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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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Directing Cornell’s Legal Aid Clinic: A Fulfilling and Worthwhile Experience!

Issue Area: Civil Rights

This fall, I’ve had the opportunity to serve as a visiting clinical professor at Cornell Law School, where I am directing the Cornell Legal Aid Clinic.  I am still working at Empire Justice approximately one day a week, and I will return to full-time status in December.  This has been a great experience for me, but before I elaborate on that, I need to thank everyone at Empire Justice, especially the people with whom I work most closely, for letting me do this.  I know it is not easy to cover the caseload when I am only at Empire Justice one day a week, and I am so grateful for everyone’s flexibility, which has allowed me to teach in the clinic.
 
Although everyone might not agree, I see this opportunity as a “win-win-win” situation – yes, triple win!  First, it has been great for me on a personal level, as I really enjoy teaching, and this has given me the opportunity to do so.    Second, it has allowed me to spread the word about Empire Justice to a relatively new audience (Cornell and the Ithaca legal community).  I have brought several cases to the clinic from Empire Justice, and by working on the cases, the law students have learned about Empire Justice and the work we do.   Finally, by being exposed to new types of cases and new areas of the law, I have broadened my horizons, which hopefully will make me a better lawyer when I return to Empire Justice.  I have supervised clinic students in an unemployment insurance hearing (which we won!) and in a brief submitted to the Division of Human Rights, both of which were new experiences for me.   I have also been collaborating on many clinic classes with Professor Susan Hazeldean, who directs the LGBT Clinic.  By working closely with her and her clinic students, I have learned much more about legal issues affecting LGBT clients and the LGBT community, which is also an exciting new area for me.

Happily, by all indications, it appears that the law students gained much from their experiences, as well.  First, the students were very grateful for the opportunity to work on real cases.   As one student expressed, “The biggest reason why I wanted to work for the Legal Aid Clinic was because I wanted to stick my hands in the dirt and do some real lawyering instead of just slogging through abstract concepts in a lecture hall.  Wish fulfilled.”   Even more gratifying, the law students gained firsthand knowledge of the issues facing disenfranchised New Yorkers, which resonated on a personal level.   As one student explained, “As a patron of fast food establishments, I never gave much thought to the employees who were making my food and coffee.  In taking our client’s employment discrimination case, however, there was a reminder that the people working behind the counter are people too and not just machines that churn out coffee and a sandwich.  In fact, I no longer go to the fast food restaurant here in Ithaca, knowing that the employees are being poorly treated by their managers and the corporation.”  Because of insights such as these, I know that my Cornell experience will provide many lasting benefits when I return full-time to Empire Justice.









Bringing Together Language Access Advocates on Long Island


For many years, I have worked as a legal advocate and social worker with immigrant communities on Long Island.  During this time, I have witnessed the many difficulties which my clients have experienced in negotiating the system, obtaining benefits from government agencies, gaining police protection, accessing healthcare and understanding information about their child’s educational needs.  These difficulties are often compounded when there are language barriers or cultural misunderstandings.  When government funded programs, such as the police and social services, do not provide proper interpretation or translation, the results can be disastrous, leading to homelessness, a lack of protection for victims of domestic violence or other crimes, inadequate healthcare and even the removal of the children from the household.
 
Many other advocates on Long Island have shared these concerns.  Even though Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits recipients of federal funds from practicing national origin discrimination, we were aware that this was happening on Long Island on a daily basis.  For this reason, in October 2010, several advocates from a diverse group of programs and agencies came together to form the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition (LILAC).

LILAC has been active in addressing the disparities faced by limited English proficient (LEP) community members on Long Island  by documenting these problems, reaching out to program administrators and policy makers, letting them know the challenges our community members are experiencing, reminding them of their legal obligations and providing them with technical support.  We have seen positive results, including the assigning of more bilingual workers, increased staff training, improved signage and translations of vital documents.  We are also very encouraged by the passage of New York State Executive Order No. 26, which mandates state agencies with frequent public contact to provide comprehensive interpretation and translation services, and by the enforcement efforts of New York State’s Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice.  In alliance with other organizations, LILAC has been instrumental in gaining the passage of executive orders in Suffolk and Nassau counties which mandate county agencies to provide interpretation when needed, as well as translation of vital documents into six languages.  Yet we know that there is still so much work to be done and that we need to continue strategizing and learning to move forward!
 
