2015 Community Service Highlights
Saturday, February 6, 2016
Posted by: Joe Libertelli
All School of Law students are required to complete a minimum of 40 hours of pro bono legal community service in the District of Columbia during their first year. Students begin the year with an intensive course, Law and Justice, which highlights legal issues affecting vulnerable members of the community and encourages students to explore their personal experiences with injustice. Students are then matched with faculty advisors who guide them through the community service experience. Through the Community Service Program, students are introduced to Washington, its issues, and a cross section of policymakers and individuals who make the District and its programs work.
We ask our students to write essays about their Community Service experiences. Below are excerpts from some of those essays.
Youth MOVE National is a youth led national organization devoted to improving services and systems that support positive growth and development by uniting the voices of individuals who have experience in various systems including mental health, juvenile justice, education, and child welfare. Youth MOVE chapters advocate for youth to utilize their power and expertise to foster change in their communities and in their own lives. The goal is for there to come a day when youth are no longer treated as numbers, problems or caseloads, but as individuals and humans.
My responsibility for Youth MOVE DC was to assist in their first year of building their local chapter. The process began with my helping them to create bylaws. While the blueprint of the bylaws mirror the national bylaws there were a few additions to satisfy the unique experiences, needs and perspective of the District of Columbia youth. I also assisted the youth with developing a board and committees. Through social media I worked to increase membership of youth ages 17- 25. Currently Youth MOVE has a full board and a general body of about 20 young people. The youth meet the first and third Saturdays of every month to discuss the pros and cons of the District of Columbia’s system. They also speak about the current issues facing the District’s youth.
While DC systems may have flaws there are still many of youth who made it out of these systems and are leading positive lives. I commend them for their eagerness to improve the systems for their peer, for their resilience, and for their determination to continue to lead positive lives despite the hardships they face. I plan to continue assisting and supporting Youth MOVE DC while I am a student at UDC.
I volunteered with the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts. As I started law school, I knew I wanted to learn more about the areas that relate to arts. The organization is a 501(c)3 non-profit that provides free workshops in the practice areas of copyright, trademark, business formation, and patent to members at selected law firms in the DC area, as well as providing referrals of law firms to members for possible pro bono assistance.
As a volunteer, I helped plan, promote, and proctor the forums at the law firms. I would arrive early to make sure the room was set up, provide the attorneys with materials, provide assistance to participants, and make announcements. I really enjoyed volunteering with this organization because I learned a lot about the practice areas along with networking with other attorneys. I enjoyed meeting people from the DC community who are artists or work in the arts industry.
I still volunteer with this organization because they focus in the practice area in which I am highly interested and I believe the best way to get a foot in the door is to immerse oneself with the people or things one is interested in. The volunteer experience was worthwhile and I look forward to continuing with the organization.
I decided to volunteer at Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities for my community service requirement. Quality Trust is an independent, non-profit advocacy organization focused on improving the lives of people with disabilities. Originally, Quality Trust was founded as a part of a settlement in the class action lawsuit (Evans v. the District of Columbia) which closed DC’s institution for people with intellectual disabilities, Forest Haven. Now, Quality Trust works with the individuals and their families to cure the problems, identify opportunities for learning and contribution and find creative outlets to minimize the “differences” and make the most out of each of individual’s abilities. I worked mainly with clients who have moderate to severe intellectual and mental disabilities. I was doing legal research, wrote at least one memo each day, had one-on-one work with clients, and helped to prepare for the litigation in an upcoming lawsuit. The experience helped me not only to develop better legal skills, but also gave me an opportunity to give back to the community. The words cannot describe how rewarding it feels to allow voices, which are oftentimes muted by the society, to be heard loud and clear.
DC SAFE is the District of Columbia’s only 24-hour crisis intervention agency for domestic violence victims which provides support and resources at any hour of the day or night. DC SAFE seeks to improve the way that protective order hearings proceed, and one way to do so is to ensure that the officials remain fair and unbiased.
My job was to provide data to DC SAFE which they could use to determine whether a particular type of person or situation is more favored in the system. On a form provided by DC SAFE, I completed a questionnaire about each hearing. There were questions about the race, age, and gender of the plaintiffs and respondents, questions about the nature of the relationship and whether there were allegations of drug use, violence, use of weapons, or child abuse. The form sough to establish how much representation was available to each party, what kinds of questions the judges asked, and whether the judge remained patient and understanding with the parties. The most difficult part of the form was to note whether the judge seemed to be influenced by the race or socioeconomic status of the plaintiffs or respondents. From the standpoint of an inexperienced observer, it was difficult to notice this type of bias. However, this was the whole point of the position.
