Child Abuse Registry Disproportionately Harms Black Workers and Families

Today, the Sheller Center, along with Penn Law School, released a report tracing the racial harms of the Registry. The report, titled Pathways to Poverty: How the ChildLine and Abuse Registry Disproportionately Harms Black Workers and Families, summarizes a year-long investigation by students finding that Black Pennsylvanians are more likely to be reported for child abuse, be placed on the Registry, and lose a job as a result. Further information can be found in our press release and the subsequent coverage with WITF, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Philadelphia Inquirer.

Helping families get the legal information they need

When people want legal information but do not have access to a lawyer, they tend to head for the internet. Sometimes, they find what they’re looking for. But often, they end up overwhelmed: a search for “special education Pennsylvania,” for example, turns up 345 million sites, each of which, when visited, leads to more clicks and links.

The fact that there is so much information online, much of it disorganized and only some of it likely to be relevant to any particular visitor’s concerns, creates a huge challenge for legal aid organizations. Their web and social media sites must be readily findable by the people they seek to serve, and and must stand out from commercial and other sites that may be designed for different purposes. Navigation must be simple and straightforward. Content must be accurate, but also conveyed in terms understandable to people without legal training — often a difficult balance to achieve. Further, people seeking legal information are often in stressful situations, which complicates communication; and many speak languages other than English.

This semester, a team from the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic took an in-depth look at the web site of the Education Law Center-PA and produced a report on ways in which its already well-developed site could better serve families. Recommendations included reorganizing the site to enable parents to jump more quickly to the information they need; simplifying menus and lists; adding natural-language search and translation functions; developing more short, “plain language” resource materials; and more.

Here’s how the team, which consisted of Ingrid Xiomara Lopez Martinez, Austin Kurtanich, and Lydia Anderson, all 2Ls, summarized their work:

The Education Law Center (ELC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving access to quality public education for all children in Pennsylvania, particularly those who are underserved. ELC provides a wide range of resources and services to various stakeholders, including families, school officials, policymakers, and community organizations. The purpose of our project was to analyze the ELC website, including its strengths and weaknesses, as well as to provide suggestions for improvement.

Our report focused on making recommendations to ELC’s overall website organization, design, and structure, including specific priority areas, such as Special Education, Bullying and Harassment, and Exclusionary Discipline. Through meetings with an ELC attorney, we learned that these priority areas were ELC’s most sought-after materials. While most parents use ELC’s Hotline number to inquire about issues, it is important that ELC’s website provides parents and other users with accessible information needed to assist in advocating for students and promoting equal opportunities to learn.

This project is a second installment in the Clinic’s work on making legal web sites more accessible to the public. Last year, a team developed a set of recommendations to enhance the web site of Philadelphia’s Common Pleas and Municipal Courts. While the context was different, the basic thrust of both efforts was the same: online legal materials are most useful to the public when they are easy to find, directly responsive to users’ actual needs, and presented in simple, easily understandable formats and language.

Self-help centers in PA courts benefit litigants, judges, and court staff

In an effort to help unrepresented people navigate complex procedures, six PA judicial systems — like many others around the country — have introduced court-based “self-help centers.” In “Justice for All: The Current Success of Self-Help Centers in Pennsylvania Courts and Recommendations for Growth,” a Sheller Center team offers their findings from a semester-long study of how these centers work and the results they’ve achieved.

The report discusses the design and funding of self-help centers; provides reactions to the centers from judges, court staff and litigants; and offers contacts and suggestions for courts and advocates interested in creating or expanding help centers in their locations. The report was authored by Catherine Baldwin, Tess Frydman, and Cathy Ginder, 2L students in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic.

Some thoughts from Catherine Baldwin:

Court self-help centers, on their face, seem like an easy win. We allow individuals to represent themselves pro se and those self-represented litigants make up a huge portion of the parties in civil cases. The legal process can be complex and confusing. Litigants often struggle with the procedural aspects of their cases: what it means to serve their opponent, which forms to use, and what to expect in the courtroom. A court self-help center can provide these resources and set self-represented litigants on the track to fully participate in their case. A prepared litigant improves judicial efficiency because cases are not gummed up by procedural problems.

