Center for Public Representation Launches Supported Decision-Making Website

The Center for Public Representation has launched a new website on Supported Decision-Making (SDM). SDM is an alternative to guardianship for people with disabilities to give people more independence, dignity, and freedom. It creates a process for people to make decisions about their own lives with a team of supporters.

The new website walks people step by step through SDM, identifying supporters, and drafting an agreement. It also includes a library of resources and a series of success stories from people who participated in a pilot program with CPR.

For example, it tells the story of Cory, a young man on the Autism Spectrum, who was able to replace his guardianship agreement with his parents with an SDM. He also executed an advance directive for health care and power of attorney. “Supported decision-making … has allowed our son to show his voice to the world and to become the adult that he wishes to be,” said Cory’s mother.

CPR conferred with disability rights lawyers, activists, and experts in several countries to develop SDM models that honor individuals’ choices, advance their self-determination, and provide safeguards to prevent abuse, according to its website. In 2014, CPR launched the first SDM demonstration project in the nation.

Based in Newton, Mass., CPR is a national legal advocacy center for people with disabilities. It uses legal strategies, advocacy, and policy to promote the integration and full community participation of people with disabilities and others who are devalued in society.

Happy Lamb Hot Pot workers welcome wage complaint settlement

In what advocates say is a happy resolution to a problem that workers are often too fearful to report, 14 former employees of Happy Lamb Hot Pot, which has locations in Central Square and Chinatown, recently reached a settlement of wage theft claims with the restaurant.

The employees alleged in October 2018 that management, among other things, stole tips, did not pay minimum wage or overtime, and retaliated against workers who complained.

The plaintiffs sought approximately $883,000 in owed wages and damages, according to court documents. The settlement amount was confidential, but Bethany Li, the plaintiffs’ attorney and head of the Asian Outreach Unit at Greater Boston Legal Services, said the plaintiffs were “very satisfied.” Read more in the Boston Globe.

Deborah Harris to receive Leila J. Robinson Award from Women’s Bar Association

The Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts will present the 2019 Leila J. Robinson Award to Deborah Harris of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Carmen Ortiz of Anderson & Kreiger.

The Lelia J. Robinson Award honors women attorneys who have captured the spirit of Lelia J. Robinson, the first woman admitted to practice in Massachusetts. The award recognizes women who, like Robinson, are pioneers in the legal profession and have made a difference in the community. Deborah Harris and Carmen Ortiz will be honored at the WBA’s Annual Gala on October 10, 2019 at the Sheraton Boston.

“It is our pleasure to recognize Deborah Harris and Carmen Ortiz with our Lelia J. Robinson Award at our 2019 WBA Gala,” said WBA President Jennifer Saubermann. “They are amazing role models who demonstrate the importance of legal work and commitment to community. Deborah Harris was essential to the recent passage of the ‘Lift the Cap on Kids’ legislation, which made a critical difference in the lives of over 8,700 of the lowest income children in Massachusetts. She has dedicated her career to advocating for social and economic justice, benefitting women and children across the Commonwealth. Carmen Ortiz was the first woman and first Hispanic United States Attorney for Massachusetts and was responsible for overseeing some of the most high profile criminal trials over the last two decades. She has also shown a deep commitment to advancing women in the legal profession. Both of these women have made substantial contributions to our Commonwealth and I am honored to present this award to them.”

Deborah Harris
Deborah is a staff attorney for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI), where she specializes in public benefits and child support issues. MLRI is a statewide legal advocacy and support center that represents low income people, defends against policies that harm and marginalize people living in poverty, and advocates for systemic reforms to achieve social and economic justice. She has worked extensively in welfare practice and policy for over 40 years. She was lead counsel in MLRI’s lawsuit that stopped Massachusetts from using stale and erroneous wage records to terminate SNAP benefits and obtained order against the Commonwealth to pay $9.4 million in SNAP benefits to 17,000 households whose benefits were illegally terminated. She is a published author whose works include the TAFDC Advocacy Guide: An Advocate’s Guide to Massachusetts Welfare Rules for Families which was first published by MCLE in 1994 and has been republished every year since.

