To the graduates (of course)

It’s graduation time around these parts. I’m in the extended MSW program so its extra bittersweet for me. Those that I started out here with two years ago are moving on, past the classes and the field placements and I am not…. one more year, just one more. I’m experiencing a sort of odd mixture of jealousy and relief. More school, ick. More time to figure out what is it that I want to do with myself, thank goodness.

With graduation and the end of the academic year comes, inevitably, the end of this blog and my parting note. A while ago, I came across this quote from George Saunders (I swear its not from the graduation speech at Syracuse that takes over the internet around this time of year).  

“Don’t be afraid to be confused.

Try to remain permanently confused.

Anything is possible.

Stay open, forever,

so open that it hurts, and

then open up some more, until the day you die…”

The line, while intended (if memory serves me correctly) to inspire young writers, seems to me really pertinent to social work, to what I’ve been talking about here, to what my fellow social media team members have been writing about on their blogs. Social work is confusing. I will never understand why some of the things that have happened to the clients I’ve worked with have happened.  I hope there never comes a time when it doesn’t boggle my mind how systems designed to help the most vulnerable groups  amongst us can fail them so entirely and unapologetically. I may never feel 100% certain that my work with my clients is enough, that its making a difference, that its what they need.  From this confusion, though, is the opportunity for fresh ideas, new solutions, for change to spring. Anything is possible.    So my friends as you graduate and enter the field, try to stay open to what that confusion can bring. It will hurt, absolutely. It will be incredibly frustrating, incredibly soul crushing. Being open to our clients can mean allowing in a lot of pain but don’t close yourself off. When you feel yourself getting burnt out, open up some more. Open up some more because thats how the real work gets done. We are blessed with the opportunity to be a catalyst for change, for real impactful change, in our client’s lives, in their families, their communities and their country. Let’s see what we can do with it…. no pressure.

Following the news…..

The death penalty. It’s been in the news a lot as of late, so I feel a little obligated to write about it. It’s actually an interesting topic to think about as social workers, though, admittedly not one we will come across in New York state.  In a capital offense case (like any crime really), our clients could be anyone; they could be the perpetrator, the victim’s family, a survivor of the crime and likely our view on whether the inmate should be executed would shift as we come in contact with each. There are many arguments from each side; ranging from “an eye for an eye” to “cruel and unusual punishment”. I could present these arguments here but I think you already could guess what my own point of view would be so I thought I might just give y’all some facts, some stories, ya know, some information so maybe you could make your own decision

According to (yes, thats a website), there have been 1,379 execution in our country since the death penalty  was reinstated in 1976.

So far this year, there have been 20.

Several of these 20 executions have made headlines. The problem that arose in a number of those executions was a shortage of the drugs used to lethal injections.This has left prison officials scrambling to find new lethal combinations.  In January, Ohio inmate Dennis Mcguire was killed used a new combinations of drugs and he appeared to gasp and convulse for 10 minutes after his injection. That’s not supposed to happen. Last month, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court ruled that inmates on death row did not have a right to know what drugs were going to be used in their execution. What followed was a the horrifically botched lethal injection of Mr. Clayton Lovett, a stay of execution for Mr .Charles Warner who was scheduled to be killed shortly after Lovett and nationwide debate. Beyond the modality of execution, there has been a recent calling for the end of the death penalty, based largely on the concern that innocent or incompetent individuals will be unjustly executed. CNN aired a series called Death Row Stories, discussing this. A little over a month ago, in Mississippi, Michelle Byron was granted a stay of execution on account of her possible innocence.

This clip sums things up pretty nicely.
And because I’m realizing the facts I’ve presented are REALLY biased… This article, and maybe this one too, might show the other side of things (I swear I searched for a good argument for and found very little to work with)

On youth court…..

In case you haven’t noticed yet, I’m pretty interested in alternatives to incarceration, alternative sanctions in general, for individuals involved with the criminal justice system. In my elective class this semester, I learned of one alternative program for juvenile offenders that’s effectiveness kind of blew my mind: youth court. What is so incredible about youth court is that its essentially run entirely by young people in the community. I mean, yes, there are adults overseeing things, but the court staff consists of youth court members aged 10-18; the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, the defense attorney – all neighborhood kids.  When we are young, we are taught that peer pressure is an evil bad thing (did anyone else suffer through the DARE program?), but a youth court turns that idea on its head. The premise of youth court is that it harnesses the power of positive peer pressure to teach youth accountability to their community and put an end to patterns of disruptive behavior by addressing underlying causes of deviant behavior.