On Friday, November 15th at Touro Law Center in Central Islip, LILAC will hold its second annual conference, “Navigating a Roadmap for Language Access: Celebrating Our Successes, Addressing Our Challenges.”  The purpose of this conference is to continue raising awareness and seeking solutions to the need for language access and cultural competence in our communities. 

The conference will begin with an overview of language access presented by Michael Mule, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice (and former employee of Empire Justice Center).  Workshops will feature a number of renowned speakers including Jose Perez of Latino Justice/PRLDEF, who will address language access and law enforcement issues, the Office of the NY State Attorney General discussing voting rights and Dr. Jack Levine of Nassau University Medical Center presenting findings of a study on the disparities in services for Hispanic families with children with autism.  Hot topics such as Language Access and Disaster Recovery, and Language Access and the Affordable Care Act will also be covered, in addition to numerous other topics. 

The afternoon will conclude with a panel of Suffolk County representatives discussing their plans to improve language access services on a local level.  We hope that participants will leave this conference with a better understanding of the issues and acquire the tools and resources necessary to improve their agency’s services, to assist their community members or to defend their own right to language access. 

To register online, go to www.longislandlanguageadvocates.org.  Early registration ends November 8th, so please register now for a reduced rate.  We look forward to seeing you there!



Tags: language access | limited English proficient | LILAC | New York State Attorney General





60 Minutes Gets it Wrong


CBS aired a 60 Minutes story on October 6, 2013, featuring Senator Tom Coburn (R - OK), who claims that the Social Security disability system is being “gamed,” and is in need of an overhaul.  The truth is that close to 12 million American workers and their families depend on the Social Security Disability programs for life-sustaining funds needed to help pay their basic living expenses.  60 Minutes has unfortunately joined recent media mis-portrayals of these essential disability programs.

In March 2013, we responded to a similar report on NPR’s This American Life60 Minutes is guilty of many of the same misrepresentations and omissions.  The piece implies that the Social Security Administration has opened the floodgates for unemployed workers who cannot – or don’t want to – find jobs.  This simply isn’t true.  The standard to receive disability benefits is very stringent.  In fact, less than 40% of adult applicants are approved for benefits.

The 60 Minutes report is also highly critical of some lawyers who represent disability claimants before SSA and may engage in unethical conduct.  We also condemn any incidents of fraud, but in our view those incidents are indeed isolated.  We support protecting the integrity of the system.  In fact, claimants need advocates to navigate the very complex regulatory and adjudicatory world of Social Security.  That is one of our key roles here at the Empire Justice Center – we help those in need navigate the complex legal and medical maze of pursuing federal disability benefits.  We know firsthand the gauntlet our clients are made to go through.  In a time when Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) approval rates are declining, our success rate is over 80% - underscoring how necessary our services are to our clients.

Read some of the critiques of the 60 Minutes piece:



Tags: SSA | Social Security | 60 Mintues | This American Life





Empire Justice Center to “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes”

Issue Area: Domestic Violence

On Saturday, October 5, 2013, Alternatives for Battered Women, Monroe County’s licensed domestic violence organization, will hold its annual “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” event at Ontario Beach Park.  The Rochester office of Empire Justice Center is so proud to have a team walking this year.  This major event by Alternatives for Battered Women is their kickoff event for Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  The Walk raises funds to support their work with victims of domestic violence, as well as awareness of the topic. “Walk a Mile” was founded by a man, and stands as a call to action for all men to stop violence against women-and all victims.  The Walk is an international event, and for over a decade has had tens of thousands of participants and raised millions of dollars for local rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, as well as education and prevention programs.  To learn more about the local event, click here.  For more information on the history and mission of the Walk, click here.