Why then are there so few court self-help centers in Pennsylvania? One of the major obstacles is a concern about courts providing legal advice to litigants. Personnel who are not attorneys may not offer legal advice, because that would be the unauthorized practice of law. And personnel who are attorneys may not offer legal advice because doing so would make the court seem partial to the one receiving the advice. Courts are concerned that help centers might not be able to offer neutral legal information without crossing the line into legal advice.

However daunting this obstacle may seem to courts, it is surmountable. There can be a clear distinction between legal information and legal advice. Take Colorado as an example: it has a self-help center system that spans the entire state. At its inception, the Supreme Court met the concern about legal advice head on. In a directive released in 2013, the Chief Justice set forth a standard. Colorado self-help personnel may provide information about court procedures, offer educational materials, assist in the selection of forms, answer general questions about the court process, as well as many other services. Among other things, personnel may not represent litigants, give an opinion on the outcome of a case, provide legal analysis, or make a recommendation whether the case should be brought to court. Self-help personnel may not say anything they would not repeat in the presence of the opposing party in the case.

Our report on court help centers in Pennsylvania and other states outlines various structures for court help centers, addresses common issues, and provides contact information for a network of professionals who are willing to lend their expertise to courts interested in creating help centers.

For most litigants, courthouses are at best, overwhelming and intimidating. Self-represented litigants are so often left to fend for themselves, adrift in the legalese and formality that comes with every civil case. Court help centers, whatever their structure, prepare litigants to participate fully in their case and make the court less frightening.

Students discuss their work on “Six Practical Ways Courts Can Reduce Default Judgments”

– by Adam Karbeling and Jessie Hemmons

Adam Karbeling and Jessie Hemmons, 2L students in the Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, authored “Six Practical Ways Courts Can Reduce Default Judgments in Debt Collection Cases,” described in more detail in a separate post. Here, Adam and Jessie comment on their experience in developing the report.

Consumer debt defendants are subjected to default judgments when they miss their hearings. When this happens, debt plaintiffs win without needing to prove their cases on the merits, and defendants lose without being heard. We looked at the reasons why debt defendants commonly miss their hearings, and found that it is often due to non-negligent factors such as improper service, confusion from complicated forms and processes, and being misled by the other party.

It is clear that courts should seek to reduce the high rate of default judgments as a matter of justice. Our report aims to assist with such efforts by listing and describing six initiatives that would help courts address the issue. Our solutions would promote increased hearing attendance and procedural fairness. The aim of our report is to move the conversation toward the actual implementation of these ideas, so we chose feasible and effective initiatives that have been tested in other jurisdictions.

Jessie added some reflections connected to her work before coming to law school:

Coming from a background in behavioral economics, where my work was focused on convincing physicians to make changes to their longstanding clinical practices, I adapted this strategy to support my legal advocacy in the Access to Justice Clinic. In my prior profession, I had learned that promoting change through written materials is effective when: a) the information is communicated concisely; b) questions are answered preemptively; c) and instructions for implementation are provided. Brain science has shown that taking in new information while working in a very high paced environment, filled with packed schedules and information overload is – simply – difficult. Thus, creating effective advocacy materials for professionals in an overloaded informational space has become a bit of an art form, incorporating lessons learned from neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral science while also respecting the intellectual capacity of the reader.

Keeping this in mind, my partner and I incorporated these learnings to create an advocacy piece aimed at reducing default judgments in consumer court cases in Philadelphia. We drilled the report down to the bones to decide our main objective: getting the court to implement strategies to reduce default judgments in consumer debt cases. We then faced a choice: take a holistic approach and focus on systemic change or promote tangible strategies to mitigate issues quickly to help defendants in real time.

We chose the latter, as this course is relatively short in duration, and the problems are affecting people every single day. We wanted to focus on solutions that could be implemented with near immediacy. So, we focused on a few techniques employed in other jurisdictions that could be relatively easy to implement and support a reduction in default judgments (due to failure to appear) quickly. We made sure to include examples of how these strategies have been deployed by other jurisdictions to assuage any fears that “it just can’t be done.” While our report focuses on solutions that do not resolve the underlying causes of due process issues related to default judgments in consumer debt cases, we hope we have contributed to this space by providing easy-to-implement solutions to work as a bridge while the systemic issues get addressed.

