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School-Based Legal Clinics in Connecticut

Amy Eppler-Epstein, Alexis Smith, Deborah Witkin, & Anne Louise Blanchard

Katie misses a month of high school because her family has been evicted. While her family struggles to find other housing, she is staying on the floors or couches of different friends and relatives each night.

Jorge has been sleepy and lethargic in his second-grade class because he has been going to bed hungry at night. Even though Jorge’s father has been working over 50 hours a week, the father’s employer keeps saying the father will get paid soon. Jorge’s father knows this is wrong, but he is afraid to complain due to his undocumented status.

Sam has not been able to complete his sixth-grade homework or focus on his classes in school. Every day when he gets home from school, he has to assess whether his father is in “one of his moods” and may start hitting Sam’s mother.

Keisha has missed four days of third grade this month because her asthma flared up due to the rodent infestation in her apartment.

Sandra missed her eleventh-grade classes when she had to go to the emergency room. She started having alarming symptoms from her diabetes when her insulin prescription ran out. She is supposed to be covered by the state’s health plan for low-income children, but at the pharmacy she found out that her state insurance had inexplicably been terminated.

Children’s performance in school can be directly affected by problems in their homes or in other parts of their lives. Low-income families regularly face crises relating to fundamental needs such as food, housing, freedom from domestic violence, health, and employment. Family problems such as these can be distracting, traumatic, or even devastating to children. In the face of such troubles, how is a child supposed to succeed in school?

To help low-income children, communities have instituted a range of school-based supports—after-school programs, family resource centers, school food programs, and school-based health clinics. But what about a family’s legal crises that destabilize children’s school performance?

The staff from two Connecticut legal aid programs—Connecticut Legal Services and New Haven Legal Assistance Association—began meeting in the fall of 2014 to explore the possibility of starting school-based legal projects. Our research and exploration around the country for such work showed only a few models, most of them staffed by pro bono attorneys, law students, or temporary public interest law fellows. None was staffed by professional legal aid lawyers experienced in delivering holistic services to low-income clients. Most of the other programs work with teenagers and their families, rather than targeting early childhood interventions.

After interviewing people involved in some of the projects to learn from their successes and challenges, we designed three pilot programs in Connecticut: one project at Augusta Lewis Troup School in New Haven and another project in collaboration with a Head Start program in Ansonia under New Haven Legal Assistance Association, and a multidistrict project in Windham County under Connecticut Legal Services. All three have been operating successfully since the fall of 2015.

Designing the Project and Building Collaboration

Our projects sought to establish trusting relationships with the public schools attended by the children. All of the schools predominantly educate low-income children and offer many forms of support to students and their families.

The New Haven project started as a partnership between legal aid and the New Haven Board of Education staff person responsible for “wraparound services.” Together we selected a host school where a pilot clinic could be launched: the Troup School, a K–8 school in New Haven. Here legal aid staff members host community walk-in hours twice a week in the school’s family resource room. Besides these walk-in hours, legal aid staff members meet families by appointment. Legal aid also receives referrals from school staff and social service providers, such as the school-based health clinic, the school psychologist, the family resource center, and preschool teachers. Working directly with members of the school community, as well as social service providers in the school neighborhood, the legal clinic at Troup targets families most in need of legal services.

New Haven Legal Assistance Association has found the Troup School to be an ideal location for school-based legal services because (1) the school has an energetic and enthusiastic principal, interested in innovation and receptive to outside supports and services; (2) the school already hosted an array of outside providers, including a school-based health clinic and family resource center, and the school employs a staff liaison specifically charged with coordinating with these support resources; and (3) the Troup School is a community school, which means that most students live in the immediate vicinity of the school; reaching parents directly is easier as is partnering with community service providers in the neighborhood to reach parents.

The Head Start project, by contrast, is founded on a community partnership with TEAM Inc., a nonprofit agency that operates the Head Start preschool program in the Lower Naugatuck River Valley. The New Haven Legal Assistance Association team works closely with Head Start caseworkers who were already connecting parents to a range of social service supports. We focused our training on these caseworkers to ensure that they understood the range of legal issues that parents might be facing and that the caseworkers might refer to legal aid. The caseworkers have successfully identified legal issues being faced by parents and referred priority cases to the legal aid team. We also developed a coloring book about the valley community to distribute to children in the Head Start program. The coloring book includes information for parents about the legal aid program.

