Summer Internship: Elizabeth's experience at Legal Aid

We are grateful to our summer interns for sharing their passion for justice. Read Elizabeth’s blog about her experience at Legal Aid.

 Elizabeth Staton

Elizabeth Staton

My name is Elizabeth and I am the Health Consumer Center’s Summer Intern. I am entering the last year of my undergraduate education at Swarthmore College. My role at Legal Aid involves helping people to secure affordable healthcare coverage and maximize their Medi-Cal and Medicare benefits. Additionally, I join the housing team on Fridays at their clinic in Redwood City to help individuals know their rights as tenants and navigate the legal process surrounding unlawful detainers and eviction. This internship is a great way for me to explore a possible career as I look forward to entering the work force full-time in the near future. I want to work in some capacity that has a significant positive impact on the wellbeing of people in need and Legal Aid is an organization that achieves this.

My day to day work has been an interesting combination of tasks including client services, document drafting, and independent research. I like the client-based aspect of Legal Aid because you are tangiblymaking a difference in someone’s life. For example, by helping a client submit new information to Medi- Cal to reduce their out-of-pocket healthcare costs and checking with the county to make sure it gets processed, I am able to improve their ability to afford the health services and medication they need. At the same time, every client we interact with has a unique set of circumstances that can make even the most similar cases completely different problems to solve. I feel the most useful when we have clients who are especially hard to reach or unclear about their issue. These clients do not need Legal Aid’s help any less, but they do require more persistent phone calls and active investigation into the details of their case. I am able to help the Health Consumer Center do this without decreasing our team’s productivity somewhere else.

While it is one thing to care about contemporary social issues, it is much more informative about the various dimensions of such problems to actually try to help people overcome them. I have learned much more about the challenges of getting and keeping healthcare coverage in the relatively short amount of time that I have been working for the Health Consumer Center than in all the time I have been aware that healthcare is an issue in the United States. It has also been educational to attend the housing clinics once a week and listen to personal accounts of some of the problems tenants face in San Mateo County. I am grateful I get to spend my summer doing interesting work and gaining valuable, educational experience with supportive coworkers at Legal Aid.

"And Justice for All" Awards Luncheon

by Marcie Storch, Legal Aid's Director of Development

  Marcie Storch (M) with featured guests, Margareth & granddaughter, Ambiance

Marcie Storch (M) with featured guests, Margareth & granddaughter, Ambiance

Thank you to everyone who joined us on April 20 at the beautiful Four Seasons Silicon Valley Hotel at East Palo Alto for the 21st Annual "And Justice For All" Awards Luncheon. Over 200 people attended this annual event, a celebration of our community’s commitment to justice for all. We also thank all of our sponsors for their generosity.

Our afternoon began with a special video about a grandmother who wanted to become the legal guardian of her granddaughter.  Check out the video here.

  Keynote Speaker, Noreen Krall and Karen N. Ballack, Co-chair Awards Luncheon Committee

Keynote Speaker, Noreen Krall and Karen N. Ballack, Co-chair Awards Luncheon Committee

The audience was then moved by the remarks of exceptional keynote speaker Noreen Krall, VP, Chief Litigation Counsel, Apple, Inc. 

The Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County proudly presented awards to this year’s three remarkable winners. 

  Legal Aid's Executive Director M. Stacey Hawver and Vera M. Elson, Pro Bono Partner, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

Legal Aid's Executive Director M. Stacey Hawver and Vera M. Elson, Pro Bono Partner, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati

Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati received the Guardian of Justice Award. This award is given each year in recognition of volunteers whose efforts are steeped in a commitment to justice for all the children, families and seniors in our community.

“Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati recognizes how it is critical that low-income people with limited resources have access to quality legal services. Making those services available to people in need is the cornerstone of our pro bono program.” – Steve Guggenheim, co-head, Pro Bono Committee.

  Dave Paliughi & Legal Aid Staff Attorney Michelle de Blank

Dave Paliughi & Legal Aid Staff Attorney Michelle de Blank

The Natalie M. Lanam Award was presented to Dave Paliughi, Director, Special Education Department, Redwood City School District. This award is in memory of community leader Natalie M. Lanam whose passion for justice for all compelled her to become an important advocate for the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.