Deborah has worked extensively in welfare practice and policy for over 40 years. This work has encompassed numerous class action and individual lawsuits challenging state or federal welfare rules denying benefits or services as well as advocacy to persuade Congress and the state legislature and state and federal agencies to adopt policies and practices to protect vulnerable populations and promoting economic stability. She also provides technical assistance to legislators and advocates on federal and state laws and regulations regarding welfare and other benefits for low income persons. Recently, she helped lead the successful campaign to repeal the welfare family cap, the state law that denied basic subsistence benefits to children because of when they were conceived.

Georgia Katsoulomitis, MLRI’s Executive Director, said, “Deborah’s contributions to poverty law on the national and state level are truly immeasurable. She is a quiet force, usually preferring to work behind the scenes, but is a relentless fighter and fearless advocate for the Commonwealth’s lowest income families and children. All legal aid and poverty advocates speak of our work in terms of justice — of achieving the right, the just, and the fair outcome for clients. But Deborah also speaks of her work in terms of dignity and power. She believes that a core value of a just society, and of our justice system, is ensuring that the most vulnerable people among us have a voice and are able to live with dignity. She empowers and lifts up the voices of those who are often ignored or forgotten, and speaks truth to power.”

Deborah has a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Her publications include Child Support for Welfare Families: Family Policy Trapped in Its Own Rhetoric, 16 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Social Change 619 (1987-88); TAFDC Advocacy Guide: An Advocate’s Guide to the Massachusetts Welfare Rules for Families, MCLE (Dec. 2018; first published in 1994, revised and republished every year since then); and Variations on an Unconstitutional Theme: Restrictions on Interstate Use of Cash Benefits, 47 Clearinghouse Review 1 (May-June 2013) (with J. Schlozman).

Carmen Ortiz
Carmen is currently Counsel at Anderson & Kreiger in Boston. From 2009 to 2016, she served as the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, and was the first woman and first Hispanic to serve in that position.

Want the Robocalls to Stop? Congress Does, Too

A bipartisan bill introduced by House members would require phone carriers to offer screening technology to customers at no additional cost.

“A lot of calls are scams, and those need to be stopped,” said Margot Saunders, senior counsel for the National Consumer Law Center. “The Republicans and Democrats have recognized they need to be aggressive in addressing robocalls, and this bill is a reflection of that.”

The National Consumer Law Center, a Boston-based nonprofit organization, took part in the drafting of the bill, which is scheduled for discussion next week. Read more in the New York Times.

Students are being shamed and punished over lunch debt, and it may take legislation to stop it

In some school districts, if a student does not have enough money in their account to cover the cost of lunch, cafeteria staff will prevent them from eating a hot lunch and either give them a cold sandwich or, in some cases, let them go hungry. This practice punishes and humiliates students for their parents’ financial challenges. In 2018, the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute released a report detailing the extent of this practice in Massachusetts, and pending legislation may help resolve the problem statewide.

“[Kids] shouldn’t be put in the middle of meal debt, and they shouldn’t be forced to go hungry during the school day. There is so much medical research that kids learn better when they’re fed. We should be finding a way to make sure they are fed and make meal debt an adult-only problem to solve,” said Senior Policy Analyst Pat Baker, who led the study. Read more in the Boston Globe.

NCLC Attorney and Former MLAC Racial Justice Fellow Joanna Darcus Testifies before Congress

On June 11, Joanna Darcus, Staff Attorney at the National Consumer Law Center and a former MLAC Racial Justice Fellow, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. She discussed student loan debt and the racial disparities in student loan outcomes.

