Safety Net Project formerly Disability Litigation and Benefits Advocacy Clinic

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

Learning by Doing: A Student’s Perspective from LSC’s Safety Net Project

By Bryan Sohn

Before law school, I spent four years working in the education and non-profit world. By the end of my 1L year, I was feeling frustrated about being trapped in the “HLS bubble.” Without a doubt, my courses were fascinating and my professors wonderful. But I felt disconnected. And so I decided to seek out clinics. I considered the education law and child advocacy clinics but realized that I should branch out beyond my comfort zone. I signed up for the Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic at the Legal Services Center (LSC) in large part because it reminded me of my students (from my high school teaching days) who have gone on to join the armed forces. And I ended up making the best decision of my law school career so far. My time at the clinic has been extraordinarily formative: in fact, the wonderful team at LSC couldn’t get rid of me and I’m now back for a second semester as an advanced clinical student!

Bryan Sohn photo

Bryan Sohn, center, pictured with attorney David Young (left) and LSC Tax Clinic Director Keith Fogg at LSC’s 40th Anniversary on April 5, 2019.

The Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic is divided into three projects: the Veterans Justice Project, the Estate Planning Project, and the Safety Net Project. I signed up for the Safety Net Project, which focuses primarily on Social Security benefits litigation. My wonderful supervisor, Julie McCormack, wasted no time in throwing me straight into the deep end. On my first day at the LSC, I was informed that I had a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ) the following week: I needed to get up to speed on Social Security law and draft that 15-page brief right away!

I quickly learned that this is a huge part of what makes the Safety Net Project and the Veterans Law Clinic so special. There is very little hand-holding. Students learn by doing. I was expected to the take the lead in building client relationships, building up medical records, and defining case strategies. Once I got staffed on a new case, I would spend several days wrestling with the facts and the law, shuttling back and forth between my carrel and Julie’s office. I would take the lead, but Julie was always available to share her support, wisdom, and incredible feedback despite having (at least) a gazillion other cases on her docket. Rinse and repeat. In my first semester, I ended up handling four ALJ hearings and three cases at the Appeals Council. The experience has supercharged my legal research and writing skills. I like to describe the LSC as a high-powered litigation boutique with a twist. Students take full responsibility for their cases and learn by tackling their cases head-on. But it’s a litigation boutique where the partners actually care about you. In fact, they are there precisely to support you. And most importantly, it’s a firm where the work itself is extraordinarily meaningful.

Above all, I will continue to treasure the relationships that I’ve built with our clients. My time at LSC has taught me what it means to lawyer as friend. So many moments come to mind: giving our client a hug after she broke down at the end of a successful hearing, finding out that a client who had suffered through post-traumatic stress disorder and over two dozen reconstructive surgeries would not lose her home because she had just won her benefits, and so much more. I’m so incredibly grateful to our clients for giving me the opportunity to be a part of their stories.

In my second semester at the clinic, I have continued to handle ALJ and Appeals Council cases. I am also partnering with a student at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau as we prepare to argue a Social Security appeal at federal district court. Briefs have been submitted and oral argument is scheduled for September. I am incredibly excited to continue my LSC journey and get our clients the results that they deserve!

Ensuring Veterans Aren’t Left Behind

Steven Kerns, 2L at Harvard Law School

As a veteran, I came to Harvard Law School’s Safety Net Project within the Veteran’s Legal Clinic to help bridge the civilian- military divide. SNP offered me a chance to help civilians and veterans realize some part of the American dream.

The veterans’ clinic serves civilians and veterans alike, and the SNP provides civilians and veterans with guidance through the Social Security, SNAP, Medicaid, and poverty prevention processes. We serve a strong legal need: Nearly 70 percent of Social Security applicants have no legal representation.

As a student, the clinic offered me a pathway to maintain the momentum I’d built up establishing my litigation skills in my summer at the California Attorney General’s office. The SNP gives me full responsibility for my cases: preparing an evidentiary record, interviewing clients, writing a legal brief, delivering oral argument, direct questioning of clients, cross-examining experts, and if a case is denied, preparing for the appellate argument.