"Families with children with special needs go through so much. It is the aim of Redwood City School District to provide ALL students with a rich and dynamic educational experience.” – Dave Paliughi, Director, Special Education Department, Redwood City School District

  The Team at Aaron, Riechert, Carpol & Riffle, APC

The Team at Aaron, Riechert, Carpol & Riffle, APC

Aaron, Riechert, Carpol & Riffle, APC, received the Dorothy M. Wolfe Award. This award is in memory of one of the first women attorneys in San Mateo County, noted for her deep belief in equal access to justice. Dorothy Wolfe was an ardent supporter of the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County throughout her career.

“Every lawyer has the duty to uphold the honor and standards of our profession, and improve not only the law but the fair administration of justice.  In our system of justice, all litigants, rich and poor, must have counsel to assure that disputes are fairly resolved.” – Chuck Riffle

In a dollar-for-dollar match, the Legal Aid Board of Directors challenged the audience to raise $15,000, and you did it. Thanks to your generosity, Legal Aid will receive $15,000 from our Board of Directors for a total of $30,000. 

Thanks to everyone! The Annual “And Justice For All" Awards Luncheon always proves to be a special reminder that as a community we can collectively fight social injustice through civil legal advocacy. 

Public Benefits Practice with Directing Attorney Hope Nakamura, an interview by Tim Clark

 Tim Clark

Tim Clark

It takes a lot of energy to live poor in San Mateo County. Unless, of course, you don’t mind going without—without food, without housing, without health insurance, without necessities that many of us take for granted.

Antipoverty programs that support poor people are not straightforward, and handling the complexities of CalFresh (food stamps) or Section 8 housing subsidies is not for the faint of heart, especially for those with physical, mental or emotional disabilities. The rules for different programs are confusing, conflicting and otherwise overlapping, and a mistake in reporting to the agency that writes the check can mean repaying benefits, often from income reduced by loss of benefits. 

The challenges of applying for government benefits, reporting income and remaining eligible becomes too much for many impoverished clients of the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.

“We are like tax preparers for poor people,” says Hope Nakamura, directing attorney who runs the public benefits practice at Legal Aid. The goal: “Keeping clients compliant with the often-contradictory requirements of government aid programs.”

Typically, Legal Aid’s clients are disabled, elderly or have families, and appealing denied benefits is a paper-based process, on forms that may need to filed at different agencies in different locations. “By definition, if you’re 65-plus or disabled, you can’t get around easily,” Nakamura notes of her clients.

Benefits to poor San Mateo County residents are paid through a sometimes-bewildering array of federal, California and county programs, many administered by county government:

  • CalWORKs, state/federal welfare of $799 max for a family of three
  • General assistance, county welfare for single adults
  • CAPI, state cash assistance for legal immigrants who are elderly or disabled
  • CalFresh (food stamps)
  • Section 8 housing subsidies

Then there’s federal SSI (supplemental security income) for individuals over 65, blind or disabled provided they meet a host of other requirements: Limited income and resources, legal U.S. resident or citizen, stayed in the country at least 30 consecutive days, not imprisoned or hospitalized at government expense (think VA hospitals). Beneficiaries must allow the government to review their financial records, and they must apply for any other cash benefits for which they may be eligible (for example, pensions, Social Security benefits) before SSI kicks in.

Most of the SSI requirements seem doable if detailed (provided you are comfortable in bureaucratic English), until a relative in Guatemala gets sick and the SSI recipient must go help with caregiving for a couple of months.

That’s when Nakamura and her team of two lawyers and two admins on Legal Aid’s Safety Net Services Project are summoned. Attorneys, who average caseloads of 120 per year, mostly don’t go to court but argue for clients before administrative law judges. A case typically takes 5-10 hours of attorney time, although a complex case may eat up 50 hours. Attorney time is spent filing administrative appeals, checking financial records and negotiating with agencies.

“An increasing number of San Mateo County children and adults need assistance to meet their basic needs for food and shelter,” says Nakamura. “The erroneous denial of benefits can have a devastating impact on a needy family trying to make ends meet. We work with the appropriate state, federal, and local agencies to correct the situation and renew the necessary benefits.”

Nakamura describes the system as “patchwork and begrudging” where government agencies act “more as a gatekeeper than as a helper.” Legal Aid pushes for clients “so the programs work as well as they can.” Nor is she confident the system can be rationalized: “Not in my lifetime. There’s an ingrained view in society that people are poor because they are lazy. “

“There are too many specific, differing rules,” says Nakamura, herself a recognized expert on benefits eligibility. Recently the California Supreme Court granted review in Christensen v. Lightbourne, a case Nakamura has been working on for six years with the Western Center on Law & Poverty. The case will decide whether court-ordered child support paid to another family can count as income in a CalWORKs application.  