Youth court procedures vary depending on location but I’ll just give you a general overview on how it works. Youth courts get their cases through referrals from outside sources typically – the police, schools, community-based programs, the criminal courts themselves, social workers like us. After a referral, youth court adult staff members reach out to family and offender to explain the process and then if they choose to participate, schedule a hearing. The hearing is run entirely by youth members of the court. Youth members are teenage volunteers from the community. They receive extensive training in all the court roles. The youth members volunteer for a variety of reasons. One of the members that spoke to my class joined because his mother pressured him to. Another because it would look good on her college applications. The third because she, herself, had been a respondent in youth court and she wanted to give back to the program she credited with changing the course of her life for the better. Youth members act as the judge, jury and lawyers (referred to as advocates) during the hearing. The jury after hearing the case decides on a fair and appropriate sanction for the offender – community service, essays, psycho-educational workshops. Another interesting fact about youth courts is that, despite their inability to really enforce sanctions, they tend to have a high rate of compliance. One youth court in Brooklyn has a compliance rate of somewhere near 80%. Thats much higher than a typical criminal court.

I think this sort of program is a really amazing intervention option for social workers with clientele that includes youthful offenders.  We know that criminal courts don’t have a great reputation for providing services that address the underlying causes of crimes. For a teenager, getting to the cause of their destructive behavior can be particularly life altering. Youth courts provide a great opportunity to do this. They also provide a chance for socialization with peers that offenders might not have otherwise met; these relationships could have a positive impact on a youth. Additionally, from a youth court program, individuals learn more about the law. Maybe they learn how to react when police stop them or how to advocate for themselves to authority figures, all things that can greatly impact an encounter with law enforcement. As the humble social workers we are, we know that can never really know what sort of intervention our clients will respond best to. Some juveniles, like the one who spoke in my class, will benefit greatly from this sort of program, others will not but I really think we have to recognize referral options that may have a meaningful impact on our clients. We can’t  always be the catalyst for change, sometimes we need the community.

Read more here.

On Housing….

Perhaps its because I’m in the process of moving (well, internally moving, ya know, switching bedrooms)  or maybe its spring cleaning fever (not a chance at all) but I’ve got housing on the mind this week and, fortunately for me, housing law is an area of law that I haven’t written about yet. What a coincidence, right?

New York is a city of renters and with that comes a lot of landlord/tenant disputes and eviction proceedings. This is an issue, we as social workers in this city, will likely run into at least a time or two (probably many more actually) with our clients. Housing court is not a pleasant place to be. Its a busy and chaotic place that many find confusing and intimidating (myself included). On account of the fact that the legal aid organization that I work at has a very strong, wildly busy housing practice and because this is an issue a number of clients that I have worked with have experienced, I’ve picked up a thing  or two about dealing with a housing case that I can pass along. Here are few things we can do as social workers to assist our clients when they find themselves facing eviction:

  • The most important thing your client can do is PAY ATTENTION TO THE FACT THEY HAVE BEEN SERVED WITH HOUSING COURT PAPERS. Appear in court on the day that the papers indicate. One should be there on time in the room that is indicated on their summons. They should bring with them all documents they have pertaining to the case like rent receipts, for example. With such a threat to their sense of security, many clients might want to invoke a defense of denial and ignore the issue. A default judgment entered in one’s absence is a really fast way to lose one’s home.

  • One thing that I was surprised, pleasantly so, to learn is that being evicted is not necessarily a fast process if one appears in court. The housing court will work with a respondent if they come before the court and explain what’s going on. The court’s objective is not to increase the number of homeless in our city. They want to work out a deal. Maybe your client can negotiate a way to pay back their rental arrears (overdue rent) and retain their apartment. Maybe your client won’t be able to save their apartment, but maybe they can buy themselves some time to figure out a new place to go. Relaying this fact can help to ease the client’s mind.

  • Sometimes in intimidating settings like the court, individuals feel pressured to sign agreements that they don’t completely comprehend. It’s good practice to really stress to your client that they should NEVER sign anything they don’t understand. If they have questions about the agreement, they must ask the judge. The judge is there to help them.

