We aren’t sure why servicers are misinforming students. The Department of Education’s official record (.xlsx) of closed schools shows that the Art Institute of Phoenix campus closed on December 14, 2018. Therefore, students who didn’t complete their program or transfer their credits to a comparable program and were enrolled in Art Institute of Phoenix after August 16, 2018 are eligible for closed school discharge.

One possible explanation for some servicers’ wrongful closed school discharge denials may stem from the inaccurate information the Department itself has distributed. In its information page regarding closed Argosy and Art Institute schools, the Department of Education listed the closure date of 24 Argosy and Art Institute campuses—including the Art Institute of Phoenix—as March 8, 2019.

What should you do if you attended the Art Institute of Phoenix and your servicer denies your application for a closed school discharge?

If your loan servicer tells you are denied for closed school discharge, even though you 1) were enrolled in the Art Institute of Phoenix after August 16, 2018 (and did not graduate), 2) did not participate in a teach-out, and 3) did not transfer credits to another similar program at another institution, you should call your servicer and tell them that:

1) You are eligible for closed school discharge because you were enrolled at the Art Institute of Phoenix and did not transfer to the Art Institute of Las Vegas;
2) The closure of the Art Institute of Phoenix, as a branch campus of Las Vegas, makes you eligible for closed school discharge according to Department of Education regulation;
3) The fact that the Art Institute of Las Vegas is still open does not impact your eligibility for closed school discharge because you never attended that campus;
4) The Postsecondary Education Participant’s System’s Closed School List shows that the Art Institute of Phoenix closed on December 14, 2018, and you were enrolled within 120 days of that date and did not complete your program.

If your servicer does not change their response, you should call your servicers’ ombudsman (normally you can find their contact information on your servicer’s website). You should explain that your servicer is rejecting your request for a closed school discharge, and provide the four reasons above that your servicer is wrong. If that doesn’t work, you should call the Federal Student Aid Ombudsman at 1-877-557-2575.

A Simple Online Legal Tool Helps Reduce Poverty for Military Veterans

The Veterans Legal Clinic at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC) is piloting a new technology tool to help fight poverty among the state’s most financially vulnerable military veterans and their dependents and survivors. The tool is designed to increase access to vital safety net benefits that can help reduce financial insecurity, homelessness, and hunger in the Commonwealth’s veterans community.

If successful, the program could improve the lives of tens of thousands of low-income Massachusetts veterans — and thousands more of their family members — whose incomes are at 200 percent of the federal poverty level or lower.

The innovative project introduces an easy-to-use, web-based tool to determine potential eligibility, similar to an online tax preparation tool like TurboTax or an online Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (Food Stamp) Calculator.  The new tool is called the Mass Vet Benefit Calculator, and is being launched through a public-private partnership between LSC and three local veterans’ services offices participating in the pilot.

Marrying legal expertise and tech to address poverty

“The ultimate goal of the project is to help reduce poverty among the Commonwealth’s veterans and military families,” says Daniel Nagin, Faculty Director of the Veterans Legal Clinic and LSC. “We can do so by leveraging our legal expertise and using new technology we’ve developed to more effectively link those in need to an underutilized veterans’ safety net program that already exists.”

“While the core role of LSC and the Veterans Legal Clinic is to represent clients, we also have a role in innovating to fight poverty, addressing gaps for people who may not have access to attorneys, and finding ways in which the marriage of technology and legal expertise can make a difference,” says Nagin. “The Mass Vet Benefit Calculator is intended to help pursue these broader goals.”

“Because of the technology’s design, this project has the potential to help us better understand how technology and online self-guided interview formats, informed by legal expertise, might help other vulnerable populations, such as people harmed by consumer fraud, those with family law cases, and immigrants,” he adds.

Low numbers of eligible veterans access Chapter 115 benefits

The Massachusetts Veterans’ Services Benefits Program – known as Chapter 115 for short because of the statute that authorizes the program – can provide monthly financial assistance that, depending on income and circumstances, can range from a few hundred dollars per month to $1,000 per month to eligible low-income veterans and their dependents. It can also provide reimbursements for out-of-pocket medical costs, emergency payments to prevent eviction, foreclosure or utility shutoffs, and funding for home repairs, moving costs, and transportation to medical appointments.

Yet, as state data shows, too few people are aware the program exists, and too few know if they are eligible or how to apply.