Over her 29 years at Legal Aid, Nakamura has seen shifts in the population it serves. Today, poor people often have someone in the family who is disabled or laid off from work. “We’ve seen the economy swing from full-time employment to part-time work without benefits, including no medical benefits.” That swing has put more formerly middle-class workers on to government benefits. After the economic crash of 2001, she recalls, “We had ex-engineers applying for benefits.”

She also sees well-educated immigrants, teachers and scientists, who cannot speak English well enough to practice their chosen professions and get pushed into lesser-paying jobs.

Many clients are forced to take more than one job to support their families, a situation made worse by the Bay Area’s rapidly rising rents, which force families to triple up in apartments, live out of cars or move in with extended family members. 

Doubling up on part-time jobs to make ends meet can inadvertently throw clients off the “benefits cliff”: Additional wages can cause workers to lose benefits because their income rises above the maximum allowed to receive government aid, often a different level for different programs. 

The case of an Iranian woman and her immigrant family illustrates the complexities of managing income. A scientist in her home country, she moved to the U.S. with two sons and her husband, who soon left the family. She works two jobs—one keeping the books at her son’s school and another at a relative’s dental office. Her income fluctuates because of school vacations, and that messed up her food stamp eligibility.

She later quit her main job to care for her elderly mother, who has cancer.   Meanwhile, her eldest son was enrolled at UC-Berkeley, and full-time students are not eligible for food stamps unless they meet an exception. So the son uses an on-campus food bank at Berkeley, and when he’s home between terms, the family’s food stamp allotment should increase (because he meets an exception)—until he returns to campus.

By definition, Nakamura says, people on her Safety Net Services team pull for the underdogs, their clients. For attorneys and clients alike, the work can be frustrating, dealing with government benefits bureaucrats every day, but it has tangible rewards: 

“You see the relief on their faces when they win,” she says. “We help people keep their benefits.”

Tim Clark is a partner at The FactPoint Group, a Silicon Valley-based research and consulting firm dedicated to the business improvement of its clients. He is a dedicated Legal Aid volunteer concerned with the issues facing low-income persons in our community.

DACA Again: Springing into Action for Dreamers

 Tim Clark

Tim Clark

When Federal Judge William Alsup opened a tiny crack in the Trump Administration’s intention to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Legal Aid sprang into action. 

On Jan. 9, 2018, San Francisco-based Alsup ordered U.S. immigration officials to accept applications again for DACA renewals, ruling that plaintiffs were likely to succeed on their claim that the rescission of DACA was arbitrary. On Jan. 13 (a Saturday), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) resumed accepting DACA renewal applications because of the court order. 

On Monday, Jan. 15, Legal Aid posted a note on its website, in both English and Spanish, “If you have DACA or your DACA card expired, you may be able to renew your card.” Then Jenny Horne of Legal Aid’s Teen Parents’ Project started working the phones. 

“I have 25 clients or former clients who have DACA now and have cards expiring after March 5. They could be eligible to renew now under the court order,” Horne said. “I have a lot expiring in March or April.” 

She advises her clients to file renewal applications quickly because the government on Jan. 16 served notice it will appeal the ruling. Applications could be cut off at any time. 

For some of Horne’s Dreamers, the $495 filing fee is a barrier. Legal Aid will tap its small emergency fund and also is seeking donations from private funders to underwrite filing fees. 

“I’m personally very excited,” Horne said. “It’s so sad to have clients say their DACA card has expired so their employers won’t keep them on. It’s a big opportunity for clients.” 

Once her current clients all file applications, Horne doesn’t expect the flow to slow. “We will get other calls as the news gets out. I have already gotten some calls from former clients who have siblings with expiring DACA cards.” 

Filing an application doesn’t guarantee extended DACA status—USCIS may turn down the applications or sit on them rather than moving forward. Still, for the Dreamers the dream is alive again—thanks to Legal Aid.

Tim Clark is a partner at The FactPoint Group, a Silicon Valley-based research and consulting firm dedicated to the business improvement of its clients. He is a dedicated Legal Aid volunteer concerned with the issues facing low-income persons in our community.

A Family Keeps Their Housing Thanks to Legal Aid

 Tim Clark

Tim Clark

Welcoming our newest blogger: Tim Clark is a partner at The FactPoint Group, a Silicon Valley-based research and consulting firm that is dedicated to the business improvement of its clients. A concerned citizen who wanted to learn more about the issues facing low-income persons in our community, Tim got in touch with the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County shortly after the election, and has remained a dedicated volunteer. 

