UCONN LAW ALUMNI SAY PANDEMIC BRINGS NEW CHALLENGES TO LEGAL AID WORK
Article from UConn Today
Ramona Mercado-Espinoza ‘86 faced the heartbreaking limitations of legal work in a global pandemic when she spoke to a client at Greater Hartford Legal Aid who was trying to escape an abusive marriage. The courts are mostly closed, and it’s not possible to file for a contested divorce.
“Domestic violence does not stop in a pandemic,” Mercado-Espinoza says. “My client can’t initiate divorce proceedings, and she is scared to file for a restraining order. She has no options.”
The lawyers at Greater Hartford Legal Aid, many of them UConn Law graduates, say the pandemic has intensified the suffering of the state’s poorest residents. The crisis has created new legal problems on matters ranging from housing to education to health care, and it has simultaneously closed off potential sources of relief.
“We were all just humming along, and then out of the blue this happens,” says Lynn Cochrane ’82, a staff attorney who represents parents and students in special education. “Now everything is completely changed and we’re being forced to make it all up as we go.”
The agency has remained open, with attorneys and other staff working remotely. The workload is increasing. Scores of clients need help to litigate denied unemployment claims. Families need representation to ensure that virtual learning addresses children’s personalized learning plans or disabilities. Still more clients face delays in receiving SNAP assistance, commonly known as food stamps, and other badly needed benefits.
Read more of the article HERE.
CHILDREN'S EDUCATION RIGHTS
GHLA’s Education Unit attorneys have created six short videos, three in English and three in Spanish, to inform parents about their children’s educational rights. The videos focus on Participating in a Planning and Placement Team (PPT) Meeting, Progress Monitoring for a Special Education Student, and School Expulsions.
3rd ANNUAL GHLA FOUNDATION CELEBRATING LEADERS FOR JUSTICE
In July 300 people joined the GHLA Foundation at the Gershon Fox Ballroom in downtown Hartford for a vibrant 3rd annual CELEBRATING LEADERS FOR JUSTICE gala.
Vice President & Associate General Counsel at United Technologies Corporation and GHLA Foundation Board President Zack Osborne kicked off the evening, noting that the GHLA Foundation is the fundraising arm of GHLA, and works hard throughout the year to help provide equal access to justice to the lowest income residents of Hartford. The Foundation relies on the strength and passion of its large Board of Directors comprised of representatives of most of the area’s premier law firms and corporations.
An-Ping Hsieh, recently retired General Counsel of Hubbell and former GHLA Board member, was honored as an Individual Leader for his longstanding and generous support of GHLA. Day Pitney LLP was honored as Law Firm Leader for their decades-long financial and other support for legal aid. The Corporate Leader honor went to The Hartford, for their partnership with GHLA, and their commitment to strengthening neighborhoods, fostering stability and increasing economic opportunity.
Keynote speaker former Attorney General of the United States Eric H. Holder, Jr. celebrated GHLA’s and the honorees’ commitment to equal access to justice. Invoking Dr. King’s observation that “only when it is dark enough can you see the stars” Attorney Holder said “we see [those stars] in lawyers who use their energy and resources to help those who are in the greatest need. Lawyers who serve as an example for the rest of us, of what it means to use the power of the law to fight for the greater good.”
