Author Archives: ssullivan

Disabling mental health conditions, developmental disabilities and violence

In the emotional wake of the tragedy a week ago in Newtown, CT, many of us are still privately mourning the loss of life and the true senseless nature of it all. However, a hope is that this will cause a nation-wide dialogue, opportunity for awareness, a watershed moment for policy changes for underserved populations of the mentally ill. I don’t need to debunk the myth that all individuals with mental health diagnosis are violent crazed homicidal individuals. I also don’t need to tell you that there is no meaningful correlation between the autism spectrum and mass killings. All of us probably know individuals with mental health diagnoses and also know even more individuals that probably suffer from mental illness but either fail or refuse to seek treatment for a myriad of reasons. We cast out the mentally ill in our society even though the mentally ill make up a healthy percentage of our population. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over a quarter of our adult population has a mental health diagnosis and of those, almost 6% are seriously debilitating. Yet, there is a social stygma attached to mental illness that prevents individuals from seeking meaningful treatment. For many mentally ill individuals, Medicaid is the only insurance available. Medicaid is, in fact, a key component to keeping many chronically and severely mentally ill individuals alive and independent in the community rather than in institutions. Private health insurance companies have not met the growing need for wider arrays of mental health services. It is common to find a private insurance company providing a few “free” counseling sessions but not constant psychotherapy and medication management for someone with severe schizophrenia or chronic depression. Usually, the answer is prescibing pills instead of intense case management. Medicaid is, as always, the safety net. With decreasing state budgets and political fall-out over health care reform, the future of Medicaid is uncertain. Medicaid will be around, but for who? How many services will be provided for this vulnerable population? If we, as a society, want to prevent senseless acts of violence, we need to also break down the stygma attached to mental illness, and provide the help and support to those affected, including caregivers. Instead of shunning the mentally ill at the onset, then mourning the loss in the end, we can reduce the risk of such travesties demanding more from our government and our private health care industry. Our clinic will continue to represent the mentally ill. We will strive to overcome the social stygmas assigned to our clients. We will rejoice in those clients’ special gifts, and we will lift them up with the support that they need through our advocacy. We will do our part. . . will you?

Success Just Isn’t Victory

As the holidays approach, all of us look around and within ourselves to appreciate all that life has to offer. I also reflect upon the past year to assess how our clinic has impacted people’s lives. Today, those impacts smacked me right between the eyes.

This morning, a student and I met with a couple to change the names of their American-born children so that they could more easily access benefits such as healthcare, education (things we take for granted). He and his wife were refugees that met in a camp in East Africa. He came to the United States, naturalized and sponsored her so that she could come too. He works full-time and goes to school full-time. She goes to school two days a week and also cares for their four children aged 7 and under. What was compelling was the perseverance and hope that this man had while enduring some of the worst genocide in the world’s history taking place in his country of origin. We truly take our freedoms for granted, but he and his family know the meaning of what it means to be free now that they are working hard and living in the United States. What our clinic is doing for them is minimal in the grand scheme of their life, but it allows them the ability to provide for their children and undo the administrative barriers to receiving benefits to which they are entitled.

In the same day, I received an order from Seminole County domesticating a foreign guardianship from Texas. This is a case we have been working on since the summer semester. The father of a terminally ill and permanently disabled Veteran wants to bring his son back to Florida so that he can be close to family when he dies. The father often wept on the phone when we would call to give him updates. Today, we were honored to call him to inform him that the papers were signed and he can now bring his son home.

Somedays I leave stressed, aggravated, frustrated and worried about whether our clinic will achieve all of the tasks to which we have obligated ourselves. Today, I feel joy, pride and a deep sense of satisfaction for my students’ achievement and for the strong foundation of public service upon which the clinic stands.

Happy Holidays to all.

Progress and Practice are a Pain

I had the opportunity of visiting the old courthouse in downtown Jacksonville on the last day before the Clerk’s office was closed. It was a zoo, to say the least. One of the old-timers was telling me that, while packing to go to the new courthouse, they found an old leatherbound records book dating back to the 19th century in the vault! The new courthouse is a much-needed addition to our community, but it’s opening is now delayed due to issues with the alarm/safety systems in the new building and it’s construction has been a long, hard-fought political saga. So, we are making progress. But with progress, comes growing pains.