For Fiona C. and her three children, their Redwood City apartment in a Latino neighborhood was more than a place to sleep. It was the center of lives-work, school, home and friends--that they had built for seven years, three kids and their single mom, supporting the family on Fiona's two cleaning jobs. 

The two younger children were doing well in elementary school, and at Woodside High School, the eldest daughter performed not only academically but on the swim team and cheer squad. 

So the 60-day eviction notice that came to Fiona (not her real name) in November 2016, on the same day that the apartment complex's new owners closed escrow on the 10-unit apartment building, was a major disruption. 

Oddly, other residents in the apartment complex received rent hikes (these are market rate apartments, not subsidized) of $300 a month-to $2,300-but no eviction notice. Fiona asked the new landlord for an extension so her two younger children could finish the academic year at their familiar schools, walking distance from their home. 

The landlord offered Fiona "a deal": An extra 30 days (not enough for her children to finish the year at their schools) if she paid the $300 rent increase-plus another $500 for unspecified reasons. Fiona paid the extortionary price. 

Fiona's options were limited in San Mateo County's pricey rental market, where the county says the median price of a two-bedroom apartment runs $2,980 as of September 2016. That median figure exceeds Fiona's annual income. In August 2017 listings for Redwood City, one-bedroom rentals ranged from $1,120 to $2,995 per month. A rare two-bedroom rental ranged from $3,495 to $3,695. 

Fiona found her way to a Housing Rights Legal Clinic in Fair Oaks Community Center, Redwood City, that is run by the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County. There Fiona spoke, in Spanish, with Legal Aid housing coordinator Lacei Amodei. 

Soon after, Legal Aid attorney David Carducci contacted the landlord to protest the illegal collection of the extra $800 and to ask why Fiona alone among the tenants was being evicted. Fiona's unit was messy, the landlord said. 

What made the extra $800 illegal? Collecting increased rent without any notice or 60-day time period,  Carducci said, and the landlord had no legal basis to make her pay the extra $500 other than extortion because Fiona was desperate to hold off the eviction.

Meanwhile, Carducci and the housing coordinator visited the unit themselves and found it in good condition-no worse than expected for three kids and their toys living there. 

Despite Legal Aid's efforts, the landlord hired an attorney and filed an eviction lawsuit against Fiona. Legal Aid defended her aggressively, taking the deposition of the landlord. 

"Our mission at Legal Aid's Housing Unit is to prevent homelessness, and that means keeping people in safe affordable housing," said Carducci, who is also Director of Litigation for Legal Aid. "Our highest priority through the Housing Clinics is to identify the people who are at high risk of homelessness-that's the 10% of clients who come to the Housing Clinic that we devote the most resources to. We can advise 90% of the Housing Clinic clients on the spot, but the ones at real risk we prioritize."  

San Mateo County's biennial census of homeless in the county on Jan. 25, 2017, found 1,253 homeless people in San Mateo County, roughly half or 637 unsheltered (living on streets, in cars, in RVs, in tents/encampments) and 616 sheltered homeless people (in emergency shelters and transitional housing programs). That marked a 16% decline from the 1,483 homeless counted in 2015. A major factor in the decline was a change in how certain facilities were counted. 

Unlike housing discrimination, no government entity regulates rents-so private attorneys and agencies such as Legal Aid become "law enforcement." Carducci's legal strategy in cases with an eviction notice is to try to keep the family in their home so they do not have to move-whenever possible. Many who are priced out of San Mateo County move to the East Bay, Central Valley or out of state. 

In Fiona's case, Legal Aid's defense-specifically taking the landlord's deposition-against the landlord's litigation led the landlord to dismiss the case, and Fiona's family stayed, albeit at the higher rent. "Obviously Fiona's landlord did not have a compelling legal reason to evict her and her kids.  By standing up for her rights, we prevented a total displacement of this family that is established in their community," Carducci said. 