New report identifies practical steps courts can take to reduce default judgments in debt cases

Text message reminders, comprehensible notices, expanded hearing options, a “compliance checklist”: these are among the recommendations in the Center’s latest report on how to reduce the staggering number of default judgments in debt-collection cases.

About half of all cases brought by third-party debt collectors in Philadelphia Municipal Court result in default judgments, in which the Court awards the full amount requested by the creditor without hearing the alleged debtor’s side of the story. These judgments further impoverish Philadelphians who may already be at the lower end of the income ladder.

“Six Practical Ways Courts Can Reduce Default Judgments in Debt Collection Cases,” authored by students Adam Karbeling and Jessie Hemmons, discusses why defendants may not appear for their hearings, and finds that — contrary to conventional wisdom — those reasons often have nothing to do with carelessness or a lack of interest in being heard. Drawing on experience from jurisdictions around the country, Adam and Jessie discuss six relatively easy steps that courts can take to make the entry of default judgments less likely.

In a separate post, Adam and Jessie discuss their experience putting together the report.

Could “qualified legal advocates” help Pennsylvanians with their legal issues?

Vast numbers of Americans, including a sizeable share of the population of Pennsylvania, have no access to legal help in important matters involving basic needs, such as housing, child support and custody, and public benefits. And while efforts are (always) being made to expand rights to counsel and pro bono services, it is widely agreed that, at least in the foreseeable future, there will not be enough lawyers to meet everyone’s needs at prices they can afford.

It’s also unclear, however, that everyone who confronts a legal issue requires the services of a lawyer who has been trained in all of the areas addressed in law school and on the bar examination. That’s why one effective response to the “justice gap,” according to Briana Ziff, a student in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, may be to authorize trained individuals other than lawyers to provide legal assistance in specific situations, such as certain types of family-law and landlord-tenant proceedings.

In an article published in this month’s Philadelphia Lawyer, Ms. Ziff presents her research on four states — Utah, Arizona, Minnesota and Delaware — that have taken steps to do just that. “Qualified legal advocates” is Delaware’s term; while the states use different terminology and take slightly different approaches, the underlying idea — that effective legal help of certain kinds can be provided by people with varying levels of skill and training, and that not all of them have to be lawyers — is the same.

So far, according to the article, the results are encouraging: access to help has grown and the quality of services appears to be good. Given the scale of Pennsylvania’s “justice gap,” Ms. Ziff argues, it’s time to consider whether qualified legal advocates could provide a valuable service to Pennsylvanians as well.

After years of hard work by advocates, Berks Immigration Detention Center to close

The Berks County Detention Center–—which first held immigrant families and then women—is finally shutting down. The federal government announced that it is ending its contract with Berks County on January 31, 2023.

The Shut Down Berks Coalition, comprised of organizers, lawyers, immigrant leaders, faith communities and allies, has long been advocating for the closure of the facility due to the inhumane treatment of immigrants, many of whom are fleeing violence and seeking protection. While the facility first opened in 2001, it was under the Obama Administration that a record number of immigrant families were detained at the center, including mothers and infants. Most recently, Berks County converted the facility into one that held adult immigrant women.

The Social Justice Lawyering Clinic (SJLC) has long been working in support of the coalition to call for closure of the facility. Rhiannon DiClemente (‘16) and Paige Joki (‘17) first outlined the case for why the facility was illegally holding families and children under Pennsylvania law. In 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PA DHS) revoked the operating license for the facility. John Farrell (‘17), Anthony Sierzega (‘18), and Mariya Tsalkovich (’18) then drafted an Urgent Action Appeal on behalf of over 50 immigrant right organizations with the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention arguing that the facility is engaged in unfair and arbitrary practices that restrict liberty and endanger the health and dignity of families.