  • That being said, once you sign an agreement it’s a binding legal document. You will be held to the provisions listed in the agreement. If it says that you are to pay the rental arrears by a certain date, you must do so.

  • If a judgment is entered in one’s housing case and they are being evicted, they will receive a Notice of Eviction by a New York City Marshal. This is sometimes referred to as a Marshal’s Notice.  This will come in one of two ways. A “72  Hour Notice of Eviction” must be served personally (handed to them) on the respondent. In this case, a person  can be evicted on the fourth business day after the date of notice or any date thereafter. Instead of a “72 Hour Notice of Eviction”, a person may receive a court document entitled “Notice of Eviction”. If this is the case, the person can be evicted on the sixth business day after the date of notice or any day thereafter. It’s important to note that the clock starts ticking on the date of eviction based on the date of the notice and not on the date that the notice is received by your client. If your client receives either of these notices and wishes to keep their apartment, they should immediately go down to housing court and file an Order to Show Cause. One can do this by going to the Clerk’s office in the housing court and requesting the forms to file an Order to Show Cause. The Clerk will give them an Affidavit to fill out. The should check off all the boxes that apply to their case. On the Affidavit, one should indicate the reasons why they believe they shouldn’t be evicted. Include copies of any documentation they have to back up their claim. Write in any additional information that the judge should know about their case. Be very thorough! The Order to Show Cause will be read by the judge and, if they deem it sufficient, signed. The signed Order to Show Cause must then be personally served on the opposing party or, if they have an atty, their atty. It must also be served on the city marshal. The next step will be returning to court. At this point, your client has sort of preformed triage on their housing case and should consult with an attorney.

  • Getting a housing attorney is not easy in this city with the multitude of cases. It will be necessary to call around to all the legal aid organizations and be diligent about following their procedures for intake. Make sure your client continues calling until they actually speak to a person. From my own personal experience, my voicemail box is often flooded with messages from people looking for a housing lawyer who just pushed a random extension and left a message. That’s not an effective way to obtain a housing lawyer.  Some organizations wait until the individual is actually evicted to assist, so advise your client not to become discouraged and to continue to be proactive and attend their court dates with or without a lawyer.

This post has gotten incredibly lengthy but I hope its helpful. I really feel strongly that it would behoove our profession to know these sorts of things in a general way (shocker, right?). Being able to provide our clients with basic information in situations like these, when maybe there isn’t time to find a lawyer before one must take action, could really make a huge difference in the lives our clients.

PS This is a real interesting housing case in the courts right now.

on this again…..

Last summer, for an elective class I was taking, I wrote a paper discussing whether a seriously mentally ill inmate can give informed consent for treatment. I know what you are thinking and the answer is yes, I am talking about this again. If you think about the three elements involved in granting informed consent – disclosure, understanding and voluntary consent – the prospect of a seriously mentally ill prisoner granting such seems bleak. To satisfy the disclosure aspect, a doctor must tell his patients  all material information about their treatment – possible side effects, alternative treatments, the whole lot. In a prison setting where cost efficiency is paramount, my guess is treatment options are incredibly limited — “if you want to get better, this is the pill that you can take.” The doctors are placed in an impossible conflict between the needs of the institution that they work for and the patients that they see. Understanding of their diagnosis and implications of treatment may be hard to come by as well when an inmate only begins receiving treatment after they have decompensated. As for voluntary consent, well…. In the case Washington v Harper, the US Supreme Court ruled that states could forcibly medicate their seriously mentally ill prisoners if the the medical practitioners on staff could demonstrate that the prisoner is a threat to themselves or others (Just FYI, outside the prison walls a judge is the only person who can rule a person incompetent and pave the way for forcible medication).  In a prison setting, one can imagine how easy it would be to determine that a prisoner is a threat to themselves and others. Disorder legitimately poses a threat to correctional officers and other inmates; being orderly in the midst of psychotic break is pretty unlikely.