Legal Aid and the Housing Crisis: A Summer Intern's Perspective

 Corey Kniss

Corey Kniss

My name is Corey Kniss and I recently completed my first year of schooling at UC Hastings College of the Law. My goal is to become a public interest lawyer. I decided to work with the housing team at Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County this summer because of the crucial assistance they provide to tenants.
I believe that housing is a fundamental right. Without a home it is nearly impossible to find a job. Without a home, privacy is a dream. Without a home, your ability to plan and prepare for the week ahead of you, to say nothing of long-term planning, is gone. Keeping those on the brink of eviction in their homes is all the more important, then, because the loss of one’s home could mean years of homelessness ahead.   
As a student, my experience here has been invaluable. I’ve become knowledgeable on tenant’s rights at the state level. This includes requirements about the notice given to tenants for rental increases, standards of habitable housing, protection from retaliation, freedom from discrimination, and more. These laws are incredibly important in defending tenants against eviction. I have been able to use these legal standards to assist tenants who have put up with illegal behavior by their landlord for years, only to later face eviction from their homes, defend their rights.
In addition to the knowledge I have gained about the relevant areas of law, I have been able to learn a great deal about the functioning of local governments. The research projects I’ve done on the issue of rent control has broadened my appreciation for the ability of local government to affect our economic situations. I am proud to be working with an organization that is so invested in maintaining affordable housing in San Mateo County. The involvement of Legal Aid in these efforts is a tremendous asset to the tenants and activists who risk their own livelihoods as a result of their efforts.
At Legal Aid I have learned so much in just over a month of experience. Practicing law in this setting requires a balance of skills which I have observed in each attorney and staff member. There is, of course, the legal expertise for which our clients seek our services (this is the research, writing, understanding of technical language, and employ of strategies, etc.). But there is also a more personal element of the job here at Legal Aid. Our clients are real people, not corporations or entities. Your work has stakes that may very well determine someone’s ability to maintain, and continue to build upon, their life’s accomplishments. Not every client is nice (although the vast majority are). Not every client is from a background that you are familiar with, and communication isn’t always effortless. But they all need our knowledge, assistance, attention, and respect. That each client who sees us receives this treatment is what ultimately makes Legal Aid a fulfilling place to work.

My Summer Internship: First-Hand Experiences by Wenfei Cai

 Wenfei Cai

Wenfei Cai

Wenfei Cai is the inaugural recipient of Legal Aid's Carl L. McConnell Summer Fellowship, established in memory of the late Carl L. McConnell, former Reginald Heber Smith Fellow (“Reggie”) and Managing Attorney at Legal Aid, honoring  his commitment to legal services for those with limited resources, and his dedication to mentoring. 

Summer internships are a great way to take what you have learned in school and apply it to everyday life. Internships provide context for one's studies and can help confirm career goals. I had a chance to do just that this summer through my internship at Legal Aid. In law school, to excel meant enduring endless hours of studying, sleepless nights, and anxiety. However, these feelings went away when I met with people in desperate need of legal assistance. Without Legal Aid's help, our low-income clients may not know what to do next. Therefore, being able to provide advice and guidance for them was very satisfying and confirmed my goal to be a public interest attorney.

My internship gave me the opportunity to see first-hand how government programs work. I spent the first few weeks attending Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to provide students with disabilities a customized study program that fits their needs. As a team, our job was to align the programs the school districts offer with student's needs. By working with parents, teachers, and medical providers, we help identify the child's needs and ensure that the child receives appropriate services to succeed in school.

We also help low-income people with public benefit programs created to support their needs. For example, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a government funded program that helps low-income people who are aged, blind, or disabled. Legal Aid provides support to those who qualify for SSI but are unable to receive the benefits for various reasons.  In addition to SSI, we also help low-income families access healthcare through Medi-Cal, California's Medicaid program.

The US has people from all walks of life and culture. One of the nice things about this internship is that I was able to use my native language to help the Chinese community in the Bay Area. There are a lot of resources available to immigrant families. However, it may be difficult for immigrant families to understand the relevant materials and make an informed decision. I had the opportunity to translate for some of our Chinese immigrant clients. Explaining law in a different language has its challenges - not only did I have to understand the materials in depth, I also had to put forth a deliberate effort to translate materials as close to their intended meanings as possible. Despite the challenges, by speaking the client's native language, I was able to create a stronger connection between the clients and Legal Aid. 

Looking back at the experience I had this summer, I feel extremely proud to be a part of Legal Aid and to have contributed to the community in the best way I could.

Legal Aid Restores Safety to a 20-Year Survivor of Domestic Violence

"Natalie" had been married to "Paul" for 20 years. They have three young children. Ever since the start of their marriage, Paul abused Natalie.

Paul had a drug addiction, and had been in and out of jail many times. His children were afraid of him, and suffered from panic attacks when he was around. He exhibited violent behavior in the house: breaking glass in the children's bedrooms, punching through the television, shattering the car windows, and ruining the carpets. Paul even purposefully sabotaged the sump pump in the basement, causing the house to flood.

