New “language access” plan for Pennsylvania courts

A 2015 report by the Sheller Center was part of the advocacy that led to this week’s announcement, by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, of a statewide “language access” plan for Pennsylvania courts.

The Center’s 2015 report, which focused on the state’s Magisterial District Justice courts, found that people with limited English proficiency (LEP) were sometimes expected to proceed without interpretation services, or with “help” from friends or family. The Center initiated its study after the ACLU filed two complaints with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, highlighting the lack of access to interpreters by two litigants in the Pennsylvania courts. In response to the efforts of a coalition of advocates for LEP individuals, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts finally developed a plan that represents a big step forward for Pennsylvania.

The biggest challenge ahead will be implementation and monitoring of the plan in the state’s 60 judicial districts.  Sheller Center students are embarking on a follow-up project to the 2015 study to assess whether the language access needs of LEP individuals are, in fact, being met. “Our observations have shown the progress that courts have made towards providing language access services, but we have also identified many areas for growth,” said Lisa Burns, a 2L working on the project as part of the Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic.

Click here for a WHYY report summarizing the Supreme Court announcement.

Insights into working with children and youth

“Working with Youth” was the topic of yesterday’s panel discussion among Alysha Clark and Brianna Shaw, both Temple Law students, and Liz Yeager, of the HIAS Immigrant Youth Advocacy Project. The panel was part of a Social Justice Advocacy Institute created by Rubin-Presser Fellows Paige Joki and Sela Cowger and supported by the Sheller Center.

Ms. Yeager discussed the challenges of representing children and youth in the stressful context of immigration proceedings. And Ms. Clark and Ms. Shaw, both of whom had had years of personal experience as wards of the child welfare system, spoke candidly about how it had felt to have lawyers, social workers, judges and others intervene in their lives.  Some key themes: really listening (too often, young people are talked at, or talked around); accountability – i.e., doing what we say we’re going to do, an especially important issue for young people who have experienced too many broken promises; and managing our resources as advocates so as to be able to help clients most effectively.

Alysha Clark commented: “Conversations like this are the perfect start to understanding what forms and methods of advocacy are effective with youth and which are not so effective. It is particularly excellent to have these conversations early in our legal careers.”  And Brianna Shaw put it this way: “It’s important for all attorneys to be knowledgeable about working with youth because it comes up in so many aspects of public interest work. Oftentimes, we take our own personal experiences as youth for granted — but a lot can be learned from situating yourself in the shoes of youthful clients.”

“Social Justice Advocacy Institute” debuts

Rubin-Presser Fellow Paige Joki, with the assistance of co-Fellow Sela Cowger and the support of the Sheller Center, has created the Social Justice Advocacy Institute at Temple Law.  The Institute will cover a variety of topics through four one-hour sessions in the evenings during the last week of March to help students understand how best to work with individuals from various backgrounds and understand systemic issues that can impact the daily lives of clients.  Each session will be held in the main Law School building, room K1C from 5-6 pm. The topics are:

  • March 27: Working with Interpreters
  • March 28: Working with Youth
  • March 29: Creating Collaborative Social Justice Partnerships Between Private Firms and Public Interest for Pro Bono and Low Bono Work
  • March 30: Working with Survivors of Trauma


Making sense of the legal headlines

If you’re confused about the legal issues in the headlines these days, you’re not alone; it’s complex stuff, and there’s a lot of it. In an upcoming series of panel discussions organized by the Sheller Center, law faculty and others will sort through the confusion in several key areas, with the goal of clarifying what the law says now, what changes are proposed, and where the controversies are. These discussions are open to the Law School, the University, and the community.

Dates and topics are: Border Security and Interior Enforcement, 3/28; Crime and Policing, 4/3; The Refugee and Travel Bans, 4/10; and Climate Change and Federal Policy, 4/18. All sessions are from noon to 1:00, in Klein Hall (the main Law School Building) K1D.  More information is here, together with an opportunity to RSVP (not required, but helpful). Please share the information with anyone who you think might be interested. We hope to see you!

Social justice spotlight: Kimya Forouzan

This week’s Social Justice Spotlight features Kimya Forouzan, a 2L in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. 

For many law students, witnessing the recent executive orders regarding immigration have been quite difficult. For me, it hit close to home. My parents immigrated here from Iran, one of the nations restricted by Trump’s “Muslim Ban.” While this was difficult to witness and process, these actions only reinvigorated my commitment to volunteering with immigrant communities.

Each week, I spend half of the work day volunteering with Nationalities Service Center, where I coordinate and escort clients to necessary medical appointments as a part of the Refugee Health Access team. Additionally, I work as a volunteer interpreter by appointment at HIAS, interpreting for Farsi-speaking clients. Often times, this work is exhausting, both mentally and emotionally.

However, with all that is happening in the current political climate, I find it critical to make the time to contribute to social justice and do what I can to forge a path towards a healthy, safe life in the United States for those in my ethnic community.

Kimya (on right) and her sister, supporting a campaign sponsored by Franklin Fountain to raise money for Nationalities Service Center by selling homemade Persian ice cream. 

A victory for families

Kameelah Davis-Spears, a Philadelphia parent, was stunned when her child was sent to a juvenile delinquency facility as the result of a fight in school. She got a second shock when, after his return home, she got a summons — for child support.

It turned out that the “child support” was money that she was going to have to pay the City to cover the cost of her son’s incarceration. Upset, she asked the City’s lawyer whether she should get legal advice. His reply, she said, made clear to her that she had better just start paying.

Fast forward through months of garnished wages, which put a hole in the family’s already-inadequate budget, to yesterday’s hearing before a committee of City Council. The hearing was prompted by the release of Double Punishment, a report by Justice Lab students Wesley Stevenson (3L), Kelsey Grimes (3L), and Sela Cowger (3L). With help from Prof. Colleen Shanahan, the students had conducted a months-long investigation on behalf of their client, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project.

Wes, Ms. Davis-Spears, Lauren Fine of YSRP, and others testified before a crowd of parents, child advocates, City officials, social service personnel, Sheller Center supporters (including Steve and Sandy Sheller), and others. Council members, who clearly saw the practice as unjust, expressed appreciation for the students’ work.

And the hearing brought one more surprise: an announcement by Cynthia Figueroa, Commissioner of the City’s Department of Human Services, that the City will put an end to the practice. As the witnesses and Council members pointed out, that announcement is only a first step; making sure that collection efforts actually stop will take work. But it’s a victory — and, in an era in which fines, fees, and forfeitures are exacting double and triple punishment from poor families, it’s national (as well as local) news.

At the end of a long day, Prof. Shanahan delivered her own verdict: “I’m so, so proud of our students.” So are all of us at the Sheller Center.