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Rachel Niegelberg

The Project

Rachel’s (she/her/hers) project will provide advocacy and direct representation to low-income students in Washington, DC experiencing health-harming education in which their behavioral health needs are not being met.

One in five students in Washington, DC has a disability, and their education needs frequently go unmet by their schools. Students with disabilities in DC have lower academic success rates than their peers in other urban areas. COVID-19 has magnified this disparity, leading to insufficient solutions and leaving students with disabilities behind.

Fellowship Plans

Through the Healthy Together Medical-Legal Partnership, Rachel will provide accessible, on-site legal services to families of students with disabilities at the Shepherd Park Pediatric Primary Care and Complex Care Clinics and the Rare Disease Institute. In addition to directly advocating for the educational needs of students and their families, she will provide collaborative education and outreach to medical providers and community members about special education rights and best practices for identifying at-risk children.

Rachel’s ten years of experience as a public school teacher motivates her to advocate for all students to receive the educational foundation they are both entitled to and deserve.

As a former teacher, I have seen the power of education as well as the barriers created for the most vulnerable students. Students with disabilities, like all students, deserve a supportive and accessible educational opportunity.

Rachel Niegelberg /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Loreal (they/them) will address the intersectional violence within Black, LGBTQ+ youth communities facing censorship, surveillance, and subsequent criminalization in and outside schools.

Racism and homophobia combine to create unique intersectional violence against Black, Queer youth that is often ignored or decentered. In states in the South with little to no safety nets for these communities, legislation is being passed to censor, surveil, and criminalize Black and Queer youth.

State legislatures are taking action to ban and control curricula across lower and higher education that erases Black and Queer experiences. Almost 10% of American youth openly identify as LGBTQ+ but more than 16 states have passed or introduced laws that surveil and criminalize them. Black Queer youth are already disproportionately disciplined and criminalized. Without interdisciplinary advocacy, Black, Queer youth are facing a rapid increase in violence and hatred with little support to meet their intersectional needs.

Fellowship Plans

During this Fellowship, Loreal will use interdisciplinary approaches through the Legal Defense Fund’s Strategic Initiatives Department. Utilizing litigation, policy advocacy, and public education, Loreal will raise awareness and advocate around Black, Queer youths’ experiences throughout the South and Mid-Atlantic.

Media

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My existence as a Black, Queer, orphaned, and first-generation law student from youth into adulthood has been cast out... It feels only natural to me that I continue to advocate for the communities across my backgrounds so that instead of being cast out, people may be called in.

Loreal Hawk /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Chris’ (he/him/his) project will focus on reducing homelessness among child welfare and juvenile justice involved youth in western states through coalition building, community education, representation in administrative hearings, systemic advocacy, and litigation.

More than a third of the United States’s homeless population resides in the western region of the United States, including thousands of children and youth. Youth too often experience homelessness after exiting foster care or juvenile detention. Among this population, youth of color and LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless. In each of these states, federal and state benefits are available to support homeless youth, but they remain underutilized because of barriers to access.

Youth transitioning into adulthood from child welfare and juvenile justice systems need a multifaceted response that combines direct support for individuals, an educational campaign to increase awareness of available state and federal public benefits, and a multistate coalition to improve the quality and availability of legal representation for these youth currently experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless.

Chris’s experience growing up Black, queer, and low-income motivates his commitment to ensure similarly situated young people have the supports they are entitled to as they become adults.

Fellowship Plans

During his Fellowship, Chris will collaborate with civil legal aid attorneys to provide representation to youth attempting to access expanded Medicaid, public benefits, and housing. He will engage directly with transition-age child welfare and juvenile justice involved youth, educational institutions, and homelessness service providers to ensure homeless youth are aware of their entitled public benefits. Chris will also create referral networks between homeless youth service providers and local civil legal aid organizations. Additionally, he will establish a multistate coalition composed of youth, service providers, policy experts, and legal aid advocates to improve the legal representation available to youth in the region.

Every young person deserves the support they need to grow into a healthy and happy adult. Consistent access to basic needs makes space for youth to imagine who they want to be. This project honors those who made space for me to dream.

Chris Middleton /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Lily’s (she/her/hers) project aims to provide direct and systemic advocacy for special education students in Mississippi to enforce their rights, improve outcomes, and empower them to be leaders in effecting sustainable change.

Mississippi consistently receives a “needs assistance” designation from the Office of Special Education Programs due to the state’s failure to meet the needs of its nearly 70,000 special education students. More than half of those students are Black, and almost 80% are low-income. Special education students in Mississippi lack support in the classroom and are twice as likely to be excluded from school than students without disabilities. Although federal law provides protections for these students, many parents and students do not know their rights under the law, do not have time or resources to bring due process claims, and do not have the ability to obtain legal assistance.