Paul frequently yelled at Natalie in front of their children.  He spit in her face, and even threatened to kill her. Paul would not refer to Natalie by her name, only by "bitch." After an episode in which Paul poured hot beans on Natalie's body and threw lard in her hair, Natalie filed a police report, leading to a temporary restraining order against Paul. But even after the temporary order was filed, Paul continued to violate it, leaving Natalie and her children no less afraid than before.

Natalie needed a permanent restraining order. She was referred to Legal Aid's Director of Pro Bono Janet Seldon by partner Bay Area Legal Aid, who, along with Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse (CORA), comprise our Domestic Violence Collaborative. Janet turned to her pro bono network and placed the case with Jonathan Joannides-- an attorney with Wilson Sonsini-who agreed to represent Natalie in court. With Jonathan's pro bono help, Natalie was granted a permanent restraining order, including full protection for her children and no visitation rights for Paul. Paul cannot violate this order without facing criminal charges.

Domestic violence is a problem in every community-one in three women will experience physical abuse in their lifetime.  Access to legal services is critical in enabling survivors to establish independent and permanent functional family units. A recent study concluded that the "availability of legal services has a significant, negative effect on the incidence of abuse" and that offering "long-term, realistic alternatives to their relationships" is a key component for women leaving abusive relationships.

Legal Aid and its cadre of pro bono attorneys are able to provide legal representation to survivors of domestic violence, and help them navigate the complex and intimidating criminal and family court systems. Between April 2015 and March 2017, Legal Aid closed 204 domestic violence and elder abuse cases. In over half of those cases, the attorneys provided extensive legal services to clients; helping 63% of clients secure permanent restraining orders against their abusers.

Although no form of legal action can undo the suffering that Natalie and her children endured, a permanent restraining order can enable them to finally move forward with their lives, and to begin to recover, knowing that the law protects them.

The Challenges of Special Education in San Mateo County, and How Legal Aid is Addressing Them

 Blog author Iliana Arbeed

Blog author Iliana Arbeed

Recently, I accompanied Legal Aid attorney Michelle de Blank to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting for a six year old boy I’ll call “Jonathan.” Jonathan has ADHD, a disorder that hinders his ability to learn in a large classroom setting despite his average cognitive capabilities. Although he struggles at school, many children like him flourish with appropriate intervention and assistance in the classroom.
Students with disabilities are guaranteed a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under a federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA includes provisions for an IEP, under which a team of individuals involved in the child’s care and education convene to set educational guidelines based on the child’s individual needs. To qualify for an IEP with special services under IDEA, a child must have one of the thirteen disabilities listed in the statute.
Since IDEA’s enactment in 1975, the number of children and youth (aged 3-21) diagnosed with learning disabilities has steadily increased. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around 13% of all children and youth enrolled in public school in 2015 had disabilities that qualified them for IDEA services. Learning disabilities are even more prevalent among children who experience some degree of trauma or poverty, which affect nearly all of Legal Aid’s clients.   
Even if children qualify for IDEA, school districts do not always provide them with the services they need to make it through school. Thus, Legal Aid steps in to ensure that school districts are doing their job in providing the appropriate services to their students with disabilities. A significant portion of that work involves making sure that parents’ voices are heard throughout the IEP process, so they do not have to struggle to feel involved in their child’s education. Our attorneys ensure that each parent is educated about their child’s rights, and their concerns presented and taken seriously during IEP meetings before any decisions are made.
Since the majority of Legal Aid’s clients are not English-speaking, they are less able to access information about the laws that protect their children, leaving them at a disadvantage during IEP meetings. Even at meetings where an interpreter is present, there remains a barrier to direct communication that creates a feeling of detachment from the process, preventing parents from raising questions of their own. For example, in the meeting I attended, I noticed repeatedly that the interpreter could not keep up with the discussion through no fault of her own, and failed to communicate everything that was being discussed. More often than not, it felt as though Jonathan’s mother was not even there. Thankfully, Michelle’s ability to speak Spanish allowed her to communicate directly with Jonathan’s mother, enabling her to be more involved in the process.
Even if they do not face the added challenge of a language barrier, many parents remain silent during IEP meetings while other parties decide the best course of action for their child. With so many voices and opinions at these meetings—between the child’s therapist, psychiatrist, teachers, and health care providers—it  can be difficult for any parent to get a word in edgewise. During the meeting I attended, the mother did not voice her consent to the IEP or her personal insight about Jonathan’s condition until prompted and encouraged by Michelle.
Even if they disagree with the outcome of an evaluation or IEP, parents often feel pressured to sign special education agreements without voicing their concerns. Without legal advocacy, many parents are observers in their child’s education process, when they should be participants. Understanding the importance of early intervention in special education, Legal Aid attorneys like Michelle work closely with parents to ensure that students with disabilities in San Mateo County are not underserved. 

