Helping unrepresented litigants navigate online Family Court

– Puja Upadhyay

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Family Court in Philadelphia transitioned to online in mid-2020 and has largely remained online since then. The group arguably most affected by the transition to online was unrepresented people, who constitute the majority of Family Court litigants.

Even before the pandemic, the process for bringing a case in Family Court was complex, but the complexity was intensified with the transition to online. While there were some benefits to the new format, there were also new barriers to successful participation, including having an adequate internet connection, a quiet space without distractions, the required technology, and so on.

However, some Family Court judges have indicated their interest in holding hearings online for some matters even after there is no longer a health risk. Given the new virtual environment, our work as part of the Access to Justice Clinic this semester was to better understand, and find ways to improve, the online Family Court experience for unrepresented litigants.

Most of our work this semester focused on gathering information about the shift to online – specifically, the biggest challenges unrepresented litigants (and practitioners) were facing, and the solutions that they hoped to see in response. Esteban Rodriguez, Ross Wiech and I felt it was important to gather a range of perspectives, and to do so with enough depth that we would be able to gain meaningful insights for our work. To that end, we relied primarily on one-on-one interviews with family law attorneys, Temple Law students participating in family law clinic, and of course, unrepresented litigants themselves. To get the fullest picture of navigating Family Court online, we also observed several Family Court hearings to see first-hand how unrepresented litigants were faring.

We also took stock of the guidance that is already available online for unrepresented litigants. For instance, Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA) has several webpages about navigating online Family Court and explaining the relevant law. The Philadelphia Bar Association also developed several in-depth brochures on navigating each type of matter in Family Court during COVID-19. There were also many general resources about how to prepare for a court hearing online.

However, based on our interviews and court observations, we identified a gap in the resources that were available to pro se litigants. While there is a lot of useful information available, it is spread across multiple different websites and formats. Additionally, there is relatively little guidance about participating in an online Family Court hearing, specifically in Philadelphia. Our conversations revealed that there were several tips and tricks for navigating Family Court in Philadelphia that were well known to people familiar with the system, but that were not clearly articulated in public resources.

Our goal became to create resources that would give pro se litigants a sense of what to expect at online Family Court hearings in Philadelphia. Unrepresented litigants are already juggling multiple responsibilities. Without a grasp on what to expect at an online Family Court hearing on a very basic level, they are already one step behind.  Focusing on practical guidance rather than legal arguments, we consolidated the advice from our conversations, observations, and the various resources spread across multiple channels, into two “portable” PDF flyers that could easily be attached to an email or even used as a physical handout. Additionally, to dispel any confusion over what it looks like to participate in an online hearing, we created two short explainer videos that demonstrate what it looks like to join a Family Court hearing on the Court’s chosen video conferencing platform, RingCentral.

We hope that these resources will help to level the playing field for unrepresented litigants. While the transition to online has improved access to justice in some ways, it has also severely limited it in others. With luck, our contribution will help unrepresented litigants feel at least somewhat more confident when they click into their Family Court hearing link.

 

Students file tort claims for families separated at the border

By Elizabeth Castillo ‘22 & Emily Alvarez ‘21

The Trump administration has engaged in a policy of family separation, which it ramped up in 2018. Under that policy, families apprehended for crossing the border outside of a port of entry were forcibly separated. Parents were placed in adult detention while their children were sent to shelters for unaccompanied minors. They were frequently subjected to cruel conditions of confinement, including overcrowding and the inability to obtain adequate nutrition, hygiene, medical care or mental health services. Notably, the administration expressly announced its family separation policy as a tactic to deter Central American migrants from seeking safety in the United States.

In these facilities, parents and children endured weeks or even months without contact with one another. Parents and their children did not know when or if they would be reunited because immigration officials would not provide any information. The separation of parents from their children has predictably caused significant and long-lasting trauma to these families who had sought refuge in the United States.

Through the Sheller Center for Social Justice, we represented eight families in administrative claims against the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”), and other government agencies responsible for this inhumane policy. These claims are brought under the Federal Torts Claims Act (“FTCA”), which allows individuals to hold the federal government accountable for personal injury. Filing these claims is a required step to preserve these families’ right to file a federal lawsuit to obtain relief for the unspeakable harm they suffered.

Our work began by interviewing each family. Question by question, we pieced together their experiences under the family separation policy. We then drafted detailed narratives for each family beginning with their entry into the United States until their reunification and release from detention. Details included detention center conditions, interactions with immigration officers, and most importantly, the emotional and physical impact on the families. This narrative became the central part of the administrative claim.

