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Equal Justice at Work: May 2011

Fellows on the Front

Helping students with mental disabilities get the education they deserve

Miami-Dade County, Florida, has been described as having the largest percentage of people with serious mental illness (SMI) of any urban community in the United States.  During the 2009-2010 fiscal year, for example, Florida’s Department of Children and Families provided services to over 13,000 children with, or at risk of, emotional disturbance and mental disabilities.  As an Equal Justice Works Fellow, Kevin Probst is making great strides in breaking down the barriers to education and access to health care for children suffering from mental disabilities.

Before pursuing a law degree, Kevin taught middle school students with varying physical and mental disabilities. It was during this experience that he saw first-hand how children dealing with mental disabilities were overlooked or dismissed as merely having discipline problems.  Although his students’ challenging life circumstances made them highly vulnerable to such mental health conditions as mood disorders, depression, and anxiety, the school system routinely failed to identify their needs, or provide them with the support and services to which they were legally entitled.

“Many of my students were experiencing extremely stressful and traumatic issues at home.  They were living at or below the poverty line, dealing with malnutrition, and sometimes facing abandonment by parents who could not adequately care for them,” Kevin explained.  “It is simply unrealistic to expect children to come to school ready to focus and learn when they’re anxious or depressed about what is happening in their lives outside of the classroom.”

Today, Kevin addresses a number of unmet legal needs, including mental health issues, through the Children’s Health Advocacy Project (CHAP), a medical-legal partnership between the South Miami Children’s Clinic and his host organization, Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. (LSGMI).   In addition to providing representation at administrative hearings for children facing a denial or reduction of medically necessary services, Kevin frequently advocates for children with disabilities when the school district delays or denies a parent’s request for services, or even the initial evaluation to determine eligibility for special education programs.

In most cases, his clients’ illnesses have been misdiagnosed or ignored altogether and, rather than comply with the federal law’s “Child Find” provisions, schools administratively assign students to “alternative” education programs or resort to routine suspensions, in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Kevin’s project allows him to work with the medical community to help families proactively identify and resolve legal problems to improve their children’s health outcomes.   The families he works with often have basic and critical needs, such as safe and stable housing, food and income supports, that must be addressed before they can properly focus on health issues. 

As a result of the legal advocacy Kevin provides, his medical champion, Dr. Tina Carroll-Scott, has found that her “patients’ health issues are improving and chronic issues are decreasing.”  In addition, this partnership has beeninstrumental in expanding community awareness and providing a greater array of services to people in need.

“In general, people are reluctant to seek help for mental health issues.  As more and more of our joint patient-clients and their families begin to realize the benefits of receiving both medical and legal assistance, we’ve noticed how a reduced stigma has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of parents who reach out for help,” Kevin said.

Despite minor breakthroughs, there is still much work that needs to be done. Kevin explained that while there is a lot of momentum in Florida for new medical-legal partnerships like the CHAP, mental health and education budgets are typically among the first to be cut during challenging economic times.  Regrettably, this current legislative session was no exception. 

Kevin remains grateful to Equal Justice Works and everyone who has supported his fellowship project, especially LSGMI and his sponsors, the Florida Bar Foundation and Greenberg Traurig, LLP. He also shared his enthusiasm for the clients he serves.

“I’m inspired on a daily basis by working with children and families who are so resilient.  Despite their hardships, they constantly strive to overcome numerous obstacles to succeed – in school, in health, and in life.”


AnchorFinancing the Future

Student credit card use could cause problems later

Despite the name, credit cards are in fact loans, requiring repayment with interest. Paying high interest on educational expenses means overpaying for college costs and the need for using credit cards must be balanced with the danger inherent therein.

›› Read More

From our weekly Student Loan Ranger blog at US News & World Report


AnchorAlumni News

Suffering in silence: Equal Justice Works alum sought fair treatment for immigrant detainees

 An immigrant detainee stands before a judge awaiting his fate.  Before the hearing even starts, however, he has two strikes against him. First, because there is no right to appointed counsel in immigration proceedings, he appears alone, without the help of a lawyer.  Second, because there is no process in place to alert the immigration court to the presence of a detainee’s mental disability, the immigration judge might be unaware of this fact and that the detainee may not be competent to defend himself.  Unfortunately, this is the story for too many immigrant detainees facing deportation across the country.   

