A few weeks into the fall semester, Marian Rivera and Alie Rothman got a 5-year-old boy adopted.
The boy, who was one of their first clients, was born and tested positive for cocaine. His mother had her parental rights taken away. He is also autistic.
Rivera and Rothman are second-year University of Miami Law students working in the Children and Youth Law Clinic.
“The main goal was to get him adopted, and just recently, he was adopted. That’s a happy ending to one of our cases,” Rivera said.
Law schools across the county have been providing free legal services to the community through their clinics for more than 20 years. And as Florida’s legal aid services continue to face budget cuts, their services are increasingly in demand.
In turn, students (and future attorneys) gain real-world experience.
Bernie Perlmutter, director of the Children and Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law, compared students who work in legal clinics to medical students performing rounds and working on patients.
“It provides a hands-on opportunity to put into practice what they’re learning in theory,” he said. “Law clinics usually are trying to fill a gap in the legal services delivery system, trying to meet the needs of clients that the private bar is not meeting, and even the legal services bar isn’t meeting.”
All students working in the legal clinics are supervised by attorneys.
Juan Gomez, interim director of clinics at FIU Law, said the clinics focus on representing people who are considered destitute.
“We try to work on cases where we would make a meaningful impact,” Gomez said.
Here’s a look at the UM, FIU and St. Thomas legal clinics.
University of Miami Law
1311 Miller Dr., Coral Gables
JoNel Newman, director of the Health Rights clinic, emphasizes how important it is to ensure that everyone has equal access to justice.
“A lot of those needs break down into immigration status adjustments, Social Security disability, food stamps, Medicaid,” she said.
The clinic has a unit specifically for low-income, at-risk or homeless veterans in Miami-Dade County. Ryan Foley, an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps legal fellow, works in the unit providing legal services to veterans, focusing on disability and VA benefits.
“A lot of the veterans we see are homeless, not just low-income or disabled. They don’t get to that point without something tragic happening to them,” Foley said. “We had a vet who was 52 and had a heart attack. He had a triple bypass and was unable to do anything. He had to give up custody of his daughter, who he’d recently gotten custody of. We got him Social Security benefits.”
The Health Rights clinic is affiliated with three UM Jackson-related medical sites: the Pediatric Mobile Clinic that visits underserved communities and provides health care for children, the South Florida Comprehensive AIDS program at UM Jackson and the Jefferson Reeves Senior Center in Overtown. Patients are referred to the clinic.
“One of the reasons we’re so successful is that we work closely with the medical providers who have been able since 2005 to really see the impact that we have on their patients’ lives,” Newman said.
“When a student attorney has managed to break through all of that red tape and get them just the bare benefits they deserve, it’s very powerful. It keeps me coming to work every day.”
Florida International University Law
Rafael Diaz-Balart Hall, 11200 SW Eighth St., Miami
From 2013 to 2014, there was a 117 percent increase in children 12 and under crossing the U.S. borders, according to Pew Research Center statistics.
FIU’s Immigration and Human Rights clinic provides assistance to many of the unaccompanied minors who have been abused, abandoned or neglected.
“(Clients) realize we’re not here to get their money,” said Camilo Rodriguez, a third-year FIU law student. “We’re there to help them.”
Juan Gomez, director of the clinic and interim director of clinics at FIU Law, works with other organizations to increase exposure and access of their services to the public. The clinic normally hosts about two open-to-the-public immigration clinic events per semester at FIU, depending on the demand. The immigration clinic has more than 100 active cases at a time.
“There are a lot of people who are afraid or suspicious. We get referred to by people in the community who are aware of the need in the community,” Gomez said.
He said real-life experience is key to student success.
“They learn about the reality of practice versus theory,” he said. “Sometimes people think that the law is solved in 43 minutes plus commercial time. They don’t realize the slow pace of some parts of the law. (Students) learn how to help someone in the flesh and the messiness that comes with that.”
St. Thomas University School of Law
16401 NW 37th Ave., Miami Gardens
Immigration clinic director Michael Vastine looks for cases that are challenging.
“The human side is the hook for the students,” Vastine said. “They’re going to learn more from their clients than from me. They need to have the tools to manage the client.”
Most clients are seeking asylum, trying to avoid deportation or are victims of domestic violence. Abusers use a lack of immigration status as a way to control victims, Vastine said.
“Living in the U.S. is no easy situation either,” he said.
Students work on cases in teams over the course of a year. Cinthya Mendez, a third-year law student, said working in the clinic is giving her experience in court and in building client relationships.
Mendez, who immigrated legally from Ecuador, said she feels a need to give back to people who don’t know where or how to find the resources they need.
The clinic hosts events when there’s a demand, such as a change in immigration law or a major disaster like the Haiti earthquake. Otherwise, Vastine receives referrals from shelters, word-of-mouth, calls and walk-ins.
St. Thomas Law’s tax clinic operates similarly.
Silvia Velazquez, teaching fellow at the tax clinic, said the clinic tries to take on only low-income clients, many of whom are dealing with identity theft, injured spouses or innocent spouses.
Every spring from the end of January to early April, the clinic partners with the IRS and prepares free tax returns through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
Clients hear about the clinic’s services through mailers, word-of-mouth and at tax court.
“People show up without representation – we’re there,” Velazquez said.
Velazquez, who worked in the clinic as a law student and graduated in 2012, said they handle about 60 active cases at a time. Director Larry Fedro founded the clinic about 14 years ago.
“The work in the clinic isn’t about numbers. It’s about giving someone their life back,” she said. “We’re giving somebody a fresh start. They come to us at the end of their rope.”
From the cover
Maura Espinosa, left, applies for citizenship with the help of law student Christine Skubala at the Florida International University College of Law in Sweetwater.