In Mississippi, Black students in special education are five times more likely to be suspended than white students without disabilities. In her role as a Mississippi high school teacher, Lily saw the human reality of these statistics.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Lily will provide direct representation to Mississippi students with special education needs by advocating on behalf of students at their Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, filing due process complaints against school districts that violate students’ rights, and representing students facing unlawful school exclusion. To expand the reach of her project, she will host legal clinics for parents and develop an online resource bank of Know Your Rights materials. She will also work to identify opportunities for impact litigation and legislative advocacy through which she will center students’ voices and perspectives.

As a former high school teacher in Mississippi, I saw firsthand how the education system failed my students with disabilities. My Equal Justice Works Fellowship will enable me to fight on behalf of students with disabilities to secure the services and education to which they are entitled.

Lily Moens /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Alexis (she/her) plans to use strategic litigation and a public education campaign to reform rural Illinois juvenile detention centers on behalf of youth held in unconstitutional and non-rehabilitative conditions.

During the pretrial stage of a criminal case, youth have the right to be presumed innocent and may not be punished while awaiting trial. However, youth in Illinois are routinely confined in small cells for 23 hours a day, multiple days a week, without adequate medical or mental health care or educational services.

Being detained as a child is a life-altering experience that can have long-term negative effects, including an increased risk of adult incarceration, substance abuse, and psychiatric disorders. This is particularly true for Black youth, who are overrepresented in the Illinois juvenile justice system.

Alexis’ commitment to fighting for much-needed change in Illinois juvenile detention centers stems from her own multi-racial and multi-cultural family, which has also motivated her to join the fight to end racism in the criminal legal system and mass incarceration.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Alexis will work with attorneys from the ACLU of Illinois’ Corrections Reform Project—among other juvenile justice allies and advocates—to file lawsuits against some of the most egregious juvenile detention centers in Illinois.

Alexis will seek input from system-impacted youth, their families, and other community-based organizations to ensure her litigation strategies meet community needs and complement other advocacy efforts. Beyond the courtroom, she will also use non-litigation strategies, such as a public education campaign, to inform the public, press, and political stakeholders about the conditions in these facilities.

Media

Ropes & Gray Announces “Ropes Impact Fellowship" to Advance Public Service Commitment

Reforms to juvenile incarceration practices, which are excessively punitive and dehumanizing, are desperately needed. I’m committed to working with juvenile justice advocates, system-impacted children, and their families to ensure that children are afforded their fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Alexis Picard /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Ellie’s (she/her/hers) project will help meet the fundamental needs of unhoused young people in New York City by providing direct civil legal services to houseless youth and holding Know Your Rights trainings related to family law, education access, housing, and public benefits.

In New York City, there are over 7,000 unhoused young people. These young people often encounter obstacles to affording food and other essentials, receiving an education, and maintaining a baseline level of personal safety and well-being. Despite the broad range of unmet needs that unhoused youth are likely to have, young people who are houseless are chronically underserved by legal providers and may not realize that some of the hardships they face have legal solutions.

Fellowship Plans

Ellie will provide advice and representation to unhoused young people on many civil legal matters. She will seek name change orders and orders of protection to advance the safety of youth who have experienced abuse; represent young people who have been denied public benefits in the fair hearing process; help unhoused youth access education by advocating with secondary schools and post-secondary institutions; and challenge gender-, ability-, or income-based discrimination by houseless shelters and by landlords. Ellie will also work with pro bono lawyers and legal staff to host drop-in advice clinics throughout New York City and to hold Know Your Rights trainings to educate youth and youth service providers about young people’s rights to safety, shelter, education, and social services.

Ellie’s work with houseless youth is driven by her conviction that housing is a fundamental right and her steadfast belief in the power and potential of young people.

All young people deserve safety, compassion, and stability. As rates of youth houselessness continue to rise, it is essential that unhoused young people are given the services, knowledge, and support they need to thrive.

Ellie Rutkey /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Serena (she/her) will support detained and imprisoned children in Louisiana by challenging the state’s plan to transfer children to adult prisons and advocating for improved conditions of confinement for children through direct representation, strategic litigation, and educational training.

In Louisiana, district attorneys can prosecute children as young as 14 in adult court for certain serious offenses. Recently, state leadership introduced a plan to transfer additional children from Bridge City Center for Youth to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola Prison. This issue predominately impacts Black children, who make up 80% of the children incarcerated in Louisiana.

After witnessing the incarceration of community members and loved ones in her childhood, Serena embraced the promise of a future where children receive support in their communities rather than confinement in jails and prisons. This promise motivates her commitment to children’s rights and reintegration.

Fellowship Plans

For children to return to their communities, they need the resources to thrive there. In adult prisons, children are more likely to experience abuse and ultimately recommit. During this Fellowship, Serena aims to challenge the transfer of children to adult prisons and the movement of juvenile cases to the adult system. She also seeks to advocate for the safety, civil rights, and rehabilitation of children in adult prisons.

Many children are denied the resources to flourish at home or in school. Instead, they are pipelined into a system that makes it even harder to succeed. I am honored to advocate for the rights of the children who navigate this system.