A 2017 report by the Massachusetts State Auditor urged that new strategies be undertaken to make the Chapter 115 program more accessible.  The report showed that between 2014-2016, only 14,390 individuals received Chapter 115 benefits, despite state estimates that as many as 70,000 of the 380,000 veterans in Massachusetts live at 200 percent of the federal poverty level or below and would likely qualify for the program. Only 1,460 of the 13,679 veterans who received MassHealth over a two-year period simultaneously received Chapter 115 benefits, although the income criteria to qualify for MassHealth and Chapter 115 are similar.

These numbers only reflect the number of actual veterans who could qualify. Many thousands more family members could also benefit – if they applied.

Recognizing the need to expand access for veterans and their families, the Veterans Legal Clinic initially developed an online self-help guide, and then began experimenting with a benefits worksheet that synthesized the complex eligibility criteria of the program into a two-page document.

Why not an online calculator to determine eligibility?

Mass Vet Benefits Calculator screenshot

MassVetBen.org

“We soon realized that easy-to-use online calculators exist for everything from preparing your tax return to applying for a mortgage and applying for SNAP benefits (Food Stamps), and wondered if we could convert our worksheet into an online calculator that anyone could easily access without professional help,” Nagin said.

Drawing on the software development savvy of William Palin at the Developing Justice program at Harvard Law School, Veterans Legal Clinic attorneys converted the worksheet into a series of simple online questions that a veteran or a family member, friend or advocate can answer. Once individuals answer the questions posed by the tool, they receive immediate analysis of whether or not they may be entitled to benefits, how much they might receive, how and where they can apply, and what documents might be needed to establish eligibility.

Addressing all likely scenarios

Working in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services and three veterans service officers or VSOs (the VSOs for Boston, Cambridge, and the Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District) that were eager to be part of a pilot project, Veterans Legal Clinic Program Manager Julia Schutt and program evaluation colleagues from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a series of focus groups with VSOs, veterans themselves, and with family members and dependents. The goal: to ensure that the tool addresses all the likely scenarios that someone using it might present in an effort to qualify for Chapter 115 services and to make sure the tool was simple to use.

Further fine-tuning of the tool based on focus group feedback has been completed and the pilot study is being rolled out now in the Boston, Cambridge, and the Upper Pioneer Valley (which includes the towns of Ashfield, Bernardston, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, Conway, Deerfield , Erving, Gill, Greenfield, Hawley, Heath, Leverett, Leyden, Monroe , Montague, New Salem, Northfield, Plainfield , Rowe, Shelburne, Shutesbury, Sunderland, Warwick, Wendell, and Whately). This pilot will both test the Mass Vet Benefit Calculator and strategies for increasing awareness of the Chapter 115 program.

“The Boston VSO conducts door-to-door outreach in subsidized housing complexes, particularly those for the elderly and disabled, to connect with veterans, dependents and survivors, for example,” says Schutt. “They can use the online tool on tablets to help complete eligibility screenings on the spot, for example.”

A game-changer

“The Mass Vet Benefit Calculator is a game-changer and is very handy during events,” notes Pierre Darius of the City of Boston Veterans Services. “Instead of asking the same questions over and over again, I can have the applicants answer the questions electronically in seconds.”

LSC Staff at Stand Down

LSC Staff at Stand Down, where the benefits calculator was tested with veterans. From left: Betsy Gwin, Dana Montalto, Dan Nagin, Julia Schutt, Keith Fogg, clinical student Steven Kerns, Evan Seamone

“The Mass Vet Benefit Calculator is the quickest and easiest way to check on your Chapter 115 eligibility without a VSO,” he adds. “Answer the questions truthfully, and then you’ll get an eligibility determination instantly. Even if a person’s eligibility is Medical Only, it can be hundreds or thousands of dollars in reimbursements every month.”

“My staff and I look forward to the help the Mass Vet Benefit Calculator will provide to our veterans and their dependents,” says Timothy Niejadlik, Director of Upper Pioneer Valley Veterans’ Services District. “By allowing them to begin the application process online, we hope they will contact us to answer questions and ensure they receive all the benefits they may deserve from the Commonwealth.”

Once the pilot phase is complete and lessons learned are implemented, a more intensive, statewide rollout of the tool will begin.

The Mass Vet Benefit Calculator project is supported by a grant from the Klarman Family Foundation.