This effort to assist families in preserving their rights under the FTCA has allowed us to practice important lawyering skills. We talked through the relevant law and scope of representation with clients and answered their questions. We practiced the art of interviewing: how to build trust, sort through facts, and develop a cohesive narrative. As a group, we discussed at length and had the opportunity to engage in trauma-informed interviewing, a skill that few classes cover. We also researched the applicable tort law in the relevant jurisdictions in anticipation of filing federal litigation.

Beyond these skills, these families have taught us so much. Discussing immigration laws and policies and seeing their impact on the news does not prepare one to hear the stories first-hand. After speaking with these families, who have endured so much at the hands of our government, we have a deeper understanding of what a migrant experiences after he or she crosses into the United States. Their courage is remarkable and has inspired us as future lawyers. They fled to the United States to escape unimaginable abuse and even threats to their life and families. Even after that trauma, they incredibly still had the courage to share their experiences under the family separation policy. One client explained to us that she is motivated to share her experience, although it is very painful to recall, to raise awareness and prevent others from enduring it. In drafting these claims, we developed an appreciation of the meaningful role an attorney can play in people’s lives. We can help to provide a remedy, in the form of compensatory damages, and even support our clients in their healing processes.

The following students participated in this effort to obtain relief for families harmed by the government’s family separation policy: Erin Agnew, ‘21; Mana Aliabadi, ‘22; Emily Alvarez, ‘21; Elizabeth Castillo, ‘22; Stephanie Curl, ‘21; Dan Davis, ‘21; Laura DiGiulio, ‘21; Daniela Florido, ‘22; Theresa Glinski, ‘21; Sarah Hampton, ‘22; Lauren Leiggi, ‘21; Maya Lucyshyn, ‘22; Pretty Martinez, ‘20; Reena Naik, ‘21; Brittany Petrillo, ‘21; Natalia Ruggiero, ‘20; Kate Sears, ‘21; and Maria Thomson, ‘22. Professor Jaya Ramji-Nogales created the project with the support of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP). Professors Jennifer Lee and Mary Levy also supervised student teams.

“Supporting a right to counsel bill is the absolute least I can do”

That was the view expressed by Xavier O’Connor, a 3L student in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, speaking before City Council yesterday during its consideration of an historic “right to counsel for low-income tenants” bill. Xavier and colleagues Julia Sheppard and Sarah Kim have spent the semester researching why so many landlord/tenant cases in Philadelphia result in default judgments  — which then lead quickly to eviction.

As Xavier explained: “Our research has shown tenants don’t know they are eligible for existing services, and often haven’t even been properly notified that they have been called to court. Our research has also shown that there are folks who used existing services from the Help Center on the day of their hearings but wish that they had had legal help beforehand.”

Temple Law, as Xavier pointed out, has a front-row view of Philadelphia’s eviction crisis: “As a Temple student, I walk through a North Philly neighborhood affected by eviction every single day. I see the consequences of displacement and how our legal system dramatically impacts these neighborhoods.”

The unanimous passage of the bill by Council yesterday follows several years of work by legal advocates (including Temple Law graduates Rahsheedah Phillips and Barrett Marshall), the Bar Association, and many others — and will lead to further work, since phasing in legal services will require time, training, and funding. In these efforts, Philadelphia will be able to share ideas and models with a growing number of other cities, including New York, San Francisco, Newark and Cleveland, that have adopted similar legislation.

Xavier summed up the reason for getting involved: “The legal landscape we [as law students] are entering soon is unfair but it does not have to be. It should not be. And I am here today to advocate for its change.”

 

Ending the detention of migrant children in Pennsylvania

Detention is no place for migrant children. In Berks County, Pennsylvania houses one of three family detention facilities in the country. While Governor Wolf states that he finds such detention “inhumane,” he claims he cannot do anything about it. Professor Jennifer Lee’s Op-Ed in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer details why this claim is untrue. Since 2015, students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic have been working with the Shut Down Berks Coalition to bring attention to the facility and argue for its closure.

New lead-paint bills reflect students’ proposals

2,615: that’s how many Philadelphia children show elevated lead levels (and even that may be an undercount, since Philly uses a less stringent measure than that used by other cities and the CDC).  That puts us far ahead of Flint, Michigan, in terms of the number of children at risk of serious health problems.

In an op-ed last spring, Justice Lab students Liz Torres, Tony Sierzega, and Chris Lin summarized their research on lead poisoning in Philly, conducted in partnership with Community Legal Services. The students offered four common-sense recommendations for action.