The most important lesson, and the very first one I learned, was that the legal system is not perfect. I had the greatest respect for the judges I observed, but they were only human. This was the most humbling part of my job. Seeing those individuals was inspiring: they get up every single day to hear these heartbreaking stories and somehow are able to perform under that pressure. However, even these experienced, honorable professionals made mistakes. These mistakes could often result in grave results for both the petitioners and respondents involved. I realized that what I was doing there was important for this reason.
I benefitted from the community service requirement in a few ways. I was able to become familiar with the DC Courts system, and I was able to observe multiple hearings that gave me insight about domestic violence cases. More importantly, I saw what people, often those who were less fortunate than me, were going through. These people sometimes lacked resources for formal representation, but still needed their rights to be vindicated. I felt fortunate to be given the opportunity to volunteer my time to make any kind of difference. Working with DC SAFE was humbling, more than anything else.
My community service was with the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability at One Judiciary. I was tasked with an assignment of researching the world of social media and how it relates to government ethics. It was an interesting topic to me as I used to live on social media in my previous profession. Reading up on major cases like Pickering and Ceballos and then other, smaller cases across the country, trying to hone my research skills and find perfect cases for analogizing, certainly had its value, particularly so early in my law school career.
Not only did I hone some incredibly useful skills for life as a lawyer to help people throughout my career, but it also opened other avenues. One of the two offices I had contacted early in the semester about community service—none other than the Public Defender Service, Mental Health Division—reached out to me about a placement in the spring semester, not doing community service but as a full-on clerk.
Elizabeth Limones Carrillo
My biggest project while at Total Family Care was developing a training program that the director could provide to young parents just learning that their child may have a mental health disability. I conducted thorough research where I learned of all the important milestones children should be hitting and incorporated those into my training in order to teach parents to start looking out for early signs of mental disabilities. There are so many young mothers who do not know the milestones that their children should be hitting because they are so young and have not received any education on it. I also incorporated different signs that young adults physically show when they have mental health problems.
I included different types of services that parents can seek in their community and information regarding social workers who can assist with finding the right psychologist for their child. Sometimes, this simply meant helping to make follow up appointments with the psychologist or physician. Many of the parents are low-income and work long hours. They cannot always make it to their child’s appointments or physically call to make an appointment for their child. By the time their shift ends, the office is closed. My training materials emphasized that parents should expect more from their community support worker so that parents are not at risk of losing their job because they have to attend to so many appointments during work hours.
Providing our children with adequate mental health care promotes a healthier community. Children will learn ways to be in control of their bodies and be less likely to get into legal and educational trouble. This in turn will help keep our youth off the streets. They will be less likely to become victims of injustice on the streets and in the school system.
I worked with the Energy Justice Network for my community service. My main task during the first semester was to compile the requirements for the state-level FOIA equivalents for Pennsylvania (Right to Know Act and the Sunshine Act), Maryland (Public Information Act), Virginia (Freedom of Information Act), the District of Columbia (Freedom of Information Act), and the federal government.
I was mainly tasked with finding out two pieces of information: (1) the costs of the information including fee waivers and (2) in which formats the government would be required to supply the information. After gathering all the information in one place, I then created template letters to streamline the FOIA request process. This was an important task for the Energy Justice Network because they place a significant number of FOIA requests (and also operates on a shoestring budget, so efficiency is incredibly important) on a variety of topics ranging from waste incineration to water fluoridation. Being able to quickly use a template with all the details required and to know that all the information about that jurisdiction’s FOIA requirements are present is crucial.
One of the biggest surprises in completing these tasks was the disparities in the ease of access to the information. For instance, a key question to answer was whether these jurisdictions offered fee waivers and what the requirements were to qualify. Maryland and Pennsylvania both had websites that answered these questions very clearly and made it very easy to search the requirements (both offer fee waivers for nonprofits and information in the public interest). Virginia’s website, on the other hand, was extremely difficult to navigate and, after a significant amount of searching, I found that the state does not offer FOIA fee waivers, though this was not spelled out anywhere on the website or in the text of the law.
As a result of a class conversation in Law & Justice, my community service consisted of creating an organization, the National Association Against Police Brutality (NAAPB). After looking at the laws concerning police officer discretion, use of deadly force, prosecutorial discretion and judicial discretion, I learned that government does not have any official data to track how local and state law enforcement and judicial officials interact with citizens in the criminal justice system except for the statistics it tracks for the Bureau of Prisons.
Because there is no data that accurately reflects the magnitude and totality of police brutality and criminal justice abuse, I created a Facebook page for NAAPB as a space within social media to attract attention to the instances of police brutality, prosecutorial misconduct, and judicial abuse. The page now has just over 3400 followers nationwide.
NAAPB’s Facebook page created a contact point for the organization from victims. Eventually, claims of police brutality began to come in. Without any solicitation from us to our followers, people were sending descriptions of their police encounters to our inbox. As this pattern occurred I realized that these folks are victims of a system that gives them no place to get help that they know of. That was when a light went off in my head and I found the functional value of the organization to an individual person.