Standing With Immigrant Families
Greater Hartford Legal Aid submitted comments in December 2018 opposing a new proposed federal “public charge” rule issued by the Department of Homeland Security. The federal proposal would tighten immigrants’ eligibility for green cards and count use of non-cash benefits such as SNAP and Medicaid against applicants for a green card. As the GHLA comments point out, rules for immigrants’ eligibility for these programs already were restricted in the 1990s, so immigrants only very rarely qualify. Troublingly, the federal government estimates the cost-savings of its proposal based on the expectation that people who are not even subject to the rule will forgo benefits out of fear and confusion. As a result, as the proposal itself states, the rule change will cause significant social cost: housing instability, bad health outcomes for children and pregnant women, and significant losses to local economies from reduced Medicaid payments and SNAP revenue. In opposing this federal rule, GHLA coordinated with other legal services organizations and allied community groups in Connecticut, as well as with the national Protecting Immigrant Families (PIF) campaign. GHLA attorneys Lucy Potter and Giovanna Shay, GHLA Singer Fellow Attorney Christy Gill, and UConn Law Community Justice Fellows Shehrezad Haroon and Deborah DiCristofaro all contributed to this effort. Staff Attorney Lucy Potter was interviewed about the proposed rule in in the CT Mirror, here
We All Bear the Cost of Evictions
Summary of OP-ED by GHLA Attorney Giovanna Shay
On September 5, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford awarded its annual Stowe Prize to writer and professor Matthew Desmond, whose work highlights the impact of evictions on poor people in America. Desmond is the author of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which follows eight families facing eviction in Milwaukee, WI. At Princeton, where Desmond teaches, he has founded The Eviction Lab, a data visualization project that aggregates statistics about evictions nationwide, demonstrating their impact in particular areas of the country.
Desmond’s talk highlighted that Hartford has one of the nation’s highest eviction rates. This heightened rate of evictions in Hartford could reflect the particularly concentrated nature of poverty in Connecticut’s capital city. However, Desmond’s work suggests that we rethink cause-and-effect. As the Stowe Center wrote in its announcement of the award: “According to [Desmond], eviction is a cause, not just a condition of poverty, as eviction’s fallout can lead to loss of a home and possessions, loss of employment, being stamped with an eviction record, and being denied government housing assistance . . . .”
At Greater Hartford Legal Aid, our Housing Unit represents indigent families facing eviction, we deal every day with the impact of evictions on the lives of our clients and their families. We witness our clients’ anxiety; their struggles to find replacement housing; their children’s school disruptions; and the ways in which they are forced to forego other necessities to try to keep their families housed. READ GIOVANNA'S CT MIRROR OP-ED HERE.
GHLA Joins Senator Blumenthal in Calling for Disaster Housing Assistance Program for Hurricane Maria Survivors
Today, July 3, 2018, GHLA joined with U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal and Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin in calling on FEMA to offer the same benefits to the survivors of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico last fall, as FEMA has offered to survivors of Katrina and other disasters that hit the mainland. U.S. Senator Blumenthal demanded that FEMA activate the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP), which would provide long-term recovery assistance to Hurricane Maria survivors. Currently, 21 families in Connecticut remain housed in hotels through the FEMA Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program. An unknown additional number of families who fled Hurricane Maria's devastation to come to Connecticut are doubled or tripled up, living with friends and family. Many of the families who remain housed through TSA in Connecticut have significant medical or other challenges that make them particularly vulnerable. FEMA threatened to end the TSA program on June 30th, leaving families housed through TSA to rely on the State's limited homeless diversion resources and private funding through the United Way. Happily, on June 30th, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF) and the Washington, DC-based law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP filed a proposed nationwide class action on behalf of the families on TSA in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Asencio et al. v. FEMA et al. This morning, the federal court in Asencio extended the temporary restraining order (TRO) in that case, directing FEMA to maintain the FEMA TSA program at least through July 23, 2018. GHLA continues its ongoing advocacy on behalf of Hurricane Maria survivors in the Hartford area, which has included an in-house legal clinic in March 2018, and representation of individual families seeking assistance in rebuilding their lives.