Using technology to access legal remedies, social services

“We believe technological innovation to help low-income individuals access social services and legal remedies can have a meaningful impact,” says Nagin. “It is critical that legal services providers continue to expand their toolkit.  Technology tools need to be harnessed to help us pursue our justice mission. We are very grateful to the Klarman Family Foundation for supporting this effort.”

Reform Meets Response: LSC Launches Criminal Record Sealing Initiative in Wake of Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform

The Legal Services Center strives to place the voices of Boston’s communities at the heart of its practice.

While Julie McCormack, Director of the Safety Net Project, facilitated People’s Law School community workshops around the Boston area over the past 5 years, she learned first-hand from clients and community partners of the staggering, unmet demand for criminal record sealing services. Due to LSC’s specialized projects serving domestic violence survivors, low-income individuals, people with disabilities, veterans, and others, Julie recognized that the Legal Services Center had a unique opportunity to leverage its existing resources to respond directly to requests from community partners and clients to expand access to these critical criminal record sealing services.

With criminal record information publicly available to employers, banks, and landlords, a criminal record operates as a de facto sentence for individuals long after their time is served by erecting barriers to financial stability. Indeed, for the estimated one in three American adults with a criminal record, ordinary essentials such as finding a well-paying job, obtaining safe and affordable housing, getting a student loan, and purchasing a decent car are nearly impossible to attain. This reality means that those with criminal records experience poverty, unemployment, and homelessness at far higher rates than their peers without records. In effect, a criminal record is a harsh, life-long obstacle for those striving to lift themselves out of situations of personal and financial hardship. The discrimination experienced by individuals after their encounter with the criminal justice system reverberates throughout their families and communities, exacerbating inequality and hardship.

Fortunately, the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Act has accelerated and expanded sealing opportunities. Individuals with old criminal records can now have their Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) sealed so that it cannot be seen or held against them by potential employers, landlords, and banks. For the first time in Massachusetts history, the 2018 law also provided for the expungement of a criminal record for de-criminalized offenses (such as the possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana). These reforms provide a path toward a brighter future for individuals fighting against the barriers and stigma that accompany a criminal record.

However, this change in the law did not provide the legal resources necessary to help people exercise their right to criminal record sealing. Organizations such as Greater Boston Legal Services and Rosie’s Place have taken an early lead in identifying the need for sealing services by providing self-help resources and walk-in clinics. We applaud the groundbreaking work of these organizations and seek to expand CORI sealing opportunities – particularly to the veterans, military families, low-income students, disabled individuals, and domestic violence survivors that we already serve – through free workshops every third Tuesday of the month, from 4pm to 6pm.

We believe this is a valuable service with tremendous spillover effects in combatting inequality and injustice. Moreover, we believe that by hosting these CORI Sealing Workshops, LSC is leveraging its connections with the veteran and local communities – as well as its easily accessible location – to respond to an urgent community need.

For more information about our new CORI Sealing Initiative, please visit our information page.

ITT Trustee, CFPB, and States Settle with Private Lender to Eliminate Millions in Debt

Settlements Do More for Cheated ITT Students Than DeVos

As Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education continue to sit idly, indifferent to massive fraud committed by ITT against more than 750,000 former students, the CFPB and a group of 43 states and the District of Columbia filed proposed settlements with one of ITT’s private lenders, a group of credit unions called “the CUSO.” This coincides with a federal bankruptcy court approving a settlement between the ITT bankruptcy trustee and the CUSO. The settlements will provide important relief for former students who took out private CUSO loans. Once the settlements are approved by the court, the CUSO is compelled to:

  • Stop collection of all outstanding CUSO loans;
  • Direct credit reporting agencies to delete consumer trade lines associated with the CUSO loans; and
  • Request that the IRS not require the CUSO to report the cancelled loans as income to borrowers.

The CUSO and ITT are charged with perpetrating a scheme in which interest-free loans made by ITT to students (“temporary credits”) were converted into high-interest, private loans that students were likely to default on. CUSO participated in the scheme, which was designed to help ITT evade federal regulations and write-off bad debt, because the credit unions stood to make a profit—at the expense of the students that ITT swindled.

Yet again, this means that everyone else has done more for the cheated students of ITT Tech than the Department of Education has ever done.

Cancellation of ITT student loan debt makes a real difference for borrowers, but does not begin to address the millions of dollars in unenforceable federal and private student debt that is still outstanding.