The Windham County project, initiated by Connecticut Legal Services, is to run for three years. In the first year, legal aid started by working with Windham Public Schools, the largest low-income school district within Windham County. The Windham school-based health clinics were a key partner and were enthusiastic about bringing legal resources to the families with whom they work. Leaders of the school-based health clinics helped broker a relationship with school officials. The Windham Public Schools superintendent immediately supported the project and arranged for meetings with administrative staff and school family liaisons. Over the course of the initial planning months, we reached out to school nurses, health clinic staff, and guidance counselors. We added flyers about the project to hundreds of free back-to-school backpacks, obtained press coverage about the new project in the local newspaper, and met with community groups that support local low-income families and children. Legal aid staff also met with juvenile court probation officers, juvenile court personnel, and parent liaisons for the school district.

Connecticut Legal Services received its first direct referral from Windham school personnel shortly after the school year began, and the number of referrals has consistently increased since then. In the spring of the first year, we expanded the project to offer on-site after-school office hours in one of the elementary schools. In this second year of the project we are increasing our presence in the Windham school district by reaching out to faith communities. Connecticut Legal Services participated in a large community-sponsored back-to-school event and is replicating a smaller version of this project with several other school districts in Windham County. We are investigating, as part of our expansion, the use of the “Lawyer in the Library” model to reach a few of the rural school districts in Windham County. 

Managing Potential Tension Between Legal Aid School-Based Projects and Education Law Practice

An immediate area of concern that surfaced in our discussions with school administrators and board of education personnel was whether the school-based clinic would create an avenue for an increased number of litigated cases against a school district. All of our legal aid programs have active education units that represent children in special education, expulsion, and suspension cases and sometimes entail adversarial relationships with a school. The schools were concerned that the clinics would be a means to expand that work. Legal aid advocates felt strongly that our efforts to create a trusting working relationship with the schools where the clinics are located should not prevent our education advocates from rigorously representing their clients’ interests, even if those clients attend a school in which the clinic operates.

New Haven Legal Assistance Association was able to balance these concerns by negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the New Haven Board of Education. The compromise reached in the memorandum was that the school-based legal clinic would explicitly note that it would not take applications regarding legal problems related to the school, but legal aid would not be precluded from representing parents of students with special education needs or representing students in suspension and expulsion cases when the case was referred by other regular referral sources. Similarly Connecticut Legal Services, in Windham, reached an understanding that while legal aid may represent some students against the Board of Education with regard to student rights, legal aid will not use this project as an explicit means of identifying education referrals. Thus far this compromise has worked, but we recognize that the issue might need to be revisited.

Funding the Projects

The Connecticut Legal Services project in Windham is funded largely by the Jeffrey P. Ossen Family Foundation, a local charitable organization with a particular interest in education and opportunities for children. Connecticut Legal Services approached the foundation after obtaining support for the project from the school-based health clinics.

Early development of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association projects in New Haven and Ansonia was assisted by an enthusiastic volunteer intern, who was a senior at Yale University. She was awarded a fellowship from Yale to pay her salary to work at legal aid for a year after her graduation. During this year she developed program materials and was the regular “face” of the program on-site at Troup School in New Haven and Head Start in Ansonia. More recently, a former summer intern obtained Skadden Fellowship funding to join New Haven Legal Assistance Association in the fall of 2016 and will devote her time to both Troup School and Head Start. Moreover, we are hosting an AmeriCorps Public Ally to serve on the project’s team.

The New Haven Legal Assistance Association project in Ansonia has additional support from the Valley Community Foundation. We also received an “incubator grant” from the Skadden Foundation to fund the coloring books for the Ansonia project.