Target Settles Discrimination Lawsuit
CONNECTICUT LAW PROTECTING ABUSED
IMMIGRANT YOUTH TAKES EFFECT JULY 1, 2018
On May 9, 2018, in the final hours of the legislative session, Connecticut's General Assembly passed HB 5185, a bill that will protect abused, abandoned, and neglected immigrant youth ages 18-21 by providing a pathway in Connecticut state courts for them to obtain the findings that they need to apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a form of federal immigration relief known as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). GHLA attorneys and legal services policy advocates worked for passage of HB 5185 through the 2018 legislative session, along with organizations including New Haven Legal Assistance Association, Connecticut Legal Services, the Center for Children's Advocacy, Quinnipiac law school clinics, Connecticut Students for a Dream, the Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. HB 5185 was in part a response to a call by the Connecticut Supreme Court in a case GHLA litigated with pro bono co-counsel McCarter & English on behalf of a teen who fled death threats in Honduras, In re Henrry. In its decision in the Henrry case, in December 2017, the Supreme Court urged the General Assembly to clarify Connecticut state courts' authority to make SIJS findings on behalf of youth ages 18-21. The Governor signed Public Act 18-92 into law on June 4, 2018, and it goes into effect on July 1st, 2018.
SERRANO V. GAITOR CLASS ACTION HOUSING SETTLEMENT
GHLA attorneys Cecil Thomas and David Pels have negotiated a settlement with City of Hartford ensuring that approximately 1700 Hartford households can receive relocation assistance that they should have been paid when their apartments were condemned. This agreement is the most recent chapter in class action brought on behalf of displaced tenants to whom the City failed to pay the relocation assistance required by state law. At a hearing on March 21, 2018, the Superior Court preliminarily approved the settlement, which requires the City to set up a $2.75 million fund to pay overdue relocation assistance benefits to class members, up to $4500 per household. Households can begin applying after June 22nd. The settlement will also fund a professional notice and claims administration firm to disburse the funds to class members who apply. Under the agreement, the City will withdraw its appeal of an earlier order in this case. As in other class actions, there will be a period of notice to the class before the court approves and enters the agreement as a final order. As Attorney Thomas stated in an article in the Courant, all of these households were living in “buildings with serious problems, and those problems were not their fault,” http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-news-hartford-housing-settlement-20180321-story.html. This monetary settlement is the latest in a series of agreements in this matter. Other agreements have made important changes to the City of Hartford relocation assistance program, ensuring that displaced tenants now receive a reasonable amount of time in temporary housing, clear written explanations of their rights under the law, and access to the modest payments they are entitled to in order to transition to a new home.
GHLA Hosts a Legal Clinic for Evacuees from Puerto Rico
On March 15, 2018, GHLA teamed up with Make the Road Connecticut to host a legal clinic for families evacuated from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. A Make the Road (MTR) organizer, Pedro Bermudez, who is working closely with families staying in Hartford area hotels through FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program, has connected GHLA with evacuee families. Many evacuee households have questions about their status with FEMA assistance, how to appeal FEMA denials, or other civil legal services issues. At the clinic, GHLA attorneys and bilingual secretaries were able to assist about 10 families, and make intake appointments for a few more. This collaboration has enabled GHLA to better understand the challenges facing the evacuees, who are some of the newest additions to our client communities. GHLA’s all Spanish-speaking support staff, which includes individuals whose families were personally affected by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, has been critical to this effort. Following the clinic, Pedro Bermudez said: “On behalf of all our families, THANK YOU for all the legal help and support that you and the GHLA family are giving us. Your initiative represents a new source of hope and empowerment for all of us.”
In re Henrry P. B-P: CONNECTICUT SUPREME COURT
PROTECTS VULNERABLE IMMIGRANT CHILDREN
On December 14, 2017, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued a decision in In re Henrry P. B-P, which confirms the state’s role in safeguarding the right of vulnerable immigrant children to access special federal immigration protections. The appeal was brought by Greater Hartford Legal Aid (GHLA) and pro bono co-counsel McCarter & English on behalf of Henrry, a teen who fled death threats in Honduras, and his mother, both residents of CT. Immigrant children can apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services until their 21st birthday. However, in order to apply, they must first obtain certain factual findings from a state juvenile court. In 2014, Connecticut’s General Assembly passed a law that provided Connecticut’s Probate Courts with the authority to make these findings but the new law did not specify what would happen to youth who turned 18 while their case in Probate Court was pending.