While over 14,000 borrower defense applications from former ITT students are pending—thousands submitted over three years ago—the Department continues to move at a glacial pace, having approved only 33 applications to date. This unreasonable, unnecessary, and unfounded refusal to acknowledge students’ claims is an indignity to borrowers who sought an education and better life, but were instead cheated, lied to, and defrauded.

The Department continues to shirk its duty to process borrower defense applications and remains complicit in the ITT-related fraud it oversaw and approved. That needs to change, and we will continue to pressure the Department to eliminate ITT federal student loan debt.

The students in the ITT bankruptcy are represented by the Project on Predatory Student Lending and Jenner & Block.

Related Updates:

A Legal Safety Net at the Library

People's Law School Boston Public Library

Julia Schutt (right) of the Veterans Legal Clinic speaking to a client as interns Arielle Lui (left) and Sana Gupta (center) observe at the Boston Public Library Community Health Fair.

Picture this: you make the decision to go to college. To afford it, you take out hefty student loans. You work hard, push through, and complete your degree. With even more hard work, you are able to pay off your student loans. Then, out of nowhere, the government reaches out to tell you that you actually haven’t paid your loans. And that they want to collect. Now. Before you can even use your degree, the government starts to take all of your income. What do you do?

This is what happened to Maria*, whom we met at the Boston Public Library’s first ever Community Health Fair on Friday, May 24th. Maria came to the Fair seeking any help she could find, and she found us. As the only legal team at the event, we were thrilled that we were there to respond to legal needs like Maria’s.

Allyson Dowds, Health & Human Services Research Specialist for the BPL and the event organizer, invited us to attend, recognizing that access to legal resources is an integral part of community health: the Legal Services Center provides legal representation to clients fighting housing insecurity, financial abuse at the hands of for-profit colleges or other predatory organizations, unsafe situations in the home or within families, and facing adverse action by the IRS. In the Safety Net Project, we help veterans, disabled individuals, and low-income folks secure the income, food access, and health care they need to protect their material well-being. In short, we work to address a multitude of interrelated community health problems through legal advocacy.

Legal Services Center Table at Boston Public Library

Safety Net Project interns Sana Gupta (top left), Brittney Reed (top right), Arielle Lui (bottom left), and Ellie Schelleng (center) with Julia Schutt, project manager for the Veterans’ Legal Clinic, at the Boston Public Library Community Health Fair. Taking the picture is Julie McCormack, director of the Safety Net Project and coordinator of the People’s Law School.

As a law school clinical program, our mission to “Advocate. Educate. Innovate.” compels us to provide education not just to the law students and interns who join us throughout the year, but also to our community on their rights within the legal system, through our program The People’s Law School. We used our time at the Community Health Fair to do exactly that.

The Fair brought together several key players in the food security landscape, including Project Bread, the Department of Transitional Assistance, and the Department of Public Health. Connecting with folks from these organizations was especially important as we consider our role in closing the Massachusetts ‘SNAP Gap.’ The SNAP Gap refers to those eligible for, but not receiving, SNAP benefits – according to the Mass Law Reform Institute, over 700,000 Massachusetts residents who are likely eligible for SNAP are not receiving benefits. This summer the LSC is reopening our SNAP appeals intake; we will represent those who have been denied benefits when they should have been approved. By helping individuals in complex situations secure SNAP benefits, we hope to take part in a larger movement to close that gap and make food security a reality for all of low-income Massachusetts. Connecting with these groups allowed us to consider future partnerships and to gather materials so that we can increase outreach and education efforts through our office.

Also at the event were many incredible community partners dedicated to serving the people of the greater Boston area. We spoke with many, including representatives of Bay Cove Human Services and Samaritans Inc., about ways we can partner to better serve our communities and share resources – such as workshops and presentations. Often, legal problems are the cause of mental or physical health problems. Other times, the root cause of a legal problem is really a housing or food issue. It was vital for us to connect (and reconnect!) with the government, non-profit, and social service organizations working in health, food, and housing so that we all can provide our clients with the broadest base of assistance available. It is so rare that someone is facing only one issue – to get at the root causes of the problems facing our clients, we need to call on each other.

In addition to talking to partner organizations, we met many people interested in learning how we can help them. We provided advice and referral information on a range of issues including overpayment of benefits, predatory student loans, and veterans’ legal issues. Because our services are free, we don’t have the resources to take every case, so events like this are a great way to get information to people who may not otherwise have access to it. Maria wouldn’t have known about our services if we hadn’t been at the Health Fair.

