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Jilisa Milton is a 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow hosted by Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. Her Fellowship is sponsored by the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation.
In celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we caught up with 2019 Fellow Jilisa Milton to learn more about her work to protect the rights of children with disabilities in Alabama’s Black Belt.
You were the first University of Alabama student to earn a joint M.S.W,-J.D. degree. What inspired you to combine your social work background with a law degree?
I was born in New York in the 80s during a time where a lot of black families were affected by the War on Poverty and the War on Drugs, both policies that were extremely anti-black and anti-poor. A lot of my career choices have come from personal experiences as a directly impacted person. I often say, “I don’t want X to happen to anyone else/anyone else’s family.”
My mother had undiagnosed bipolar disorder and self-medicated with drug use at a time where access to mental health and other related health services was non-existent. My siblings and I were removed from her custody and ultimately placed with my grandparents, who ultimately brought us back to Alabama, where they grew up. Growing up with parents who grew up during the 50s and 60s gave me a firsthand understanding of what it felt like to go to a segregated school. I also dealt with high functioning anxiety, which I never knew how to explain until adulthood.
Many of these experiences were driving factors for why I decided to get my bachelor’s degree in social work. As a first-generation student, it was important for me to do work that addressed the needs of families affected by inadequate social systems.
While working as an AmeriCorps Volunteer, I attended a conference session with Michelle Alexander. Her work on the intersection of the war on drugs, mass incarceration, slavery, the criminalization of people of color, and the creation (or continuance) of a caste system inspired me. I decided I wanted to be a lawyer after I got home. I also decided that I still wanted to get my master in social work (M.S.W.), and I learned about the emerging trend of M.S.W./J.D. programs. I centered my law school search around schools that provided the option.
I often feel a disconnect when I do direct social work practice because there is little I can do beyond casework to address systems. Conversely, I often feel that when doing impact work or policy work, there is a disconnect with what needs exist for people, service providers, and/or organizers. My MSW/JD has provided me with a way to see things from a birds-eye view.
Throughout your career, you have worked on a wide array of civil rights issues, including criminal justice reform and mental health treatment. What inspired you to focus your Fellowship on protecting the rights of children with disabilities?
In the Black community, especially, there is a stigma around mental health. This stigma manifests in either not believing that the issue is there to not trusting the government to provide anything other than harm when addressing needs. Having experienced this stigma in my own family, I know how difficult it is to break through these issues within a family unit, let alone a school or court.
Protecting the rights of children with disabilities is important because families from all backgrounds deserve to feel that they are not alone. It is tough to address the needs of families on top of dealing with the harmful effect of ableism and criminalization. My goal as a Fellow is to help families develop solutions and not feel that it is them against the world.
As a first-generation student, it was important for me to do work that addressed the needs of families affected by inadequate social systems.
Jilisa Milton /
Equal Justice Works Fellow
Alabama’s Black Belt has been a site of significant advances in the struggle for civil rights as well as high unemployment and a lack of access to education and medical care. What specific challenges do children with disabilities and their guardians face when trying to access mental health and behavioral services in this region?
There is a severe problem with a lack of resources for addressing the needs of children in Alabama’s Black Belt. Many schools and judges express that they wish they had more resources for service providers, diversion programming, wrap-around services, treatment, etc. for children with emotional disorders and autism.
Like many other communities, there is a lack of understanding about disabilities. The lack of knowledge causes many courts and schools to rely on their assumptions and create policies and responses that are unfair to children with disabilities. This issue might not be unique to the Black Belt but compounded with the lack of resources; it is more intense.
Now, with COVID-19 drastically changing the way social workers and lawyers are conducting their work, I have been presented with all new challenges. I have been limited to only email and phone communication. And, the work hasn’t slowed down either! As more school districts release their plans for the coming school year, I have seen a large influx of work.
Despite these challenges, I am still able to secure the appropriate mental health services for Medicaid-eligible children. In conjunction with my host organization, The Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, we are currently monitoring a settlement in Alabama to provide at-home services for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Severe Emotional Disorders. The settlement is currently being rolled out, and service providers are being trained and placed.
To learn more about Jilisa’s Fellowship, visit her Fellow profile.