As teens, Henrry and his sister made the treacherous journey from Honduras to the U.S. alone, after individuals who had killed their father and paternal grandfather began threatening their lives. Upon entry to the U.S., they were detained and reunited with their mother in Connecticut. Before Henrry turned 18, his mother, represented by GHLA, petitioned the Probate Court to make SIJ findings on Henrry’s behalf. Despite a request for an emergency hearing, Henrry was denied a hearing before he turned 18, and then was denied the findings because he had turned 18. Henrry and his mother appealed the Probate Court’s order to Superior Court, which dismissed the case because Henrry was 18. They then appealed to the Appellate Court, where two judges voted to affirm the Superior Court’s dismissal, and Judge Lavine of the Appellate Court dissented, concluding that Connecticut courts possessed this authority.
Henrry and his mother then filed a petition for certification to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which was granted. Enelsa Díaz of GHLA argued the case in September 2017. Less than three months later, the Supreme Court issued a decision concluding that Connecticut courts possess jurisdiction to make SIJS findings even though Henrry had turned 18, reversing and remanding for further proceedings.
Our Supreme Court concluded that, even if a child turns 18 during the state court proceedings, Connecticut courts can make the factual findings required for immigrant children to seek Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a form of federal immigration relief for abused, neglected, or abandoned children. The decision means that Henrry, and other teens in Connecticut, can continue seeking safety and stability in the U.S.
Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Robinson wrote: “Authorizing the Probate Court to make juvenile status findings with respect to a minor child who has turned eighteen years old during the pendency of the petition is entirely consistent with the overarching purpose of [Connecticut’s statute], which is to facilitate our state courts’ responsibilities with respect to juvenile status petitions.” “[W]e decline to frustrate the purpose [of the statute], namely, to facilitate access to the state court findings necessary as a predicate step toward federal juvenile status, and we conclude that the Probate Court was not divested of statutory authority to make those findings when Henrry turned eighteen years old during the pendency of the petition.”
This decision will help protect youth in our state who requested findings before their 18th birthday but were denied relief because they turned 18 before a judge could hear their case. However, this does not address the issue of the youth who have already turned 18 before their case could be filed, and who may still have relief available to them under federal immigration law until 21. In this decision, our Supreme Court also urges the General Assembly, as a public policy matter, to address this issue affecting these “gap kids” with some expanded legislation.
Lead counsel for Henrry and his mother, GHLA Managing Attorney Enelsa Díaz, says, “this decision will help young Connecticut residents to access relief that is available to them under federal immigration law.” GHLA Litigation & Advocacy Director, Giovanna Shay, adds: “we hope the General Assembly will respond quickly to the Supreme Court’s call to give young people in Connecticut ages 18-21 a clear pathway to seek Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.”
The case was argued by GHLA Managing Attorney Enelsa Díaz, who was supported by GHLA’s Litigation & Advocacy Director, Giovanna Shay. Attorneys Charles D. Ray and Brittany Killian of the law firm of McCarter & English co-counseled the case in the Connecticut Supreme Court.
[Left to Right] On the steps of the Connecticut Supreme Court at the In re Henrry P. B-P Argument: GHLA Attorneys Jin Kim & Ramona Mercado-Espinoza; GHLA Litigation & Advocacy Director, Giovanna Shay; Managing Attorney of GHLA's Family & Immigration Units, Enelsa Diaz (lead counsel for Henrry and his mom); GHLA Deputy Director, Jill Davies; GHLA Executive Director, Jamey Bell; GHLA Attorney Thamar Esperance-Smith.
[Left to Right]: Lead Counsel, Managing Attorney of GHLA's Family & Immigration Units, Enelsa Diaz; Co-Counsel,
Attorney Charlie Ray of McCarter & English; GHLA Litigation & Advocacy Director, Giovanna Shay.
Honored by the Connecticut Health Foundation
On November 13, GHLA was proud to be honored by the Connecticut Health Foundation. The Foundation highlighted GHLA because "oral health issues are not at the forefront of integration or health equity conversations and there are few oral health leaders in Connecticut who are dedicated solely to advocacy for health. Greater Hartford Legal Aid, Inc. (GHLA), which was established over 50 years ago, is a highly respected advocacy organization in Connecticut with a focus on providing legal support and fighting for the rights of low income communities."