Plenty of folks also came to our table who didn’t have a specific issue they needed help with; they just wanted to know what kinds of services we offer. We are always happy to talk about our services to anyone who will listen! In addition to providing general information about the Legal Services Center, Julia Schutt of the Veterans Legal Clinic attended the Fair to showcase the project she manages developing an online tool to help veterans and military families learn if they are eligible for state Chapter 115 benefits.

After the Fair, we followed up on Maria’s case and, after consulting with other advocates here at LSC, determined that Maria’s situation would best be handled directly by the Project on Predatory Student Lending. Maria will be directly assisted by our office, thanks to the opportunities provided at the Community Health Fair.

The Community Health Fair was an extremely useful event and we are glad to have been invited. We are excited to see it grow and hope to be included every year!

Community Health Fair Flyer

Flyer for the Boston Public Library Community Health Fair

*Name and some identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

Take Care of Soldiers, and Things Fall Into Place

This post, by Joshua Mathew, J.D. ’19, was first posted on the Office of Clinical Programs blog.

Josh Mathew

Josh Mathew JD’19

My involvement with the Veterans Legal Clinic (VLC) has been, by far, my most rewarding experience at Harvard Law School. Through the VLC, I supported diverse cases, developed a broad range of legal skills, found my passion for advocating for others as a litigator, and made some of my closest friends at Harvard.

A Broad Range of Cases and Skills

As a student advocate with the VLC, I worked on a variety of matters, including an Army veteran’s appeal of the VA’s denial of his G.I. Bill benefits, a former Marine’s application for VA healthcare and an honorable characterization of his service, and oral arguments on behalf of Massachusetts veterans who were wrongfully denied the Welcome Home Bonus. In addition, my work with the VLC and conversations with instructors at Harvard’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Clinic motivated me to pursue independent research, under Professor Dan Nagin’s supervision, on California’s regulations aimed at guarding veterans against exploitation by for-profit colleges.

My diverse caseload at the VLC allowed me to build a set of skills that I know will make me a more effective advocate for others. Drafting the appeal for my client’s G.I. Bill benefits enabled me to develop my legal writing and research skills. Presenting oral arguments in the Welcome Home Bonus case with my classmate Laurel Fresquez ’19 substantially improved our oral appellate advocacy skills. We learned how to organize a concise outline of arguments and incorporate feedback from numerous moots. And throughout all of my cases, I developed my ability to interact with clients, solicit their intent, and ensure that our case strategy reflected their long-term goals and interests.

From left to right, Jack Regan, Dana Montalto, Josh Mathew, Laurel Fresquez ’19, a client in the case, and Dan Nagin.

Helping Ensure That All Are Welcomed Home

Presenting oral arguments with Laurel in the Welcome Home Bonus case at Suffolk Superior Court was certainly my favorite experience at the VLC. You can read more about the case and the favorable ruling here and here. Preparing for the hearing served as a reminder that no one gets there alone: Laurel and I spent countless hours brainstorming and debating how to craft the most effective opening and closing arguments. We rehearsed those arguments over and over again in front of our supervisors, others VLC students, and WilmerHale attorneys. These moots and the VLC’s supportive community of instructors, students, and friends provided the feedback that we needed to identify our most powerful arguments and address our blind spots.

Engaging with our clients was also a treat. When we received a positive decision from the judge in late December, it was a pleasure for me and Laurel to call our clients with the good news. Those phone calls, full of gratitude and warmth, are some of my fondest memories at Harvard Law.

Finding Purpose and Friends

Lastly, the VLC has had tremendous personal benefits for me. When I left the Army, I saw law school as a reset switch, and I did not have a clear vision of what I wanted to do as a lawyer. I enrolled in the VLC, in part, to find that purpose. A wise platoon sergeant had once advised me, “Take care of soldiers, and everything else falls into place.” As a platoon leader, I found deep satisfaction in supporting my soldiers, and through the VLC, I have found similar fulfillment in supporting veterans’ claims for education, healthcare, and disability benefits. In addition, through challenging and meaningful casework, I have discovered my passion for litigation as a means of advocating for others.

In the process, I have made some of my closest friends at Harvard Law. It might be that the Legal Services Center attracts exceptionally kind students, or that its instructors do a great job of fostering a supportive environment. In any case, I am grateful to have gained that community, and I look forward to staying in touch.