A veteran recently told me that our team had changed his life. He was fond of saying that if it weren’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. He was falsely imprisoned, sexually assaulted as a child, and tragically self-aware of all of it.

Most painful was his nobility, his gentle demeanor, and his broken strength. He blamed no one. He accepted responsibility for more than just his actions—he accepted responsibility for the world. The military has a way of conditioning many of us not to seek help until it’s too late, to shoulder the blame for circumstances beyond our control— to grin and bear it. It’s our strength in war and, often, our undoing at home.

After combing through more than 500 pages of medical records and recruiting mental health experts to evaluate the long history of impairments and treatment, I put together a written argument that led the administrative law judge to make a decision on the record—telling us on the day of the hearing that he was approving the case for more than eight years of retroactive benefits. This highly unusual move happens only when the ALJ determines the case is clearly in the applicant’s favor and a hearing is no longer necessary.

Our client was spared having to dive deep into his trauma for the record. Realizing this, he was overcome with relief. And while we all shared a brief moment of joy, that veteran’s need is no less important than helping the civilians who walk through our doors. Our communities thrive together.

As President Eisenhower noted in his seminal Cross of Iron speech, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.”

I may not be able to change the status quo, but the SNP empowers me to help Americans left behind by perpetual war. Here, they’re not forgotten. Here, my mission is no different than it was in the Army: to serve the American people.

By: Steve Kerns, J.D. ’20

Excerpt from “Law Students Speak: Why I Do Public Interest Work

Via the American Bar Association for Law Students 

LSC Alum Leading the Way for People with Disabilities

Haben Girma, a Harvard Law School alum and alum of LSC’s Disability Litigation Unit (now the Safety Net Project) , is featured on the cover of the September issue of the American Bar Association Journal for her consulting and public speaking work encouraging companies to hire people with disabilities and to develop fully accessible products and services. Girma has worked with organizations ranging from Apple and Google to Pearson Education and the American Alliance of Museums.

Before going into consulting, this former Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom fellow practiced litigation for more than two years with the nonprofit organization Disability Rights Advocates.

Girma is a first-generation immigrant who has both limited hearing and vision and refers to herself as “Deafblind.” She was named one of the ABA Journal’s Legal Rebels.

Learn more

LSC Students Present Oral Argument in Federal District Court

In a recent post on the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs’ Blog, students Emily Seelenfreund, J.D. ’17 and Myra Siddiqui,  J.D. ’17, discuss their experiences working in the Disability Litigation and Advocacy Clinic coordinated by Senior Clinical Instructor, Julie McCormack. Specifically, they express that “perhaps the most exciting part of our semester was the opportunity to represent a woman with multiple disabilities” which included presenting an oral argument before the U. S. District Court in Boston.

Read the complete post here.

Clinic students present legal workshops for veterans

LSC clinic student, Carys Johnson, presents to veterans about estate planning

LSC clinic student, Carys Johnson, presents to veterans about estate planning

On Monday, November 9, 2015, the Legal Services Center opened its doors to veterans from our community to serve dinner and provide a series of legal workshops on a range of topics relevant to veterans.  Twelve Harvard Law students from the Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic presented legal information and tips to attendees about estate planning, Ch. 115 state veterans benefits, VA benefits, and Social Security benefits.  Approximately 30 local veterans and family members attended the event.

Rebecca Rattner, a second-year student in the clinic, worked with her fellow students to present about benefits available to veterans at the state level.

“I thought it was a really useful activity to engage the community and provide them with information about their rights and practical suggestions for how to advocate for themselves,”

Ms. Rattner said.

Staff from Boston and Bedford VA healthcare facilities helped to coordinate the event.

Peoples Law School at LSCThe event was part of a series of community legal education events known as the Peoples Law School, through which LSC staff and students periodically present legal workshops to community members.  The next Peoples Law School event will be held in Spring 2016.  For more details, you can contact us by email.