GHLA brought ground-breaking federal class action litigation in 2000, Carr v. Wilson-Coker, challenging the scarcity of oral health care to very poor families on Medicaid. The case settlement in 2008 resulted in significant increases in the number of participating dental providers and fundamental restructuring of the State’s oral health program. GHLA also developed a health equity fellowship program that focused on building oral health equity and integration in Connecticut.
GHLA’s oral health initiatives align with CT Health’s health equity objective to maintain and improve oral health access for low- income families.
GHLA, Proud Recipient of The George C. Hastings Community Service Award
GHLA was the most recent recipient of The George C. Hastings Community Service Award, a $5,000 contribution presented annually to a community service organization that has provided outstanding service to Greater Hartford. The second annual award was presented during Robinson & Cole’s alumni reunion at Dunkin’ Donuts Park. The award bears the name of the firm’s former partner, George C. Hastings, who practiced at Robinson & Cole from 1957 until his retirement in 1995. Hastings had a 60-plus-year career as a valuable lawyer and an energetic community leader. From 1994 to 1999, he served as president of the Greater Hartford Legal Aid Foundation’s board of directors and remained active until 2016.
West v. Manson: Services to Protect the Children of the Incarcerated
GHLA recently helped to reach a settlement agreement that will bring family law seminars and self-representation materials to incarcerated people throughout Connecticut. The settlement was reached in the class action West v. Manson, which covers the women's facility in Connecticut, York Correctional Institution. GHLA represents the class of children of women incarcerated at York, and the ACLU of Connecticut represents the class of women who are now or who may be incarcerated there. For many years, women inmates at York CI had access to legal representation in family cases, under the West v. Manson consent decree. This 1988 decree had ordered vast improvements in the women's prison conditions. Recently, the State faced an equal protection challenge to the unequal provision of family law services to men and women prisoners. The Department of Correction (DOC), unable to expand the service required by West to all of its facilities, asked the U.S. District Court in Connecticut to end the part of the West court order that required family law representation for women under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The PLRA imposes tough requirements on consent decrees in prisons, and losing the service for women was highly likely. Through several months of negotiation with the DOC and its lawyers at the State Attorney General's Office, an agreement was reached. It allows the direct legal representation requirement to end, but expanded access to family-related legal information to men's and women's prisons. Extensive self-help materials on family law from CTLawHelp, www.ctlawhelp.org, and family law seminars, provided by DOC's contract attorneys, will be made available to incarcerated persons on a gender neutral basis throughout the state. On September 7, 2017, U.S. Magistrate Judge Holly Fitzsimmons approved the parties' settlement agreement. GHLA Staff Attorney Lynn Cochrane is lead counsel for the plaintiff class of children. She was joined in this negotiation by GHLA's Litigation Director Attorney Giovanna Shay and GHLA Family Unit attorney, Linda Allard, as well as by counsel for the class of incarcerated women, Attorney Dan Barrett, Legal Director of the ACLU of Connecticut.
Standing with Survivors
You may not know her name, but Lhakpa Sherpa is the world’s most accomplished female Everest mountaineer. She has successfully summited Everest seven times – more than any other woman in history. But when Lhakpa’s marriage to her long-time climbing partner was coming apart, she needed Legal Aid’s help. An ethnic Sherpa from Nepal, Lhakpa did not receive a formal education. Lhakpa says that when she was growing up in Nepal, girls did not attend school. So, when she separated from her husband, Lhakpa went to work as a housekeeper in the Hartford area in order to support herself and her two daughters. A local domestic violence program referred Lhakpa to GHLA. Collaborating closely with Lhakpa’s domestic violence advocate from the shelter, Lhakpa’s GHLA attorney represented her in her divorce trial, in which she obtained sole custody of her girls. Members of Lhakpa’s legal team also accompanied her to criminal court when she was a victim-witness in a case the State prosecuted against her ex-husband. Today, Lhakpa and her girls are living in their own home, and she is working and putting her life back together. Lhakpa summited Everest for the seventh time in 2016, following her divorce, and she brought a memento of GHLA to the top of the world. (An earlier attempt to summit for the seventh time in 2015 was cut short by the earthquake and avalanche in Nepal, which struck while Lhakpa was on the mountain). Lhakpa has recently been featured in various publications, bringing renewed attention to her climbing accomplishments. With the support of GHLA and domestic violence advocates, Lhakpa is once again hopeful for the future.