Ya know, when I wrote that paper, I put a lot of thought into the logistics of informed consent, into the rights an inmate should have and how those rights were being violated but what I didn’t really think about was why an inmate might not want to be compliant with their medication.  A speaker in a different elective class that I am taking this semester provided some valuable insight on the topic. While I was aware that many seriously mentally ill individuals stop taking their medication because of side effects and a dulling of their senses, I hadn’t really thought about what those side effects could mean in a prison setting. Being over-medicated or numbed by a course of treatment while in the general population of a prison is not safe. I become then a target for predators, someone who is easily taken advantage of. I become vulnerable to sexual assault and other violent attacks.  A person might refuse their medication in that environment to survive; the symptoms of one’s mental illness may be a defense for them, perhaps a badly needed one.

While my liberal social worker self feels compelled to side with the prisoners in this debate, I absolutely see the other side of it. Having a seriously mentally ill inmate suffering from psychotic breaks or paranoid delusions who is refusing medication among the general population in a prison is a serious problem. It poses threats to the order of the correctional facility, to the staff and to the other prisoners. Its not hard to see why sometimes force needs to be used to maintain control. I do not at all believe the answer to this problem is to allow these inmates to refuse medication and decompensate. That solution isn’t good for anyone not the seriously ill inmates or the staff.  I believe the answer is to stop these individuals from entering the prison system at all. The answer is more community services, more alternative sentences, more acknowledgement of the underlying causes of crime and the creation of more programs to address such. The solution to me is an obvious one but the way that solution comes to fruition, I do not know. What I do know though is that every solution starts with acknowledging the problem. It starts with advocates; It starts with me and you and whoever else we can get ( preferably some people with access to funding. As much as I hate to admit it, money, we are for sure also going to need that…)

On spotting legal issues…..

One thing I’ve learned to do pretty well as a paralegal is a spot a legal issue. I don’t necessarily know how to rectify the issue but, hey, identifying a problem is the first step to solving it, right? This skill has turned out to be a huge asset for me in my work with clients. It’s been really shocking for me to realize just how often people unaware of the law are taken advantage of. In my work at an organization providing free legal assistance, the clients are aware there is something a lawyer can do for them. That is why they call in the first place. At my field placement, this is not the case. My clients are often completely oblivious to any legal remedies available to them. One client that I have been working with for the past month presented with issues paying her bills. After speaking with her at length, I’ve come to realize that her current problems stem from an eviction that took place two years ago, an eviction that the client could have fought in court. While she may not have been able to retain her apartment, she could have bought herself time and that time would likely have made a world of difference for her. Unfortunately, my client wasn’t aware at the time that she could fight the eviction in court and no one told her. That fact got me thinking just how much better social workers might be able to serve their clients if they are trained to spot legal issues and have appropriate referrals for services.

I once attended a webinar taught by the Victim’s Right Law Center about issue spotting with victims of sexual assault during intake (thats a mouth full). The thing that the presenters really stressed was just how many facets there are to a client’s story, to their presenting problem. A young woman sexually assaulted on her college campus may present asking for assistance processing her attack and its effects on her life but when probed so many other issues, ones with legal remedies might present themselves.  She might say she feels horribly unsafe because she keeps getting messages from her perpetrator on Facebook. It might turn out she has an order of protection against her abuser from criminal court but she doesn’t understand it. It might not contain any provisions prohibiting him from contact via social media. It could though, she should contact the DA on the case. Maybe her perpetrator was her boyfriend. She might be eligible for a Family Court Order of Protection. She needs a family law attorney.  Does the client feel safe in her apartment? Maybe she wants to break her lease but can’t afford the fines. She needs a housing attorney.  Did she lose her job after she was assaulted because she was afraid to be there or because she was suffering psychological repercussions from the attack? She should speak with an attorney familiar with worker’s rights or one who knows the provisions of the VAWA act. What about school? What about her immigration status? You see where I am going with this.

I think it can be very easy for social workers to focus on their clinical work and miss other ways they can assist their clients. When you are working with clients that have no involvement in the court system, it can be difficult to recognize when a client should, in fact, get involved. Now, I’m not suggesting we all go out and study the law but I am suggesting we learn to notice more when our client’s rights are being violated. Sometimes we might be wrong, sometimes we/our clients might consult an attorney and learn there is absolutely nothing that can be done to assist them with their problem. There will be other times though; other times when our clients will be able to use the courts to their advantage and be all the better for it. If my client had known housing law remedies available to her, she never would have had to walk through the door to meet with me and, while I’m happy that I had the occasion to meet her, I would much happier if she had the financial security she deserves.