In opposition to Berks County’s continued litigation to challenge the revocation of their license, SJLC filed an amicus brief on behalf of physicians, psychologists, social workers, nurses, and Psychologists for Social Responsibility about how detention inflicts serious harm on asylum-seeking children. In December 2019, Emma Pajer (’20) and Jediah Grobstein (’20) helped to file a lawsuit on behalf of several families based on PA DHS’ unlawful back door agreement to continue operation of the facility without a license. In March 2021, when Berks County decided to convert the facility into a women’s detention center, Lina Ruth Duiker (’22) and Kate Steiker-Ginzberg (’22) helped Berks County residents file a Sunshine Act lawsuit against the county for being secretive about its proposal for conversion and expansion of bed space at the facility.

All this work by SJLC was done in collaboration with community and legal partners: Aldea, Al Otro Lado, Free Migration Project, Juntos, Make the Road Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, Syrena Law, and Villanova’s Farmworker Clinic.

At the end of the day, what triumphed was the powerful voices of the parents and children who had been detained at this facility. In a letter to the outside world, the Madres de Berks questioned how the U.S. government could continue:

“… depriving them of having a normal life, knowing that we have prior traumas from our countries, risking our own lives and that of our children on the way until we arrived here, having family and friends who would be responsible for us and who are waiting for us with open arms and that immigration refuses to let us out.”

As we continue to grapple with immigrant detention in Pennsylvania, may we remember these voices.

Issue Brief Advocates for Fee-Sharing to Advance Social Justice 

The National Legal Advocacy Network (NLAN) just issued the Sheller Center’s Expanding Social Justice: Fee-Sharing Between Non-Profits and the Private Bar. NLAN, which focuses on building worker power through law and organizing, sought to clarify ways in which workers centers in local communities could build resources for their work by partnering with the private bar. This brief outlines how fee-sharing arrangements work, their compliance with rules of professional conduct, and the advantages of such arrangements between nonprofit organizations and the private bar. Social Justice Lawyering Clinic students Tram Ha (’22) and BK Katzmann (’22) authored the brief. 

See the full report here.

Seeking feedback from attorneys about language access in PA courts

Social Justice Lawyering Clinic (SLJC) students David Baldwin (’22) and Livia Luan (’23) created a survey tool for attorneys to capture their experiences with limited English proficient (LEP) persons in the Pennsylvania courts. This tool was created as part of a statewide advocacy effort to ensure that LEP litigants, victims, and witness have a right to an interpreter in the Pennsylvania courts. This fall, law schools across the state will launch a survey with local community groups created by the same SJLC team.

For any attorneys who have experience with LEP persons in the Pennsylvania courts, please take the survey here.

In 2017, Pennsylvania issued a statewide language access plan in response to the systemic failure of Pennsylvania courts to provide interpreters to limited English proficient (LEP) persons. Such failures were previously documented by SJLC students in their reports Unfinished Business: The Continuing Challenge for Limited English Proficient Individuals in Pennsylvania’s Minor Courts  and Barriers to Justice for Non-English Speakers in the Pennsylvania Courts. In collaboration with the coalition, this new work by SJLC is intended to assess the how the courts are faring with the new statewide language access plan.

More notes from the Systemic Justice Project Clinic

Ellie Holzman ’23

The Systemic Justice Clinic was an incredibly valuable experience for me. Both the seminar and the clinic project taught me a lot about how to integrate what you learn in the classroom into projects that you are working on. Professor Sibley is an incredible person and professor and I feel extremely honored to have been able to spend so much time learning from and with her. The discussion we had in the seminar were engaging and meaningful, and allowed me to think about the criminal legal system in ways that I had not previously. The clinic project was a great opportunity to put thought into practice, and I really appreciated the opportunity to have a real impact. Not only did I learn a lot about our topic substantively, but I also gained invaluable practical skills pertaining to communication, professionalism, and collaboration that I surely will take with me into my post-graduate experiences.

Luis Rodriguez ‘23

This is probably one of the most important classes/clinics at Temple. In this clinic, we spent some time looking at the philosophy surrounding our criminal justice system and incarceration but more time discussing the systemic mechanism that exists to put a lot of people in contact with the criminal system. The readings and discussions were geared towards getting us to think about how the criminal system affects us and our communities in ways that introduction to criminal law does not cover. This clinic opened my eyes to so many issues, and I am a better person and future lawyer for taking it. I wish to have this feeling with more classes. Take this clinic.