Commitment to Community
In an effort to better serve the legal needs of our low income population in Hartford County, GHLA has been partnering with agencies in towns to deliver our services where they are needed the most. In the past few years, towns like Bristol, East Hartford, and Enfield have seen a dramatic change in their demographic and ethnic composition. Lower income people comprise an increasing percentage of the people who live in these towns. More people face job loss, evictions, the need for economic supports while transitioning to other work, and an array of family and other legal issues that accompany such instability. This is happening at the same time that the economic and state budgetary crisis has led to a significant reduction in resources for human services. GHLA has responded to this through direct legal outreach in those communities and partnering with local towns in community driven initiatives. The attorneys field a range of inquiries from clients. Attorney Rafael Rodriguez Cruz focuses on family, education and disability issues. Attorney Lucy Potter focuses on benefits issues and child support.
In Bristol, we have partnered with the Bristol Community Organization (BCO) to have Attorney Rodriguez Cruz and Attorney Potter meet with clients at BCO’s office on 55 South Street. Attorney Rodriguez Cruz is there every other Thursday from 9: 00 AM to 2:00 PM. Attorney Potter goes once a month. Services are available by appointment by calling BCO’s number (860) 584-2725.
In Enfield, GHLA has partnered with Neighborhood Services to have Attorney Rodriguez Cruz at their office every Tuesday from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM at the office on 100 High Street, Enfield, CT. Attorney Potter also goes once a month. Services are available by appointment by calling Neighborhood Services at (860) 253-6396.
In East Hartford, GHLA has partnered with the Public Library to have Attorney Rodriguez Cruz, on Thursday and Fridays from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM, at their recently renovated building at 840 Main Street, East Hartford. Services are available without an appointment or by calling (860) 541-5052. Residents of East Hartford can also check the schedule on the Library’s website.
A Champion of Justice
GHLA Attorney David Pels was honored on April 14, 2016 with the Connecticut Bar Association’s Charles J. Parker Legal Services Award for his 43 years of dedication to the pursuit of justice for low-income residents of our region. Since joining GHLA in 1997, he has represented clients in about 3,600 cases. His advocacy has strengthened tenants’ rights by preventing the ejectment of unnamed tenants in foreclosure cases, requiring relocation assistance to tenants displaced by code enforcement, strengthening protections against retaliatory evictions, and requiring landlords to purchase smoke detectors. He has also represented tenant associations during redevelopment by housing authorities. Attorney Pels is a most deserving recipient of this significant recognition.
Attorney David Pels
Community Justice Fellows
As Community Justice Fellows at GHLA, we are both the “face” of GHLA in the community, and a link to the broad and comprehensive services GHLA provides. On a practical level, we spend three afternoons each week meeting with people and conducting outreach at Community Health Services (CHS), a community health clinic on Albany Avenue in Hartford. We provide legal informational pamphlets to anyone who’s interested, and we direct people facing legal problems towards someone who can help them – whether it’s an attorney from GHLA, a private attorney, or someone from another nonprofit or government agency. We also provide information and support to the staff of the health clinic, to help them try to address the non-medical, sometimes legal, issues that affect their patients’ health. So on a more fundamental level, we are a part of efforts to expand and coordinate how the community supports our residents’ ability to meet their basic needs. On a human level, we get to meet a lot of interesting people and hear first hand about their lives.