Serena Hughley /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Rachel (she/her/hers) will represent medically fragile children (MFC) in New York City in appeals of adverse Medicaid determinations and wrongful denials of medically necessary care. Her work at the New York Legal Assistance Group will ensure that medically fragile children can remain at home, and undertake systemic advocacy on related issues.

Many medically fragile children risk being placed into settings where infectious diseases, like COVID-19, are more easily spread—places like emergency rooms, nursing homes, rehab facilities, and group residences. The Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic, and Treatment (EPSDT) provision of the federal Medicaid Act guarantees medically necessary health care for children under age 21. EPSDT protections, however, are poorly enforced. This leads to unlawful denials of care and places medically fragile children at risk of institutionalization. Despite the significant legal needs of medically fragile children, few legal services providers exist for MFC in New York City to avoid institutional placement. This project will address this access to justice gap, and in doing so will help keep medically fragile children safely at home with their families.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Rachel will provide direct representation to medically fragile, low-income children through all stages of their appeals process to maintain Medicaid eligibility and access medically necessary care. She will also engage in policy advocacy and impact litigation by working with coalitions of other advocates and attorneys who are advancing the rights of people with Medicaid coverage. She will also facilitate community education for families of medically fragile children and lead educational trainings for pediatric clinicians through partnerships with local and national organizations. Finally, she will design legal trainings and toolkits to foster more sources of legal advocacy for these children and their families.

Rachel’s own chronic health condition, a voice disorder called spasmodic dysphonia, as well as her background as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer fuel her commitment to ensuring all people have access to the health care, services, and supports they need.

Media

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Everyone deserves to receive care at home and in their communities surrounded by the people they love. I am excited to work alongside families, providers, and legal advocates to ensure a child’s income, disability, and race does not determine their ability to receive the care they need while staying home with their families.

Rachel Holtzman /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Hannah’s work will focus on providing preventative legal services that support families in the early stages of the child protection process to promote family preservation and prevent trauma.

Many families involved with the child protection system experience unnecessary disruption and system-imposed trauma which has harmful long-term effects on children, their families, and communities. Minnesota consistently removes children from their homes at a higher rate than the national average primarily because of issues of neglect stemming from poverty. Although both federal and state laws require child protection agencies to make reasonable efforts to prevent removal, services and supports are commonly reactive and provided to families after a child has been removed from their home. This problem disproportionately impacts Native American, Black, and multi-racial children who are more likely than white children to be removed from their families.

Fellowship Plans

Pre-petition legal representation prevents unnecessary child protection involvement and removal of children from their families by providing high-quality, interdisciplinary legal representation at the earliest stages of the child protection process. During her Fellowship, Hannah will work to develop and implement preventative legal services for families utilizing an interdisciplinary approach. The project will focus on removing barriers to meaningful social supports and addressing legal obstacles and barriers that commonly lead to child protection involvement. Additionally, Hannah will partner with individuals and families impacted by the child protection system to inform policy reform efforts and improve training resources and processes of current and future lawyers.

In my experience working directly with families involved with child protection, I learned that the vast majority of resources and support are targeted toward reactive interventions that often fall short and lead to unnecessary trauma and family separation. I’m honored to have the opportunity to work alongside families and communities to help identify proactive solutions focused on keeping families healthy and together.

Hannah Burton /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Zoe (she/her/hers) will address the collateral consequences of juvenile court involvement for children around Georgia.

In Georgia, Black students are referred by schools to law enforcement twice as frequently as their non-Black peers. Referral to the juvenile legal system can have long-lasting, devastating effects on children and serves as a catalyst to further enmesh Black children in the criminal legal system. In addition to these racial disparities, many children entering the juvenile justice system live in poverty, and more than 70% have mental health disorders. Because of these disadvantages, in conjunction with involvement in the juvenile legal system, court-involved children face many barriers outside the criminal legal process. Court-involved youth can face problems such as accessing education and health care, receiving appropriate disability services, housing instability, and involvement with the Division of Family & Children Services.

Georgia Legal Services Program is the only civil legal services provider for people unable to afford a lawyer in many places throughout Georgia. By working with Georgia Legal Services Program, Zoe will address the barriers children face due to juvenile court involvement.

Coming from a long line of educators and being an educator herself, Zoe believes every child can succeed in and out of the classroom if they have the tools they need. This project aims to provide those tools to children and their families.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Zoe will use three strategies to address the collateral consequences of children’s involvement with juvenile courts. Zoe will build and expand upon relationships with juvenile courts to create a direct referral pipeline from juvenile courts to Georgia Legal Services Program. Zoe will also provide holistic direct representation to court-involved children, including representing students at disciplinary proceedings, advocating for students in special education matters, ensuring access for behavioral and other health services, and addressing housing instability. Finally, Zoe will develop and distribute educational materials and programming to court-impacted families.

Media

Greenberg Traurig Sponsors Record 201st Equal Justice Works Fellow

From teaching sixth grade to working at a Juvenile Public Defender Office, I’ve seen firsthand how juvenile court involvement can have a negative impact on nearly every aspect of a child’s life.

Zoe Siepert /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow