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Just Thoughts is the blog of the Empire Justice Center, New York’s statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy public interest law firm focused on changing the “systems” within which poor and low income families live. Here staff and guest authors will share stories, announcements and perspectives on timely issues related to our work.    



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Bilingual Orders of Protection to be Issued on Long Island


Empire Justice Center and other advocacy groups that support domestic violence survivors were thrilled to learn that family courts on Long Island began issuing bilingual Orders of Protection in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and Russian on January 4, 2016.  In response to a letter from a coalition of more than 10 Long Island based organizations, Office of Court Administration Executive Director Ronald Younkins announced the extension of a pilot project to issue Orders of Protection (OPs) in languages understood by limited English proficient (LEP) participants in family court proceedings in Nassau and Suffolk Counties.  The coalition of advocates had urged that bilingual OPs be made available on Long Island because of its large immigrant population and the potential dangers that arise when OPs are not understood by the people to whom they are directed. 

New York LEP residents have always been actively involved in family courts.  Victims of domestic violence will often petition in family court for OPs against abusers.  If a victim alleges that the abuser continues to represent a danger , the family court judge will issue a Temporary OP specifying what, if any, contact is permitted between the alleged victim and abuser prior to a hearing.  A temporary order will be extended if there is proof at a hearing that the abuser poses an active threat to the victim.

Until this year, however, OPs were only issued in English.  LEP domestic violence survivors often have access to language assistance and support from advocates, and interpreters are present in the courtroom.  However, when they return home with an order they are unable to read or understand, they will have difficulty if they need to seek its enforcement from the police or the court.  Additionally, it is problematic for the courts and law enforcement to insist on adherence to an order to stay away or refrain from certain activity if the order is in English and the LEP perpetrator cannot understand it.

New York began a pilot project in 2015 to issue bilingual OPs in English and Spanish in selected counties throughout the state.  The success of the pilot led the Office of Court Administration to expand the project to other counties and additional languages in 2016.  When Long Island advocacy groups realized that neither Suffolk nor Nassau County was included in the expansion despite the large LEP population in both counties, we wrote to OCA’s Executive Director and the Honorable C. Randall Hinrichs, the Tenth Judicial District Administrative Judge who oversees the administration of state courts in these counties, asking for reconsideration.  As a result, OCA determined to include Long Island in the 2016 expansion.

The availability of bilingual OPs will improve the safety of Long Island residents and may save lives.  Empire Justice and other advocates will continue to press for translation of bilingual OPs and other vital court documents into Haitian Creole, Korean, Polish, and other widely used languages to offer greater protection to as many people as possible.  But for today, we can celebrate that the family courts are poised to take an important step in safeguarding our communities.









Long Island Immigrant Children's Project: Much Accomplished, More to Do!

Issue Area: Immigrant Rights

Advocates from Empire Justice Center’s Long Island office recently met with a wide range of local advocacy and social services organizations under the leadership of the Long Island Health and Welfare Council and the Hagedorn Foundation.  The meeting was arranged to brainstorm strategies for responding to the needs of the thousands of unaccompanied minor children from Central America arriving on Long Island.  This loose affiliation very shortly became the Long Island Immigrant Children’s Project.  At the initial meeting, we created three work groups to focus on provision of legal representation, mental health services and support, and education advocacy with school districts to ensure registration and enrollment.  Shortly after thereafter, the Hagedorn Foundation formed a Long Islander Funders Collaborative with the Long Island Community Foundation, Long Island Unitarian Universalist Fund, Rauch Foundation, and the Sisters of St. Joseph to develop funding for the Project.

In early May, Project advocates reconvened to report on the activities of their workgroups and plot a path forward in preparation for a second wave of unaccompanied children while still grappling with the needs of the first wave.  The Project has made a remarkable amount of accomplishments so far, but there are still many challenges that need to be faced.  Here’s what the workgroups have been able to accomplish so far:

Funding

Anne Erickson, President & CEO of Empire Justice Center, participated in the initial conversations discussing possible sources of funding for Long Island.  The LI Funders Collaborative, including Empire Justice and consisting of foundations that have long supported legal services and social justice agencies, amassed an initial $125,000. The Collaborative gave grants to Catholic Charities, CARECEN, Safe Passage, and Touro Law Center to increase capacity to provide legal services to recently arrived children.  These dollars were leveraged by $50,000 from the New York State Office for New Americans.  An additional $400,000 grant from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock permitted Hofstra and Touro Law Centers, CARECEN, and Catholic Charities to hire additional attorneys and paralegals for intake and representation.