Now, City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown has introduced a package of bills that would implement several of those recommendations — including an expansion of lead-safe requirements to rental apartments generally, not just those housing children age six or younger. Councilwoman Brown is in search of co-sponsors. And we’re excited about the possibility that the students’ work will help produce real results for Philly’s kids.

Let’s end lead poisoning

Philly has taken some steps to protect children from the disastrous effects of lead exposure, but there’s more to do. In an op-ed in today’s Inquirer, Justice Lab students Liz F. Torres, Chris Lin and Tony Sierzega, who worked this semester with Community Legal Services, make the case for four measures that could make a dramatic difference.

Guest post: Nick Kato on #DebtFreeJustice

Nick Kato (2L) and Prof. Colleen Shanahan recently attended #DebtFreeJustice, a national meeting on juvenile fines and fees. Nick is part of a Justice Lab team working with the Juvenile Law Center on juvenile costs. He shares his impressions below. For more on the meeting and the issues, visit BerkeleyLaw.

Prof. Shanahan is second from left, and Nick Kato is in the back row, left of center. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Law School.

In February, I attended a national convening on juvenile fines and fees at Berkeley Law School. Advocates from across the country discussed the disparate impact of court-imposed fines and fees, and how burdensome costs defeat the juvenile justice system’s rehabilitative goals. As part of a nascent but dedicated movement, advocates explored how to build off successful reforms in Philadelphia and California, including Philadelphia’s decision to stop charging parents for the cost of their children’s incarceration.

The convening was especially valuable to me as a student because it provided a glimpse into the decision-making process for various advocacy options, ranging from impact litigation to community organizing and impact litigation. Being a part of the convening left me optimistic that advocates around the country can support each other’s efforts to create a more just and rehabilitative juvenile justice system.

Students create Welcoming Schools Toolkit for students, parents, and educators

The Youth Organizing Project at the Pennsylvania Citizenship and Immigration Coalition (PICC) came to the Sheller Center asking for help in creating a toolkit that would help immigrant communities advocate for the policies and practices needed to create safe and welcoming schools. After the fall election, PICC was flooded with questions from parents and teachers across PA, asking whether it was safe to send their children to school and what schools could do to protect students.

Social Justice Lawyering Clinic Students Tessa Carson (’17), Emily Diaz (’18), and Ashley Rotchford (’18) created the Welcoming Schools Toolkit. Emily Diaz states, “its purpose is to provide students, parents, and educators with the tools to advocate for schools that are committed to ensuring that all students—regardless of their immigration status—are welcome, safe, and protected in the school environment.” The toolkit offers sample resolutions and policies that represent proactive steps that schools can take to keep children safe from immigration enforcement raids, protect students’ privacy, and affirm a commitment to inclusiveness. Diaz, along with her partners, debuted the toolkit at PICC’s statewide convening in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in May 2017.

 

Students create Welcoming Schools Toolkit for students, parents, and educators

The Youth Organizing Project at the Pennsylvania Citizenship and Immigration Coalition (PICC) came to the Sheller Center asking for help in creating a toolkit that would help immigrant communities advocate for the policies and practices needed to create safe and welcoming schools. After the fall election, PICC was flooded with questions from parents and teachers across PA, asking whether it was safe to send their children to school and what schools could do to protect students.

Social Justice Lawyering Clinic Students Tessa Carson (’17), Emily Diaz (’18), and Ashley Rotchford (’18) created the Welcoming Schools Toolkit. Emily Diaz states, “its purpose is to provide students, parents, and educators with the tools to advocate for schools that are committed to ensuring that all students—regardless of their immigration status—are welcome, safe, and protected in the school environment.” The toolkit offers sample resolutions and policies that represent proactive steps that schools can take to keep children safe from immigration enforcement raids, protect students’ privacy, and affirm a commitment to inclusiveness. Diaz, along with her partners, debuted the toolkit at PICC’s statewide convening in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in May 2017.

 

A national award

 

For their successful effort to end Philadelphia’s practice of billing parents for cost of their child’s incarceration, Prof. Colleen Shanahan and her students have received the 2017 Clinical Legal Education Association Award for Excellence in a Public Interest Case or Project. The “Double Punishment” project, conducted by Justice Lab on behalf of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, was chosen through a competitive process involving clinical work from across the country.

Prof. Shanahan accepted the award at the national meeting of the Clinical Section of the Association of American Law Schools in Denver this week. Hundreds of clinicians were present at the ceremony, which recognized Justice Lab and the Sheller Center. Congratulations to Prof. Shanahan, her students, and everyone who worked on this effort!