Challenging family detention from an international human rights perspective

Family detention is a pressing issue because of the psychological harm created by detaining children. One of the three family detention facilities in the U.S. is located in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

The Social Justice Lawyering Clinic has worked with Juntos, a member of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, to try and get families released. The Coalition’s work has focused on getting Pennsylvania to revoke the state license for the facility, which was accomplished in January.

However, Berks appealed the loss of its license, and the facility remains open pending the appeal.  And even if Berks is eventually shut down, the federal government is continuing to look for ways to open new facilities in other jurisdictions.

Now, Juntos seeks to broaden the conversation about family detention by showing that it violates international human rights norms. On September 17, the U.S. Human Rights Network convened a Human Rights Tribunal in Philadelphia, providing an opportunity for people directly impacted by human rights violations to testify before a group of jurists comprised of U.N. officials and a member of the Philadelphia City Council. We helped to frame the issues in terms of international human rights law.

Jack Farrell, a third-year law student, states: “Families and children are held arbitrarily, in violation of their due process rights and under prison-like conditions that fail to meet international human rights standards. Closing Berks is imperative for the sake of American domestic policy and human dignity.” For the tribunal, Jack, along with his partners, created a new fact-sheet summarizing the human rights violations at Berks.

From words to practice: implementing Philadelphia’s new wage theft ordinance

Each week, hundreds of thousands of workers across Pennsylvania are paid less than they are owed, or are not paid at all. This troubling fact comes from a 2015 report from the Sheller Center, which also found that federal and state agencies lack sufficient resources to enforce these workers’ rights.

Could legislation at the local level help fill the gap? Advocates for low-income workers thought so. Last year, citing the Sheller Center report and other data, they urged Philadelphia’s City Council to take action. Council responded by unanimously enacting an ordinance establishing penalties for wage theft and creating a new office of Wage Theft Coordinator.

Passage of the ordinance was a big step forward — but then came a host of questions about how to implement it in practice. Social Justice Lawyering Clinic students Daniella Lees and Crystal Felix, working with Community Legal Services, tackled those questions last spring. Their product: an extensive set of guidelines for the City and its new Coordinator.

As Ms. Lees and Ms. Felix recognized, enacting a law is one thing; making it work effectively for real people is another. “The most difficult task,” Ms. Lees observes, “was figuring out how to make the new ordinance accessible to and useful for victims of wage theft. This involved considering the needs of individuals with limited English proficiency, recommending a community outreach program, and proposing approaches such as conciliation conferences.” The guidelines also address such issues as how the city should determine which complaints to accept, and what standards should be used in the adjudication process.


Supporting low-income tenants

Lewis, Guarneri and Richardson
Paul Lewis, Martha Guarneri, and Palmer Richardson

If you haven’t yet heard of RAD, you probably will soon; HUD’s new “Rental Assistance Demonstration” program promises to reshape the nation’s public-housing landscape. RAD focuses on the fact that, because of funding shortfalls, public housing units have fallen into serious disrepair.  The solution?  Convert public housing complexes to “Section 8” properties, owned by private landlords who will receive subsidies to enable them to rent to low-income tenants.

But these conversions can pose a host of issues and risks for tenants. For that reason, Community Legal Services asked the Sheller Center’s Justice Lab clinic to take close look at the law, the federal guidance, and the experience of other cities.

In collaboration with Prof. Colleen Shanahan and CLS Managing Attorney Rasheedah Phillips, students Martha Guarnieri, Palmer Richardson, and Paul Lewis worked through a thicket of acronyms, statutory requirements, policy questions, and data.  Their report, Philadelphia Rental Assistance Demonstration Program Advocacy Guide: Protecting Tenant Rights and Long Term Affordability, includes recommendations for keeping converted units affordable, as well as for protecting tenants’ rights — to regain housing if they are displaced, to pursue grievances, and to organize.

Ms. Guarnieri noted some of the tensions in the process.  “On the one hand, advocacy is most effective when tenants themselves are at the forefront of the fight for their rights. On the other hand, the RAD program is so confusing that it can take months of dissecting long, wordy statutes and regulations to begin to understand it. HUD needs to make information about the program more accessible to the tenants who will be affected by it.”

CLS’ perspective?  “CLS’ Housing Unit has been advocating locally with PHA and private developers, and nationally with HUD as part of a working group for better protections for tenants and a long-term affordability plan. The [RAD Advocacy] guide is a really big step forward in these efforts…”

Dramatizing immigration-services fraud

“I can help you qualify for a Green Card under the 10 year law!  … Look at all the people I work with [gesturing to the long line in the waiting room] — it’s because I know what I am doing!”

Those are lines from one of the skits developed by students in the Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic — Michael Ahlert, Melissa Castillo, and Anika Forrest – who were looking for a way to educate immigrant communities about the widespread problem of legal services fraud. The students worked with Friends of Farmworkers, a Philly non-profit that has developed a special project on “Stopping Notario Fraud and the Unauthorized Practice of Law.”

“We wanted to do community outreach in some way that was engaging and different from the traditional lecture or PowerPoint,” Anika stated. And they did: the skits (in English and Spanish) are entertaining but also make serious points – only attorneys can give legal advice, don’t sign blank forms, ask for translation when you need it, and beware of promises that are too good to be true. The students performed the skits at the Northeast Regional Library, to audiences of ESL students from various countries (some of whom also joined in as actors).