Legal Services Workgroup

As a result of this new infusion of funding, LI organizations will be able to represent most of the children in deportation proceedings in US Immigration Court, and some of those children or family members are also being represented at Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) guardianship hearing s in Family Court.  Empire Justice Center has one full-time immigration attorney, Jackeline Saavedra, and receives additional help with client representation from the Touro Law Center Immigration Clinic attorney.  CARECEN and Catholic Charities are each doing 15 intakes a week, and Make the Road has started taking cases as well. 

The LI organizations are greatly aided by programs in New York City that staff the initial intakes at U.S. Immigration Court in Manhattan.  There are also attorneys who will take referrals on asylum cases for kids not eligible for SIJS.  This collaborative work permits all of the organizations to increase their caseload.

Even with these great strides, organizations are still not able to meet current needs, and are exploring how to somehow link or refer clients to pro bono or private pay immigration attorneys. 

Education Workgroup

The Education workgroup, including Empire Justice attorney Linda Hassberg, has focused on school districts that illegally prevent children from enrolling and/or fail to offer them appropriate placement and opportunity to pursue degree programs.  At least in part due to the group’s advocacy efforts, both the New York State Education Department (SED) and the New York State Office of the Attorney General’s (AG) got involved and have been instrumental in enforcing enrollment mandates and proper programing.  They’ve provided new regulation, community meetings, investigations, and settlement agreements between the AG and several school districts. 

The very fact that state officials have reached out to us to collaborate is very encouraging and much has been accomplished.

There are still big gaps in our ability to reach, inform, and provide assistance and support to families experiencing problems with school enrollment and programming.  We haven’t been successful in getting SED to mandate that enrollment, residency, and program information be provided in languages other than English, even though it’s required by Title VI.  Some LI school districts are doing a good job and the AG can be an ally in encouraging others to interact more meaningfully with LEP communities, but this remains a big challenge.

Mental Health Services Workgroup

This workgroup, including Empire Justice Social Worker Paralegal Cheryl Keshner, reported an expansion of services.  This includes some capacity to address the issues of Spanish-speaking children, but the majority of recently arrived kids are not getting the support they need.  Many have suffered trauma and their parents and other caregivers are struggling just to integrate them into their households and support them financially.  Although the group cited a lack of overall capacity, there was also discussion about families’ reluctance to access mental health services because of the stigma, and families’ lack of time and energy.  Many parents/guardians are working 2-3 jobs, have transportation problems, and need to care for their whole family.

We talked about overlap between education and mental health.  Although it wouldn’t address the entire problem, making use of referrals for special education for students with emotional disabilities, and connecting to funded programs in Nassau and Suffolk Counties that provide school and community based youth services would help.  For education and mental health outreach, involving faith-based programs and leadership, as well as ESL teachers and other school personnel who work with these families.


Project advocates are energized by these meetings, and feel that they accomplished a great deal in the months since the first forum.  Clearly, there remain many large issues that will require dedicated resources, creative collaboration, and hard work to tackle.  There are predictions that a second wave of unaccompanied Central American children will come to Long Island this summer.  We’re now concentrating on solidifying the progress that's been made, reaching out to more families and children in need, and continuing to convene the workgroups to strategize about new methods of addressing problems. We here at Empire Justice Center look forward to working with this dynamic group!



Tags: unacompanied minors | immigrant kids | legal services | mental health services | education services





Assisting Non-Custodial Parents to Modify Child Support and Arrears Payments

Issue Area: Child Support

Legal services providers and community agencies throughout New York State are seeing an alarming increase in the number of very low income parents burdened with onerous child support obligations and arrears debt that adversely affect their ability to avoid homelessness, remain employed, cope with illness and disability, and maintain a relationship with their children. For the most part, legal services offices do not offer legal representation for child support matters.  Parents are left to navigate the family court and child support enforcement system without any assistance, often without success.