After receiving at least two dozen police brutality complaints over the last 9 months from our Facebook page, NAAPB started designing and developing an online platform to allow citizens all over the country to report their instances of police brutality and get local legal, spiritual, and mental wellness help. The online platform is called PIRP which stands for Police Incident Reporting Platform. The concept of PIRP is to empower victims by connecting them to lawyers, ministers, psychologists, and community organizations that will assist in their fight to get justice. As a corollary to that purpose, PIRP allows NAAPB to track and report data on police encounter patterns for agencies and areas.
Over the last month, I have spoken with progressive state legislators and leaders who are interested in policy suggestions that NAAPB has to offer. As NAAPB increases its membership base and financial resources, the next frontier is to collectively work with our partner service organizations to engage the political process to elect a generation of leaders that recognizes the need for equality at every stage of the criminal justice process.
In conclusion, as a first year law student, this community service requirement allowed me an invaluable experience in confronting an issue that shapes much of our understanding as Americans of what our justice system represents. This work increased my motivation and understanding of why there is such a need for lawyers in the social justice arena. Without doing this project and on this specific topic I may have never gained the new perspective of why many of the social problems exist in my own culture and community. I am thankful for the community service requirement and even more thankful for the cooperation and encouragement from the Administration, Dr. Cahn, and my supervising attorney Ms. Keri Nash.
For my community service, I joined with another student who had created the National Association Against Police Brutality. NAAPB seeks to address one of the “collateral consequences” of institutional racism, police brutality and killings, too many of which have not been effectively reported and tracked. The April 22, 2015, NAAPB event served the purpose of having a solution-oriented conversation regarding institutional racism and introducing the Police Incident Reporting System to the School of Law and the Washington D.C. community.
As one of the core members of the group and a local D.C. organizer I was committed to ensuring that the Washington, DC, progressive community was in attendance on April 22nd, the day of the event. My efforts included editing material and letters that would be used to contact media networks and local civil rights organizations. I facilitated the printing of color flyers by a local printer who donated his services. I contacted local media producers and personalities to schedule interviews for the organization’s founder on WE-ACT Radio and WPFW. I contacted local and influential clergy that I had organized with in the past (around the Simple Possessions Act legislation) and scheduled meetings with them to inform them about how the work of NAAPB would be able to empower their constituents. Additionally, I reached out to the UDC Law community to ensure the event was being publicized through our multiple media channels, and solicited funding for refreshments that were served. My organizing efforts were conducted during March and April and included work multiple weeknights and weekends.
Many professors, alumni and students shared that the April 22nd NAAPB was one of the best attended and most meaningful events held at the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law. Many other 1L students gave their time to volunteer on the night of the event, as they also understood the significance of their involvement as future social justice advocates.
It was important to me to choose a community service project that was aligned with the principles and reasons for my attending law school at this time in my life. The fact that NAAPB was founded by a classmate makes it even more meaningful as an initiative that is in line with the David A. Clarke School of Law’s social justice mission. The 1L class includes students who are committed to being social architects that will leave the world a little more just because of our presence in it.
The Office of Open Government (OOG) is an independent office under the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability (BEGA,) whose mission is to ensure that D.C. government operations, at every level, are transparent, open to the public and promote civic engagement.
At the Office of Open Government, I assisted the Director with research of the Open Meetings Act. The goal was to propose new rulemaking to expand the Act’s scope. I researched the legislative history on the federal Open Meetings Act as well as the equivalent of the Act in other states. I noted that D.C.’s Open Meetings Act lacked an appeals process and did not clearly state what agency oversaw the Boards and Commissions.
During my community service, I also attended two events--the Best Practices Symposium and the Mayor’s Transition Team’s Government Transparency Town Hall. I listened to presentations about the current D.C. government transparency efforts, the efforts done in other states, and proposals for changes in government transparency. These events allowed me to stay abreast about local D.C. issues and how the government can be more open with its citizens regarding its work in the community.
I served with the Legal Counsel for the Elderly (LCE) for approximately 60 hours. For 40 years, LCE has championed the dignity and rights of Washington, D.C.'s elderly by providing free legal and social work services to those in need — empowering, defending and protecting vulnerable seniors.
The majority of my projects dealt with wills and probate court for our clients. My supervising attorney was the lead for the Probate & Estate Planning (PEP) section. Following a rigorous introduction to client confidentiality and the mission of the PEP section, I performed research on client cases involving wills and probate.
One case involved a client who badly needed to get home repairs on her property which was properly given to her by her late husband in his last will and testament. A question remained for our client on whether a claim by a daughter from a prior relationship had been legally settled and approved by the court. If it had not been legally resolved, then our client would not be able to claim clear title to the property and would not be allowed to secure financing for repairs and maintenance to her home.