During his fellowship project, Equal Justice Works Alumnus Gregory Pleasants addressed the great disparities in justice for immigration detainees with mental disabilities. His work with Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc. in Los Angeles, California, focused on creating additional protections in immigration court for immigration detainees with mental disabilities. Additionally, Gregory explored the mental health care services that were required for proper treatment for detainees. As part of his project, he invested a great deal of time developing coalitions with other nonprofit organizations to raise awareness of the problem.

“It was important to develop critical mass to address this problem. If we got loud enough we knew people would pay attention,” shares Gregory.

 With the help of organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, the Capital Area Immigrants Rights Coalition, the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center, the Center for Constitutional Rights, many other organizations and individuals, Gregory helped draft a letter to United States Attorney General, Eric Holder, outlining recommendations to promote fairness for immigration detainees suffering from mental illness. He was also a contributor to a practice guide, now available on the CAIR website outlining how volunteer immigration attorneys could best represent immigration detainees with mental disabilities.

The practice guide and letter have become valuable resources for others protecting the rights of mentally disabled immigrants.  For example, some of their recommendations are reflected in the recent victory by Equal Justice Works alumni Ahilan Arulanatham (class of 2000), Talia Inlender (class of 2008) and current Fellow Jennifer Stark in an unprecedented case that awarded an immigrant detainee the right to a counsel during his deportation proceeding.

“There is always fear that once you complete your fellowship the project will stop, but I’ve seen Equal Justice Works Fellows continue the momentum and I am extremely proud of that,” explains Gregory.

Gregory shared advice for young lawyers who are working with clients who suffer from mental disabilities. He explained that the incremental work is important. By taking the long view attorneys can build the force needed to bring attention to this overlooked issue.

Gregory is currently a public defender at the Federal Defenders of San Diego.

AnchorExecutive Director’s Corner

Equipping the next generation of public defenders

Throughout our 25 years, Equal Justice Works has been agile and entrepreneurial, responding quickly and effectively to crises, and finding opportunities to help those who need it most.  When Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, we rapidly deployed 19 Fellows and hundreds of law students to assist victims with urgent legal needs.  In 2009, as the economy weakened and families across the country faced foreclosure, we dispatched 30 Fellows and hundreds of law students into the field, saving more than 1,000 homes from foreclosure in just 12 months. 

Today's legal crisis involves indigent defense.  Across the country, public defender offices are underfunded, understaffed and drowning in untenable caseloads.  With too few public defenders handling too many cases, those who cannot afford representation are being denied their fundamental right to counsel, and many are languishing in jail at taxpayers’ expense.

Once again, we felt the need to respond.  Equal Justice Works and the Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPTDC) have partnered to develop Public Defender Corps, a solution to this growing crisis and improve the quality of representation for adults and juveniles.  Public Defender Corp is a three-year fellowship program that will increase the quality of legal representation for accused persons who cannot afford counsel by placing deeply committed lawyers in some of the most challenged areas. 

After an intense competition with 450 applicants, the 18 inaugural Public Defender Corps Fellows have been selected.  These remarkable and dedicated attorneys will begin their fellowship in August at public defender offices in New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee.   

This is one of the hardest initiatives we have launched in our 25 year history.  First, there is little public support or sympathy for people accused of crimes.  Second, states and foundations are loathed to spend money on indigent defense.  Third, Public Defender Corps Fellows will work in Southern and rural communities where support and training are limited. 

On the positive side, the interest among law students was unbelievable.  We have experienced standing room only crowds when talking about Public Defender Corps.  Southern Public Defender Training Center offers a premier training boot camp, and we are committed to providing mentoring and support.  And we received seed funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the Department of Justice to launch the program this fall.

Stay tuned in the coming months as we report on the progress of the fellows in this exciting new program.