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6/30/2010

News

And justice for all
Law clinic provides free legal aid to city’s neediest residents

 

Amanda Florentino Garcia is already waiting in the lobby when two law school interns and attorney Ka’Juel Washington walk into the Center for Women and Families on the evening of June 22.

The 29-year-old woman from Louisiana – an Orlando resident for the past seven years – has lived at the Coalition for the Homeless shelter for about six months. For most of those months, Florentino Garcia has met regularly with Florida A&M College of Law students as they help her through a tangled divorce and child-custody case. Guided by attorneys and law professors, the upper-level students work on her case, writing the documents that will help determine whether she still gets to see her children – squaring off against the private attorney her husband
has hired.

But the law students are doing it for the only price Florentino Garcia can afford: free.

Eight months pregnant, in jeans and a secondhand little black dress that now serves as a maternity blouse, Florentino Garcia meets with the law students in a conference room at the women’s shelter; Washington and the interns are there every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evening.

Her estranged husband wants to join his parents in Mexico – and take along her two children – a 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter – as well as his own. 

“He’s crazy,” she says, determined to fight. “I don’t care what he does, but I don’t want him leaving the state, nor the country.”

As Morgan takes notes, Washington goes over her mixed progress on previous orders from the state Department of Children and Families. Florentino Garcia points out what she says are errors in her husband’s claims. She offers a thick orange folder of documents that might build a case against him.

Florentino Garcia says she had already tried and failed to receive help from the Department of Children and Families and the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association when she heard from a case manager at the shelter about Florida A&M’s free legal clinics. Without Washington and his team of interns, “I’d be stuck,” she says. But they assured her they’ll fight.

Taking notes on her laptop was Cequaria Morgan, a third-year student from Jacksonville. She’ll pass those off to another intern who will write the formal response for Florentino Garcia.

Morgan says she’s been working in the homeless-assistance clinic for about five weeks, and already it’s changed her views on issues like child support – most income of one client went to a child-support payment because that person had to take a lower-paying job while the court-ordered payment remained the same, she says. After seeing that and other complicated family-law cases, Morgan says she’s amazed to find her clients still smiling and determined in the face of crushing circumstances. 

“It just surprises me that they keep
going,” she says.

That kind of revelation is part of the point of the law clinics: exposing students to a new world of legal circumstances while providing sound legal services to a wide range of people who otherwise couldn’t afford them at all.

When Florida A&M’s law school was re-established in 2002, after a 34-year hiatus, a big part of its mission was to increase the number of minority lawyers and aid underprivileged clients, says Ann Marie Cavazos, director of clinical programs at the school. Two years later, clinics focusing on guardian ad litem representation, public defense and prosecution started, and more have developed
since then.

At least 300 students have worked in the clinics since their establishment, Cavazos says. While the total number of clients is hard to track, more than 100 homeless people received legal aid in 2006 alone, she says.

Students are required to work in one 14-week clinic or complete pro bono work to graduate. They have to do 18 to 20 hours of work per week plus attend class. Ten or 12 students work in each clinic – the groups should be smaller, but there’s too much demand for service, Cavazos says.

Alternatively, students can do at least 20 hours of pro bono work for low-income clients, under supervision of an attorney.

Students in Karin Moore’s clinics work in the offices of state and federal public defenders, assisting with the always-enormous caseload of those offices. It’s often a thankless job, but public defenders are “liberty’s last champion,” she says.

Melissa Vickers, trials chief at the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, says clinic students sent to intern there appear in court and argue cases – as long as they’re supervised by an attorney.

“It’s the best practical experience, I think, that you can get,” she says. The students’ caseloads vary; some are assigned to work on a few cases long-term, while others do piecemeal work on a wide variety.

“Some they win, some they lose, like any attorney,” Vickers says.

Interns can’t argue in federal court, but there they’ve written motions that won reduced sentences and even dismissal of charges, Moore says.

A few students take on the most serious cases in the death penalty clinic, working in the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel offices in Tampa on the final round of appeals for death-row convicts. Florida A&M is the only law school in the state that does so, she says.

Nicky Boothe-Perry, who oversees the guardian ad litem clinic, says her students call or visit the children they’re assigned at least once a week and work with social agencies, caretakers and teachers to ensure proper care of children in the state system. Maybe 25 children per semester have a law student as guardian ad litem – and many of those students stay involved with the children after graduation, she says.

Other clinics assign students to work under the state prosecuting attorney, charging defendants and negotiating pleas; working with local judges on researching and writing opinions; and aiding in the creation of businesses and nonprofit agencies.

Only the homelessness clinic and another on housing and loan issues operate during the summer, says Mildred Graham, Florida A&M University’s director of development and alumni affairs.

On June 5, dozens of law students in yellow T-shirts gathered in Barnett Park and fanned out around Pine Hills, knocking on doors in the area hardest hit by home foreclosures. In partnership with NeighborWorks America and other agencies, the housing clinic is starting a year-long campaign against loan-modification scams.

Paulina Bourova, a student originally from Bulgaria, talks to Greg Mendoza in front of a small house on Cannes Place. He had already lost his house and lives with his family in a small apartment.

“I refinanced my house, and with the money I got, I put on an addition – big addition,” Mendoza says. “But then I lost my job, and the bank took my house.” A house that cost him $135,000 sold for $30,000, and after living there 20 years he had just 20 days to get out, he says.

Legal advice might have kept Mendoza’s family in their house – the loan terms sounded fishy to Bourova and NeighborWorks volunteers – but it still wasn’t too late to prevent a recurrence. Bourova urged him to set up an appointment because Mendoza dreams of getting a new house as soon as possible. He insisted on showing her his plans, kept lovingly folded in a briefcase – and wrapped around his old loan documents.

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