“It was valuable to have a chance to think about how you actually empower communities,” Anika reflects. “We often assume that, once a law [such as the law prohibiting unauthorized practice of law] has been passed, the problem’s over.  But it’s important to engage communities in the implementation process.”  The Philadelphia School District and other immigrant-services organizations have asked for copies of the skits for use in their own training programs.

Helping unrepresented litigants navigate the courts


There was a time when most people who went to court over landlord-tenant problems, consumer disputes, child custody, and other such matters were accompanied by lawyers.  But that time is long gone; now, because of the shortage of even moderately-priced legal services, most Americans must represent themselves in these “routine” — but vitally important — matters.

But representing oneself is no picnic for a layperson, given the almost impenetrable complexity of legal rules and procedures. Students from the Sheller Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic waded into this problem this year, working with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to find ways of making justice more accessible to pro se litigants.

Law student Madeline Rathey was on the team, focusing on the area of appeals from eviction orders.  “It was eye-opening, and frustrating, to try to figure out how to navigate the system, and then to simplify it for pro se folks,” she says.

Despite the frustrations, Madeline feels positively about documents that she and her colleagues drafted – including a much simplified form for people seeking waivers of court fees, and clearer information on how to get an eviction stayed pending appeal.  The team also recommended some changes to court procedure, such as elimination of the requirement that litigants submit a formal memorandum with every motion (a near-impossibility for pro se folks).  And, Madeline notes, an even bigger step forward would be the creation of a Help Desk at the court’s filing office – since most people sooner or later need some hands-on help, not just forms and instructions.

Madeline’s work on these problems won’t end here.  She graduated this spring, and her next stop is a position with Mid-Penn Legal Services in Reading, representing low-income clients in landlord/tenant cases.

A thank-you to Emily Bock

emily_bock_temple_0Newly graduated and on her way to a judicial clerkship, Emily Bock was named a “Law Student of the Year” by National Jurist magazine for her work on a host of social justice causes — including a number of Sheller Center projects.  As a member of the Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, Emily co-authored Barriers to Justice: Limited English Proficient Individuals and Pennsylvania’s Minor Courts.  She represented low-wage workers in wage-theft cases.  She created the National Lawyers Guild Expungement Project, and worked with the Center’s Prof. Jennifer Lee to ensure that the project would continue after she graduated.  And she was the Center’s first-ever communications guru, helping us publicize the Center’s work via Facebook and the web.  Thank you, Emily!


Finding time for some important questions

The students participating in the Sheller Center’s “practicum discussion series” this spring are all working in real-life legal settings –a women’s rights organization, a district attorney’s office, an immigrant services organization, a growing business, and others.  What happens when students have a chance to talk, across subject-matter lines, around some of the questions that confront new lawyers — especially those committed to social justice?

As it turns out, quite a lot.  Many of our conversations are about day-to-day problems, such as how to relate to clients and to supervisors.  Others involve larger themes, such as last week’s issue of how young lawyers can think about, and where necessary challenge, the “status quo’s” that they encounter in the world of legal practice.

Some of those status-quo’s — aspects of legal practice, that is, that don’t necessarily make sense but are accepted because “this is how it’s done” — involve how lawyers work together (or don’t). Others have to do with how clients are treated.  Still others involve laws and practices that result in systemic injustices.

We encourage students to question these practices.  So when one student saw unrepresented clients struggling to make sense of nearly-incomprehensible Family Court procedures, he came up with an idea for a chart that would help simplify things.  Another student was struck that the younger lawyers at the government agency where he works don’t last very long; perhaps, he reflected, some aspects of the work environment at the agency could be changed.  Another student wondered why, in immigration proceedings, single men seem to be at a disadvantage as compared to women and children – even though their legal claims are essentially identical.

Too often, students and new graduates are viewed as “baby lawyers.”  We don’t see it that way.  In our view, young lawyers have fresh insights and perspectives that our sometimes conservative profession badly needs.   Hopefully, our discussions are leading students to see themselves in that light too.

Successful advocacy makes families!

Successful advocacy makes families! On Friday March 11th, 3L Malcolm Ingram and Assistant Clinical Professor Sarah Katz successfully completed an adoption finalization for a client. Ms. M has been the primary caregiver for her godson, who has physical and intellectual disabilities, since he was an infant.  Her godson is now 12 years old, and now she is his legal parent!

Pictured areTLAO adoption Master Sante Reaves, Ms. M, Ms. M’s son, Malcolm Ingram 3L and Prof. Sarah Katz.

Undocumented immigrants “are contributing plenty”

How much?  For 2013, the figure for Pennsylvania was $139 million in state and local taxes — plus an undetermined amount in federal taxes.  Prof. Jennifer Lee of the Sheller Center points out, in this article from, that the study recently released by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy shows that “there is another narrative out there about immigrants, apart from the prevailing one we hear a lot in this presidential election year.”

Victory for clients seeking disability benefits

Colleague Spencer Rand from the Temple Legal Aid Office discusses his students’ work on behalf of clients whose applications for disability benefits were denied by the Social Security Administration.  It took an appeal to federal court and a second round of hearings, but in the end, the clients won — with the result that they “can now live successfully and independently in the community.”