This task involved several trips to D.C. probate court where I researched client files that were more than 17 years old. The age of the original probate required me to file an archives request which took two weeks to retrieve and get to the probate office. Upon retrieval and review, LCE established the client’s full and clear title to the property giving her legal right to enter financing agreements on the property.
The research I conducted and the probate work involved all women clients. Were it not for legal help organizations like LCE, they would find themselves further impoverished and unable to understand and seek the available rights and remedies. Without legal tools and remedies to help themselves through the maze of wills and probate, these women will be systematically deprived of what they need to stay out of poverty.
The majority of my community service hours went to the Employment Justice Center. Each week, I would interview low-income clients and relay specific advice from staff attorneys regarding employment law. I helped with client intake and client follow up. Often, I would draft demand letters to employers in situations of wage-theft. The staff attorney would review my letters, and this helped me to develop more effective communication. On one occasion, I drafted a letter for reinstatement on a case involving a wrongful termination. The letter received praise from one of the long-time staff attorneys, and I was very pleased, not for myself, but because I knew it would serve the client well.
In the process, I learned how to gather relevant facts, and how an experienced attorney would approach them. I also learned the impact of a wide range of employment issues on low-income residents of DC. It wasn’t difficult to connect with the clients’ struggles and life hurdles they faced every week. It was inspiring. The most satisfying part of the volunteer work was seeing the clients return, and inform me that the attorney’s advice or the demand letters I drafted actually worked in helping their situation. I was elated to find out that in 2014 EJC helped put nearly $800,000 back into the pockets of low-income workers of DC. It’s clear that EJC provides a valuable service to the community, free of charge.
My first experience was at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. First, I completed an orientation online where I learned the relevant law relating to the homeless, hypothermia, and the rights citizens of the District of Columbia have when there are hypothermia conditions. This orientation taught me many things I did not know, and my first thought was how important it was to apprise the homeless and the at-risk community for being homeless about the reformation of the laws regarding hypothermia. The most important part of the law that I learned was the District of Columbia is required to provide a safe place to stay at night if someone does not have one when the temperature drops below thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit. There are many people who stay out on the streets because they do not know about this law. Also, several people die from exposure to hypothermia conditions every winter in the District of Columbia.
The volunteering was to be done outside of the Family Resource Center on Rhode Island Avenue. My first shift was mainly a training process. I listened to the more experienced volunteer as he asked to speak with homeless, or at-risk of being homeless, families, and when they agreed he would tell them they had rights when there were hypothermia conditions. He handed out literature about their rights to remind them in the future and to share with others. This literature included social service information. Before long, I was speaking with the families. I really enjoyed communicating with families and telling them about their rights. They were always very appreciative of what I had to say.
My second placement in completing my community service was with New Hope Housing in Arlington, Virginia. Overseen by a supervisor, I was mostly put in charge of helping to facilitate client programs and I was given the opportunity to shadow the lawyers of those residents in the home who had legal guardianship issues. I was also placed in charge of was sorting through all donated items. This included determining whether the clothing was suitable for wear and also cleaning and sorting the clothing so that they could be distributed as my supervisors saw fit.
While completing thirty-three hours of community service at New Hope Housing, during initial intake interviews, I learned about the rights of the applicants and what type of information the applicant had to divulge when entering the group home, such as marriage status or any type of medication they may be taking. Other questions included if the client was a veteran, had any children they were trying to bring into the home with them, and if so, whether there were any guardianship issues or if the client had been appointed a legal guardian, and the reasoning behind it.
I worked with the Equal Justice Center Workers’ Rights Clinics on Wednesdays and Saturdays as a Client Intake Volunteer. Under the direction of the clinic coordinator and on-site attorneys, I completed intake questionnaires and interviewed workers. Following this, I would summarize the information for the on-site attorney who would then provide me with advice to relay to the worker. The attorneys often asked for my perspective on the issues and would allow me to give my opinion on what I believed to be good alternatives for the worker. I would also draft and help file documents or demand letters with the appropriate agency. Once I had drafted a letter, the supervising attorney would review it for errors or edit it to improve the language. This further developed my ability to draft letters and complete forms suitable to present to other parties.
Not only was this experience helpful in developing my writing skills, but I was also able to develop relationships with the staff and clients. Throughout my time volunteering with the Center, I had many clients who returned and personally asked to work with me. Although the shifts and presence of volunteers changed every week, I had been able to develop relationships where the client trusted me to work on their claim so they would wait until I had returned to volunteer. This reaction, while unexpected, was encouraging and rewarding. It was nice to know that I had positively impacted those individual’s lives despite the nature of the advice I was required to give them.