“Fairness and justice require that borrowers have the ability to enforce their rights when breached by servicers,” said Darcus. “Yet few student loan borrowers have the ability to seek redress when servicers violate their rights.” Read her complete written testimony.

MLRI’s Iris Gomez featured in Washington Post

Iris Gomez, immigration attorney at Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and novelist, was featured in an article in The Washington Post called “Changing Channels: Stories of Women Reinventing Themselves after 50.” Gomez said that it took five years to finish her first novel as she pursued a career as an attorney, raised a family, and wrote on the weekends. She believes her life experiences have made her a better writer—improving the dialogue, emotional depth, and power of her stories.

“You have to start where you are. Even if you can’t dedicate as much time as you want, you can dedicate some,” said Gomez. “Take the time you can and believe in yourself.”

Community Legal Aid to Celebrate Opening of New Fitchburg Office

Community Legal Aid is opening of a new office at 515 Main Street in Fitchburg. With this new office, CLA aims to increase access to vital legal assistance for residents of Fitchburg, Leominster and the other communities of North Central Mass.
CLA is the non-profit civil legal aid program providing free civil (non-criminal) legal help for the low-income and elderly residents of Central and Western Massachusetts. CLA helps people access safe and stable housing; get unemployment, disability and other benefits to stabilize their income; break free from domestic violence; and obtain needed services in school. Community Legal Aid works to assure fairness for all in the justice system, protecting homes, livelihoods, health and families.
Attorney Lauren De Oliveria, who specializes in family law; Attorney Eleanor Cashmore, a benefits specialist; Attorney Daniel Schneider, who focuses on housing law; and receptionist Raydi Soto will make up the initial Fitchburg team. The office will be managed by CLA Managing Attorney Weayonnoh Nelson-Davies. CLA is in the process of hiring other staff who will join the Fitchburg team in the coming months.
CLA (then known as Legal Assistance Corp. of Central Mass.) had an office in Fitchburg for many years. Unfortunately, in the mid-1990s, funding cuts forced that office to close. While CLA has continued serving the residents of North Worcester County, the organization had never given up hope of operating a full-service office in the community, and CLA is thrilled to open a Fitchburg office once again.
There will be an Open House Celebration at the office on Wednesday, June 12, between 4:30 and 7:00 so CLA can connect with neighbors and the North Worcester County community. Please RSVP to hblashfield@cla-ma.org, or call 508-425-2805, if you would like to attend.

‘Our children are going to benefit from this’

A group of advocates waited outside of the Senate Chamber as lawmakers met in formal session. Some sat on chairs and chatted with companions, while others walked back and forth in the hall, sometimes peeking through the door seam with expectant eyes.
One hour later, Deborah Harris of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Sen. Sal DiDomenico, D-Everett, came out from the chamber. The advocates immediately clustered. After finding out about the result, the group burst into cheers. They waved a self-made banner and put on their blue caps, which were printed with a short caption in white, “We lifted the cap on kids.”
The controversial welfare family cap, which prevented families from receiving additional benefits if they have another child, was finally lifted after the sixth legislative vote to override Gov. Charlie Baker’s vetoes on April 25…Harris has long supported lifting the cap. She wrote in her testimony that it hurts children born to very low-income mothers. It also hurts the child’s older sisters and brothers, because siblings excluded by the cap would face increased risks of homelessness and other hardships associated with extreme poverty, including cognitive, emotional, and physical health challenges, she said.
Read more in the Lowell Sun.

Recent MAC legal win uncovers systemic failures of Boston Public Schools

A recent Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Problem Resolution System decision involving a Massachusetts Advocates for Children client revealed a widespread unlawful discipline practice in the Boston Public Schools. As a result, BPS is required to change their policies and systems to align with the law and promote justice for students.

“This decision represents a systemic change – not only is our client back in his original school and learning after being unlawfully punished, BPS was required to change its policy so that this won’t happen to other students in the future,” said Liza Hirsch, MAC Senior Attorney. Read more…