A Beacon of Hope for Immigrants in the Bay Area

 Blog author Iliana Arbeed

Blog author Iliana Arbeed

En español aqui

"I don't want to take any risks," explains a 52-year-old immigrant mother fearing deportation, when asked by the Associated Press why she felt it was necessary to drop her teenage daughter, a U.S. citizen, from the food stamp benefit she relied on. 

Fears of deportation plague immigrant families in our community and across the United States, as chilling stories of ICE raids and families being forcefully separated circulate through the media. These fears are at a high in California, where the U.S. Census Bureau states that the immigrant population is twice the national average. The Bureau also found that here in San Mateo County, more than one third of the approximately 750,000 residents are foreign-born. Of the estimated 7.6% of these residents who are unauthorized, the Migration Policy Institute recorded that more than half have lived in the U.S. for over ten years, over 70% are employed, and many have U.S. citizen children. 

Despite the fact that immigrants are deeply integrated into our communities--as friends, coworkers, peers, husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers--many still lack knowledge about their legal rights. All immigrants, documented or undocumented, are eligible under federal law for basic services such as emergency health care. However, even if they are aware of these rights, they are increasingly afraid to pursue them--even for their U.S.-born children. 

Legal Aid's Linking Immigrants to Benefits, Resources, and Education (LIBRE) Project is a catalyst for action at a time when many are paralyzed by their fear of the government. When negative rhetoric towards immigrants is perpetrated by the highest of government officials, LIBRE represents a voice of compassion and justice for immigrants and their families. 

LIBRE is a collaborative between the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County and six other organizations in San Mateo County: Redwood City 2020, Nuestra Casa, Coastside Hope, Ravenswood School District, Redwood City School District, and the San Mateo County Human Services Agency. Its aim is to ameliorate the barriers that prevent immigrants from asserting their rights and accessing basic services. To accomplish this task, LIBRE connects immigrants and their families with various resources in their communities such as healthcare facilities, community centers, and other support services, to help them obtain the benefits for which they are eligible.

Immigrants turn to LIBRE because it is known in the community as a trusted source of accurate information, in a day and age where it is increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction. For example, a common myth among immigrant families is that applying for any government benefits will label them as a "public charge," which will negatively affect their immigration status in the future. In reality, "public charge" is a term only for certain immigrants who are applying for legal permanent residence status, and who the government deems likely to rely on specific cash benefits. Obtaining non-cash benefits, such as Medicare or Food Stamps, does not raise public charge issues. Through outreach efforts like presentations at local community centers, LIBRE works to ensure that immigrants know these myths are false. LIBRE educates immigrant families about the benefits for which they are eligible, and whether their immigration status will be affected.

The opportunity for immigrants to receive these benefits is not about taking resources away from U.S. citizens, and it is not about free-riding off the government. It is about accessing the basics of life--food and health care--that every human being needs in order to survive and to be a contributing member of society. Legal Aid attorneys and their LIBRE partners do not assist individuals in thwarting the law. They assist pregnant mothers who need prenatal care to give birth to a healthy child, developing children whose parents cannot afford to feed them, and ill grandparents who could die from the flu without basic medical services. 

Recently, I had the privilege of attending a LIBRE conference and experiencing these efforts firsthand. The conference was composed of representatives from each organization that makes up LIBRE, who convene regularly to discuss their work. Going into the conference, what I expected to see was a group at least somewhat discouraged by the growing difficulty of advocating for immigrants in today's tumultuous political environment. However, what I observed was a community of individuals passionately continuing to work against those obstacles. 

Rather than feeling defeated, the members of LIBRE seem imbued with a renewed sense of purpose, inspired to do their job even better and to work even harder. I watched as they raised questions, shared experiences, addressed obstacles, and formed solutions as a group. LIBRE's clients need them now more than ever, and it is clear from what I observed that LIBRE has no intention of backing away from the challenges ahead. Remaining committed to serving its clients no matter what, LIBRE is a beacon of hope in a time of great uncertainty for one of the largest immigrant communities in the country.  