Reviewing Organizational Successes and Challenges

Connecticut Legal Services met its first-year goal to contribute significantly to low-income children’s long-term educational success through advice and representation on legal issues that help the children’s families achieve and maintain housing, family, and financial stability. We assisted more than 100 families in the first 10 months of the project and delivered legal workshops and outreach to members of the community and to service providers who help legal aid clients. A presence in the community for more than 40 years, Connecticut Legal Services still reached many new client groups and created a working relationship with the local school district. We found conversely that holding office hours within the school building did not maximize client contact possibly because our regional office already was located near many of the local schools.

At New Haven Legal Assistance Association the clinics generated 79 new cases. We handled these cases with a range of services: on-the-spot advice, extended legal counseling, referrals to other agencies (legal and nonlegal), limited action or brief service, and full representation in court. The clinics helped handle more housing law problems than any other area.

The Head Start program enabled New Haven Legal Assistance Association to reestablish a physical presence in the lower Naugatuck Valley, where we once maintained an office. Residents living in the valley find it difficult to access our services primarily due to transportation obstacles. By securing space in that region, we are able to deliver services directly to our client population.

A presence in the community for more than 40 years, Connecticut Legal Services still reached many new client groups and created a working relationship with the local school district.

New Haven Legal Assistance Association is exploring the possibility of expanding our program to collaborate with an existing program that focuses on children with high rates of absenteeism at a New Haven elementary school. The existing program meets with the parents of children who have a significant number of school absences to find out the source of the problem and seek positive interventions to alleviate it. We expect that legal assistance to such families could help promote family stability and reduce absenteeism.

Although the types of legal problems we see at the school-based clinics are similar to our regular intake from other sources, the school-based clinics provide preventive counseling and advice that we normally cannot. For instance, in contrast to our usual case-intake system, where we generally do not see or accept eviction-defense cases until legal papers have been served, at the school-based clinics we have been able to work on eviction prevention by assisting and counseling clients about how to find ways to avoid eviction and still raise concerns over housing conditions or other problems.

School-based legal aid clinics furthermore can reach populations, such as immigrant communities, that might otherwise not know about or connect to our services. For those families, the school is a safe and familiar environment that eases their connection to legal advocates.

Assessing the Impact on Clients

At the close of the first year of the project, both Connecticut Legal Services and New Haven Legal Assistance Association found school-based legal clinics to be a very successful model to help families tackle fundamental legal problems affecting their stability. The following examples of our clients’ problems would have had a clear effect on the schoolchildren in each family:

Families referred through the school-based legal projects have faced other life crises common in the lives of low-income people. For example, a number of families have been assisted on family law issues. In particular, we helped a number of domestic violence survivors obtain stability for their children by securing court orders to regulate custody and visitation. Families have also needed legal help to access government assistance; we have helped them apply for disability assistance and secured health insurance and basic income that had erroneously been denied by state agencies.

Many of the families were in danger of eviction or faced other problems relating to their living situation. The New Haven Legal Assistance Association clinics stopped over 95 percent of imminent eviction threats and prevented many more evictions. In total, the New Haven clinics assisted 31 clients in housing cases and secured almost $5,000 in stolen security deposits. The clinics also forced landlords to repair neglected apartments.

The school-based projects do not yet have outcome-tracking systems that enable us to track school attendance or other success measures of the children in families assisted, but we hope to develop these measures. We are, however, tracking all school-based, legal clinic–related referrals.

New Haven Legal Assistance Association conducted anonymous surveys of many clinic clients. One parent indicated, “Having a presence in the school, it’s like right there. The parents come, they see it. The fact that it’s accessible is a big deal.” Another parent said, “If I didn’t talk with you I would probably have been evicted. Then I wouldn’t have had a way to get my kids to school. I would’ve had to leave town. I would have had to leave my school.”

School-based legal aid clinics are a unique and effective way to breed educational success for children by supporting and stabilizing their families. We hope school-based legal clinics are a model that, akin to the growth of medical-legal partnerships, will spread beyond Connecticut to other legal aid programs.

Amy Eppler-Epstein
Staff Attorney

Alexis Smith
Deputy Director

New Haven Legal Assistance Association
426 State St.
New Haven, CT 06510
203.946.4811

Deborah Witkin
Deputy Director

Anne Louise Blanchard
Litigation and Advocacy Director

Connecticut Legal Services
62 Washington St.
Middletown, CT 06457
860.344.0447