On being a social worker in the court system….

Through an elective course I’m taking this semester, I’ve had the opportunity to hear a number of  guest lectures by social workers and other professionals working within the court system. Though their roles in the court and clientele varied, I noted a few common trends in their work experiences that I thought I might pass along to y’all, in case anyone was thinking about getting into the field.

  • Working in a court is very fast-paced job.  You are likely to see many clients in a day and for short periods of time.

  • Being good at completing quick and thorough assessments is a must. Sharpen up on those biopsychosocial skills.

  • Be prepared to go to bat for your client. Many of the speakers described being strong advocates for  their clients in the face of a, sometimes, unsympathetic court. If they believed their client would benefit substantially from, say, a supervised release or a certain treatment program,  they had to be able to make their client’s case for such to the defense attorney, to the DA, sometimes even to the judge.

  • Along the same vein, many of the speakers described how difficult it can be to admit to the court when their client is not meeting their mandated responsibilities. If their client isn’t attending their treatment program, for example, they have to be honest and report that to the judge knowing that there may be consequences for their client. Its hard to tattle (for lack of a better term) on a client, especially if the social worker may have grown to like them but, ultimately, it may lead to better outcomes for their client. It also retains a social worker’s professional credibility in front of the court. Losing your credibility can be harmful for one’s other clients as well as the program one works for.

  • One former public defender who spoke to us noted the importance of a social worker upholding their own professional ethics in the court environment. We aren’t lawyers, we don’t need to act like one.

I got the impression for our speakers that working in a criminal justice setting is an incredibly challenging, yet rewarding endeavor. A lot like most social work positions, huh? I guess, in the end, the lesson I took away from all our speakers is just how valuable an ally a social worker can be for an individual who is court involved. If that’s a role you might be interested in taking, you can find job listings, here and here.

Something to keep our eyes on….

A couple of recent incidents at Riker’s Island involving seriously mentally ill inmates (specifically this one and this one), have resulted in firings and criminal charges against correction officers as well as loud calls for change from NYC government officials and advocates….

Here’s another interesting case involving the discharge process for the seriously mentally ill on Riker’s Island….

.. On the DREAM act….

One of my absolute favorite things about living in New York City is going to see live music in small venues. Its not what you think; its not the intimate setting or the hipster status that comes from attending more “underground” shows. What I love about these shows is how excited the people/person on stage typically is to be playing in NYC. Playing a packed show to a NYC crowd is a huge deal and I love when bands can’t hide  their excitement about it. I love watching people have their “I’m going to make it” moment, ya know, living out their dreams. (This is also the reason that I cry while watching sporting events involving a championship of any sort, one shining moment anyone?).

Its on account of this “living the dream” fetish of mine, perhaps, that I was so saddened during a presentation I attended on Silver’s Common Day given by the DREAM team at NYU. The presentation centered on the NY State DREAM act. The passing of the DREAM act in NY would mean that undocumented students would be eligible for financial assistance with college tuition from the state, like financial aid and scholarships from a DREAM fund. When I think of undocumented immigrants, I typically think of people who made the choice to move here themselves. The presentation by the DREAM Team at NYU made me think of a different type of undocumented immigrant ; Children of undocumented immigrants who came here as a child, some of which may be unaware of their undocumented status. These children grew up here in the States just like myself. They attended elementary, middle and high school here. They made plans to go to college. The only difference between them and I, in that regard, is that I have a piece of paper that declares me a US citizen, and that makes my eligible for all kinds of financial assistance to enact my college plans. Undocumented students are not afforded that assistance. With the price of a college education what it is today, this creates a barrer for these students to higher education and, in turn, many career paths.

This week, the NY Senate had a chance to remove this barrier and offer, at least, some state assistance. They  failed to do so. In a 30-29 vote, the NY DREAM act was rejected.  This surprised many immigrants and advocates. While its certainly discouraging, it hasn’t stopped immigration reform groups from advocating for the passage of the bill the next time around and in a larger sense federal immigration reform. Perhaps those of us who weren’t involved in the advocacy efforts up to now, should consider joining them. After all, this is a bill that will likely offer opportunity to many of our clients. In this economy, a college degree could mean the difference between poverty or a middle-class lifestyle. It could bring that “I’m going to make it” moment that I love  to the faces of many undocumented students (I might cry now). If you are interested in getting involved you could start here or here….