To learn more about LIBRE, visit their website:

Protecting Senior Citizens from Abuse: What I Learned from Senior Advocate Attorney Joshua Grossman

 Blog author Iliana Arbeed

Blog author Iliana Arbeed

En espanol aqui

Despite the fact that respect for a society’s elders is a shared value across cultures worldwide, the issue of elder abuse persists. As I learned this week with Senior Advocate Attorney Joshua Grossman, seniors are among the most frequently exploited and neglected members of our community.
The California Welfare and Institutions Code defines elder abuse as physical abuse, neglect, financial abuse, abandonment, isolation, abduction or other treatment resulting in physical harm, pain, or mental suffering. This definition also includes the deprivation by a care custodian of any goods or services that the senior needs in order to avoid physical harm or mental suffering. 
According to the Bureau of Justice, over 2,150,000 elder abuse cases are opened each year. In a 2017 study by the National Center on Elder Abuse, it was found that 68% of Adult Protective Service cases are responses to instances of elder abuse. What is even more striking is that 66% of those abuse cases are perpetrated by the senior’s own children or spouse.
Based on projections from the State of California Department of Finance, our senior population here in San Mateo County is expected to grow by over 70% by 2030. The District Attorney’s Office states that elder abuse—both physical and financial—is one of the fastest growing crimes in our county.
Although elder abuse remains a prevalent issue, an alarming amount of cases go unreported. Victims may not report abuse because of their relationship to the abuser, because of their diminished capacity to understand that they are being mistreated, or simply because they are afraid. For every reported case of elder abuse, it is estimated that as many as 24 cases go unreported.
As a Seniors Advocate Attorney, Josh describes the initiative taken at Legal Aid to fight elder abuse. He explains, “At Legal Aid, we are constantly educating seniors about their right to live free from all forms of abuse. We explain the options available to them, including how to pursue legal action and how to utilize the community resources available to keep them safe.”
In his work at Legal Aid, Josh deals with a variety of tragic elder abuse cases. During our conversations, he shared a story of one of his cases.
“Martha,” a 67 year old woman with incapacitating back and hip problems, lives on a fixed income and shares a home with her adult son, a strong man who does not contribute to the household income. He is mentally unstable, and is frequently angry and abusive toward his mother.
In a fit of rage one day, Martha’s son forcefully pushed her over in the kitchen, losing his own balance and landing on top of her. He fled, leaving Martha alone on the kitchen floor in severe pain. Martha managed to get herself to a hospital, where nurses alerted the police. Soon after, Martha’s son was arrested for elder abuse and incarcerated. On top of the physical violence toward his mother, Martha’s son had set fire to parts of the home, forcing her to stay in a hotel while the city assessed the property damage. After her release from the hospital, a social worker with San Mateo County Adult Protective Services referred Martha to Legal Aid. 
Because Martha was unable to reach Legal Aid’s offices, Josh met with her at the hotel where she was staying. Martha told Josh that she constantly feared for her safety. She was very worried that her son was infuriated by the arrest, and would come after her as soon as he was released from jail. Martha needed help fast.
Josh explained to Martha that the law could protect and free her from a life of violence and fear. He explained the legal options available to keep her safe, including the right to a temporary restraining order to protect her after her son was released from jail, and while his elder abuse case was pending.
Josh prepared a petition for an elder abuse restraining order, and represented Martha at the hearing two weeks later. The judge issued a three-year protective restraining order for Martha. With her protective order, Martha can now live without the constant fear of being harmed, and is able to recover in the safety of her own home.
Extreme situations like Martha’s are not uncommon. However, elder abuse occurs on many levels, which is why Legal Aid does more than just intervene in extreme cases.
Beyond achieving justice for severely abused seniors like Martha, Legal Aid reaches out to the senior community—in collaboration with government social workers and other nonprofit partners—in order to inform seniors of their legal rights proactively. In my time spent with Josh in Senior Advocacy, I observed firsthand the depth of Legal Aid’s outreach and community impact. Our community work allows us to respond to the growing problem of elder abuse, restoring both safety and dignity to seniors experiencing any form of mistreatment. 

Legal Aid from the Inside: An Intern's Experience

 Blog author Iliana Arbeed

Blog author Iliana Arbeed

My name is Iliana Arbeed, and I'm a member of the Class of 2019 at the University of Southern California, studying Politics, Philosophy, and Law with a minor of study in International Relations, and a pre-law professional emphasis. 

This summer, I'm working as a Communications Intern for the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, conducting policy research and investigating its implications for Legal Aid's clients. My day to day work includes a combination of research and work with attorneys as they assist their clients. My hope is to draw meaningful connections between large-scale politics and their effect on low-income residents of San Mateo County, identifying key issues and communicating what Legal Aid does to address them.