With this posting, we urge legal services and other community agencies to consider offering some guidance to pro se poor parents who may be entitled to a modification of their support obligation or can reduce their monthly arrears payments based on their limited income. Using the steps outlined below, parents can determine the amounts owed, whether there is a basis for modification, and which forum will entertain an appeal.  We do not assert that offering guidance will make up for the lack of legal representation and assistance available, but many parents may be able to obtain some adjustment to the amounts they must pay on their own if they understand what information they need to provide to either the county’s Child Support Enforcement Bureau (CSEB) or the court.  Although not a comprehensive list, here are some straightforward ways to assist parents to proceed pro se:


1.  The first step is to understand what is being garnished from their paycheck or disability payment.  Does the amount represent current child support, arrears, an “add-on” to arrears (see below for explanation), or some combination of these?  If the payment is made to the NYS Division of Child Support Enforcement and parents know their account number, they can obtain  a PIN number by applying online at the Non-Custodial Parent page on the OTDA website at https://www.childsupport.ny.gov/dcse/non_custodial_parent_services.html, or by calling the Child Support Helpline at 1-888-208-4485. With a PIN number, parents can view their accounts and figure out whether they are paying ongoing support, arrears, and/or add-ons and how much they owe.  They can also obtain copies of their child support orders that the Division has on file.  A copy of the order is needed to petition in family court for a modification of support.

2.  Reduce the monthly payment amount.  In some cases, the Child Support Enforcement Bureau (CSEB) will reduce the amount of monthly payment, even though it cannot reduce the total amount of arrears.  If part of the garnished amount is the “add on,” an administratively imposed garnishment that is applied when a child support respondent is in arrears, application can be made to reduce or eliminate this portion of the amount of the arrears payment.  The “add-on” portion of the payment will be reduced or eliminated if the payment of the add-on brings the individual’s income below the self-support reserve (135% of poverty for a household of one – this year the SSR is $15,755). The self-support reserve is adjusted annually and is posted on-line at https://www.childsupport.ny.gov/dcse/child_support_standards.html.   There is an application on the NYS DCSE webpage for Non-Custodial Parents, entitled Request for Review of Additional Amount that must be submitted along with a Statement of Income and Expenses and other income documentation such as a tax return or a Social Security statement.  These forms are also available at https://www.childsupport.ny.gov/dcse/non_custodial_parent_services.html.  When completed, the forms are submitted to the local child support enforcement office. The addresses of the local offices are available at https://www.childsupport.ny.gov/DCSE/LocalOffices_input.action.  To read more about the add-on see 18 NYCRR 347.9(e) and 09 ADM-02, available at http://otda.ny.gov/policy/directives/2009/ADM/09-ADM-02.pdf

3.  Apply to stop collection of arrears from exempt income and to correct mistakes.  If the parent’s sole income is SSI, public assistance, or another exempt source, there is an application on the same Non-Custodial Parent Page of the NYCSE website to stop garnishment from a bank account. This application, Mistake of Fact and/or Exempt Money Claim Form, should also be submitted if the support amount being collected does not agree with the order amount or if the order has been vacated.   If parents are receiving exempt income in a check that is being garnished, they should submit the Request for Review of Additional Amount and Statement of Income and Expenses described above and state that the income being garnished is exempt.

4.  Reduce amount of ongoing child support. The parent must petition in Family Court for this relief and it can be difficult without legal assistance.  However, the state now offers DIY (do-it-yourself) programs with which pro se petitioners can work their way through a series of questions that result in a petition and affidavit to file in court.  The link is http://www.nycourts.gov/courthelp/diy/familycourt.html and the program is quite good.  Currently, it is available in English and Spanish.  The Spanish version produces a petition in English for submission with a translated copy in Spanish for the litigant. 

If the support order includes an amount of arrears that must be paid periodically in addition to ongoing support, a request to reduce that amount should be included in the same petition.  Please note that there is no reference to arrears payments in the standardized or DIY petition forms, so the request will have to be added by the petitioner.

5.  Cap the amount of arrears owed at $500.  Family Court Support Magistrates cannot reduce the total amount of arrears owed, except in very narrow circumstances.  However, pursuant to the Family Court Act § 413 (1) (g), a noncustodial parent can petition the Family Court to limit the amount of arrears owed to $500 if his/her income was below the federal poverty line for a single individual at the time the arrears accrued.  Case law dictates that the parent must make application to the court for such relief and must show that the income limitation was due to disability or some other inability to earn income.  Proof that the individual is receiving public assistance should be sufficient as well.  If appropriate, this claim for relief needs to be added manually to the DIY or  standardized Petition for Modification, as neither form includes it. 

A cap on arrears may provide the best relief to indigent parents, but there are few published decisions to date in which the petitioner was successful.  If you are interested in offering legal representation to a client who can assert such a claim for relief, please free feel to contact us for assistance.



Tags: child support arrears | child support | family court | support modification | garnishment