The same could be said about clinics. We are embarking on a new semester with new students. Throughout the semester, students will make mistakes but all of that is part of the “practice” of law. Without those “mistakes” you can’t learn and you can’t make progress towards being a practicing attorney. Students need to adopt the perspective that it is better to make mistakes during the clinical experience than when they are in practice and don’t have the safety net of their professor and student colleagues. Jump in, be diligent, but also don’t be afraid to experience every opportunity given. Although there will be mistakes, and “pains” of learning the practice of law, at the end of the semester, much like the opening of the new courthouse, we will have made progress and we will all benefit from the experience.

How the Clinics Serve the Underserved

There has been a lot of discussion lately about how Florida Coastal “serves the underserved.” It is one of Coastal Law’s mission pillars. How does the clinic achieve that mission pillar? The Coastal Law clinical program is one of the most visible forms of service to the underserved and indigent community.

In the family law clinic, students assist individuals in abusive relationships get a divorce, represent children;s best interests in contested custody cases and assist fathers in establishing paternity so they can visit their children.

The disability and public benefits students challenge state agencies to help mentally retarded individuals maintain their community supports, they assist disabled children reaching the age of majority with maintaining social security benefits, and they assist parent caregivers in getting guardian advocacy over their disabled children so they can continue to assist in making healthcare and financial decisions.

The immigration clinic assists victims of domestic violence in filing their own petitions to become citizens, prevents refugees and asylees from having to return to their country of origin, and facilitates human trafficking victims rise above their enslavement to achieve permanent residency.

The consumer clinic represents victims of predatory lending, fights companies engaged in abusive debt collection practices, and defends against foreclosures so families can stay in their homes.

The criminal defense clinic defends individuals who cannot afford an attorney who have been charged with misdemeanors. Our clients come from diverse backgrounds and usually meet the Court’s indigency standards. They are individuals unable to afford a private attorney and don’t necessarily fit within the priorities of other local legal programs for the poor.

The students get real experience with live clients who, without the students’ help, would be in desparate circumstances. Individuals may debate the meaning of our pillar, “serving the underserved” but time spent in the clinic reveals the every day down and dirty meaning of the concept. The clinic is the lifesblood of Coastal Law’s mission pillar, “serving the underserved.”

Why the Clinic is the best experience in law school

The first full week of Spring 2012 DPBC was unbelievably busy. However, this week underscored the reason why clinic education is the best you can get while in law school. Students travelled to Tallahassee on Tuesday to observe an administrative rule challenge against the Agency for Persons with Disabilities in front of the Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH). They observed other students making opening statements, arguing motions, voir diring the expert witness, and direct/cross-examining expert witnesses.

They also were able to see examples of how the opposing counsel’s negative attitude in the courtroom affected the case. It was a crash course on professionalism, evidence, legal research, oral advocacy and administrative law. The next day, another student was allowed to prepare a client for a telephonic hearing, and then participate in the hearing. On Thursday, students attended classes and then I attended a contested guardianship for which a Senior Clinician had prepared several weeks.

A trial notebook was prepared, pleadings were organized, criminal backgrounds were placed in chronological order and a timeline was created. Friday turned back to “normal” with conference calls, client interviews and student meetings. New students contacted their clients by telephone, letter and in-person meetings. Although overwhelmed, it can’t be said that new students didn’t learn a lot this week and will continue to cultivate their skills. The busy week was indicative of why the clinic is the best way to learn how to be a good lawyer.

Do clients take a break at the end of each semester?

In the clinics, we represent “live” clients which means, students represent real individuals with real legal problems.  At the end of each fall, spring and summer semester, there is always a span of time between finals and the beginning of the new semester where students are generally not spending time in the clinic.  So, what happens to the clients?  Do they get a vacation too?  The short answer is “no.”  If a case gets scheduled for a hearing, if a client calls with an emergency, or if the client just needs general information, the student clinician is expected to address those issues–promptly.  At the end of each semester, students are required to send all clients letters explaining the transition from one semester to another.  These letters generally explain what each client should do if they need assistance during the break, as well as expectations for clinic hours for students and professors during the break.  One of the biggest bar complaints by clients is lack of communication by their lawyer.  By following these simple steps and setting expectations for how clients can stay connected to the clinic during a semester break, student clinicians are keeping the client well-informed. . .and a well-informed client is a happy client.