 

Throughout the year, Empire Justice Center works hard to address domestic violence issues from a variety of angles.  From providing training and support to domestic violence organizations, legal advocates, and others to advocating for change to both legislation and public policy, we strive toward the goal of making the lives of victims of domestic violence, and all New Yorkers, better.  At the Walk, we’ll do this good work in stilettos—or sneakers!

 

Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior that is intentionally used by the abusive person to gain or maintain power and control over their intimate partner.  Coercive tactics can include physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, and economic abuse or threats.  Abusive conduct injures, humiliates, frightens, isolates, threatens, intimidates or manipulates its intended target. Where there are children in a home infected by domestic violence, they may also suffer consequences as witnesses or direct victims of abuse.  Domestic violence can happen in new, dating relationships, as well occur over time in more long-term partnerships without regard to gender, sexual orientation, age, race, faith community, and socio-economic status.  To learn more about domestic violence, visit the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence website.      

 

To learn how to create a local Walk a Mile team of your own, click here.  Please join Empire Justice Center in our support of this most worthy of causes--whether you do it with your feet or your pocketbook!  We also encourage everyone to participate in or host a domestic violence awareness event in their community in the month of October.  Together we can stop abuse.  



Tags: Empire Justice | Domestic Violence | Alternatives for Battered Women





A Peek at a New Resource for Domestic Violence Victims who are Limited English Proficient


A Peek at a New Resource for Domestic Violence Victims who are Limited English Proficient

 

Imagine for a moment that you are the victim of domestic violence and are enduring the ongoing physical and emotional violence of your abusive intimate partner.  Now, imagine that during a particularly dangerous attack, you call 911 so that the police will come and help you and your children.  The police arrive, but you are unable to communicate with them because you are a non-citizen and English is not your primary language.  Your abuser, on the other hand, speaks English well and, instead of talking to you, the police only interview your abuser because they don’t call for  an interpreter.   As a result, you have no way of explaining what actually happened from your perspective.  Later, a domestic violence advocate advises you to seek an order of protection in family court.  You are not really sure what an order of protection is or how to get one.  Your experience with the police has alarmed you and you are not sure how to even begin taking the steps you need to take to get help without language assistance. 

 

This nightmarish scenario is the reality for many domestic violence victims in New York State who are Limited English Proficient (LEP), meaning English is not their primary language and they have a limited ability to speak, read, write, or understand English.  An estimated 2.4 million residents of New York are LEP.

 

Unfortunately, many LEP victims of domestic violence are unaware that both state and federal law require the courts, the police, and other service providers to offer language assistance at no charge when LEP individuals seek help.  In addition to language barriers, victims may be hesitant to access the civil or criminal justice system because they fear losing custody of their children or immigration consequences, such as deportation and removal from the United States.  Lack of familiarity with the legal system, as well as economic, cultural and religious barriers may also conspire to erect additional barriers for victims in their attempts to stop the abuse they suffer.

 

We are pleased to report that Empire Justice Center has produced a pamphlet designed to address this problem by clearly outlining the language access rights of limited English proficient victims in Family Court and how to access other services.  The pamphlet will be translated into the top 3 most common languages requested in New York’s courts. In an effort to reflect actual experiences with courts and police, as well as the real life fears and barriers to seeking help for this project,  Empire Justice Center surveyed various domestic violence and legal services providers across the state and used the information to inform the text.

 

The new resource, “Seeking Protection from Domestic Violence in New York’s Family Court: Information for Immigrant Victims with Limited English Proficiency is now available in English.  It is easily downloadable and will shortly be available in Spanish, Russian, Simplified Chinese— in addition to English.  For organizations that would like to order copies of this pamphlet in bulk, they will also be able to do so through our website.  Stay tuned!  In the next few days we will reveal the translated brochures!!!



Tags: Domestic Violence | Limited English Profiiciency