Taking a break from solving the mystery of the missing plane…..

I’ve become so consumed with the missing Malaysian airplane that I have had no time to read any other news or even think of something else to write about here (priorities?), so I figured that I would write what I know. Through the course of my employment, I’ve learned a thing or two about filing Family Offense Petitions (FOP) in the Family Court of our state, some things that I feel might be useful for social workers working with domestic violence survivors and their families.

Why file an FOP?

Family Offense Petitions ask the Family Court to issue an Order of Protection (OP). They allege that the Petitioner has been a victim of family offenses. These offensesmust be perpetrated by anyone related by blood or marriage, a person the petitioner was or is married to or with whom they share a child or someone the petitioner is involved in an intimate relationship with, like dating. Family offenses in the state of New York include varying degrees of assault, harassment, stalking and sexual assault.

Why an Order of Protection from the Family Court instead of Criminal Court?

A person may have both an order of protection from the Criminal Court and the Family Court. A criminal OP comes as a result of criminal charges and a case brought by the District Attorney’s Office. The police would have to be involved to make the report the DA’s office. The case is not in control of the victim, it is the DA’s case. Many such cases (particularly first offenses) will get pled out and while an OP is usually part of that plea, it’s not always the case. In Family Court the victim has more control. It is their case. One does not have to have called the police during incidents, though police reports can be good evidence.  In Family Court, the petitioner has more control over the types of relief granted by the OP but it will require more court appearances.

What goes in an FOP?

An FOP should contain VERY detailed accounts of the family offenses perpetrated against the survivor. A good jumping off point often mentioned is “First, Worst and Most Recent.”  Mention the place the incident occurred and the date (at the very least a month/season and year). Victims should include any injuries sustained in the incident, emotional and physical.

Here’s an example:

On or about January 8, 2014, Respondent and I were in the marital home when Respondent became very angry that I left the door open. Respondent lunged across the room and grabbed me by the  arm. He was screaming words to the effect of “Close this door right now or I will punch you in the face’  I felt very fearful of Respondent. When he released me,  I had bruises on my right arm. The bruises were present for a week and were so visible that I had to wear long sleeves to cover them. I felt very ashamed and embarrassed.From experience, I can say that it may be very helpful for a social worker to spend some time with your client (if they have it) creating this list of incidents. Your clients may have trouble recalling incidents or time frames, particularly in a long abusive marriage. They may also feel compelled to include things that aren’t necessarily family offenses that would dilute the strength of the petition, for example, they may want to include that their partner is cheating on them.  Thats terrible and certainly distressing but infidelity is not in and of itself an offense punishable in the Family Court.

An FOP can ask for various forms of relief. It can order the Respondent to stay away from Petitioner, to refrain for committing family offenses against them or contacting them even through third parties. It can order them out of the home the parties share. It can grant temporary custody and child support.  The Petitioner should indicate what relief they are looking for exactly to the clerk when they file.

How does one file an FOP?

To file an FOP, one must go to the petition room of the Family Court in their borough. The clerk will type up the FOP for them.  There is no filing fee.

What happens after it is filed?

The petitioner will be called before a judge. If the petition is filed in the morning, this will likely happen in the same day. If one files later in the day, one may have to return the following day to see the Judge. When before the judge, the judge may ask them to speak about the incidents alleged in their petition. One should answer the questions completely and truthfully. If the judge deems the petition sufficient cause to issue an OP, they will issue a temporary one. This TOP must be served on the Respondent for it to be in effect. Service must be carried out by a party that is over 18 and not involved in the action. One can ask a mutual friend or can go to their local police precinct to effectuate service.  The TOP will come with a summons, summoning the Respondent to the court at a future date. At the next court date, both parties, if they are low income, may request a court appointed attorney.


 Filing an FOP can be a very daunting process for our clients, one they are very reluctant to undertake  alone. Offering to accompany a client to court for this filing process can be the difference between them obtaining an OP or not. You can find out more information here. Another way our clients can get assistance with filing an FOP is by visiting the Family Justice Center of their borough. (Manhattan just opened theirs)