2008 PFIG Recipient Jennifer Swalec
College of Arts & Sciences
2009 Graduation Year
Internship: Office of Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Bangor, ME
I am a rising fourth year Classics major with a concentration in Latin. My interest in the law goes back to high school, when I competed on the mock trial team for four years. We prepared seven different fictional cases involving legal matters which included rape, criminal negligence, hazing, assault, property damage, murder, and libel. During the past year, when I began to think more seriously about applying to law school, one of my former attorney coaches suggested interning at Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a nonprofit legal aid center which provides civil legal services for low income Maine residents. I am excited by the prospect that this internship will help me to decide whether legal aid might be the right career path for me and (2) make me a more educated citizen by familiarizing me with Maine state regulations concerning fair housing, welfare benefits, taxes, foreclosure/predatory lending, and health care access, among other issues.
Notes on the first week
My first day of work got off to a quick start, with the chance to tag along and observe the “District Court shuffle” of one of my internship mentors. It was Eviction Day down at the District Court, so he was representing several low income clients in their eviction hearings. I was also joined by the other two Pine Tree Legal interns. I liked the fast pace of the hearings. My first day also happened to include Pine Tree Legal’s weekly case meeting, so after my trip to the courthouse I found out which cases all the advocates were working on. I was then assigned my first case, a matter involving the payment of Supplemental Security Income benefits. I finished the day by exploring Practice Manager, the computer-based case management software that Pine Tree Legal uses. It came in handy during my second day, which I spent calling my first client and conducting research in the Code of Federal Regulations. My internship mentor assisted me greatly in developing a series of questions to ask my client. I have since taken on additional cases, bringing my total number of cases in progress to six. On my third day, the interns participated in the first of a series of weekly “Brunch and Learn” seminars. This one introduced various aspects of poverty law and public benefits, while future topics will include professional ethics, web-based legal resources, domestic violence, family law, fair housing, foreclosure, farmworker and Native American law, child resources, and pro-bono work. I look forward to further familiarizing myself with the complex matrix of civil policy, procedure, and resource agencies which affect low income Maine residents. Check out http://www.ptla.org if you want more details on Pine Tree Legal’s work!
Time has whizzed past at light speed since I began my internship six weeks ago. I have kept busy with work on approximately fifteen different cases, most of which relate to housing or public benefits. My days are filled with legal research or phone calls and letter-writing to clients, their case workers, and local or state agencies.
One common matter is the eviction of recipients of Section 8 housing subsidies. As the price of gas skyrockets, landlords are hiking their rental rates to compensate for the increased cost of heating oil. Maine will be mired in an ugly heating crisis this winter. The Section 8 program allows recipients to pay a maximum of 40 percent of their income toward what the housing authority deems a "reasonable" rental rate, but many landlords are increasing their rates beyond this standard. Their evicted tenants call Pine Tree Legal with concerns about maintaining their Section 8 eligibility.
Another type of case which has put me in contact with the local housing authority is an income consideration matter for a Section 8 subsidy recipient. My client received a cash payment as part of the equitable division of marital assets from her divorce, and the housing authority is counting it as earned income. I am helping her to get it categorized instead as an asset since she already had possession of it when she became eligible for Section 8. This client, who has started her life over since leaving an abusive relationship, is working hard to get off of public benefits by attending college over the next few years. All kinds of people need public benefits.
I have also had the opportunity to work with the attorneys of Pine Tree Legal's Farmworker and Migrant Worker Unit on one of their Social Security earnings cases. Prior to this work, I was not aware that the United States has "totalization" agreements with 21 other countries which allow workers who have paid retirement money into multiple systems to get full benefits from one country. This is a pertinent issue for many low-income Native American migrant workers who have traveled under the Jay Treaty from Canada to Maine to work on blueberry and potato farms. Several of them need Pine Tree Legal's help to piece together their work histories in order to claim their benefits.
Something that has stuck out in my mind throughout my work is the impact of mental illness upon the lives of several of my clients. Their health issues interfere in the most fundamental way with their ability to work. Many of them would not get by without public benefits. One such client is a mentally ill woman who along with her husband and two daughters was only able to stop being homeless this past December with the aid of a local housing program. Getting housing, however, did not end this family's troubles. One of the girls experienced lead poisoning when she was younger, and now suffers severe anxiety attacks. Neighbors have reported her crying to the Department of Health and Human Services, and the girls were recently removed from their home. Now this low-income family is facing an eviction and a loss of their housing subsidy. When I drove home after meeting them, I just sat in the driveway in my car for a while, thinking. I wanted to sit there and cry. By what turn of chance was this family so burdened and not mine?
As the days continue to pass, I am in the deepest awe of the perseverance of the advocates at Pine Tree Legal. It is a joy to work with people who are so devoted to a cause. When I graduated from high school, my Mock Trial coach gave me a lovely tortoise-shaped paperweight from the U.S. Supreme Court. The tortoise, she explained, stands for the long, gentle, and sustained pursuit of Justice. That tortoise should be the symbol for Pine Tree Legal, and that pursuit of Justice a mutual and universal goal. (Please make it yours, in your own way.)
My experiences here constantly bring me back to an extraordinary plane ride from Charlottesville to Bangor which I spent in conversation with the stranger seated next to me. She works for the nonpartisan ONE movement to end poverty (http://www.one.org/). My own work this summer has emphasized how sorely we need a stronger social and political movement to ensure that the law truly is working for its people. It is by chance, not choice, that people become physically or mentally ill or disabled, or are discriminated against, or are born to impoverished parents. Opportunity is not (yet) equal.
I would never want to attend law school simply because it is a common path of liberal arts majors, but I know now that I could do it to continue working in legal aid. To the UVA Parents Program: very truly thank you for making this hands-on experience possible for me.
It was only a few thousand years ago that mankind developed a symbol to represent the numerical concept of zero. It has been from their earliest existence, however, that humans have recognized the comparative values of "more" and of "less." Some people have more, while others have less. From this inevitably arise two questions: why is this true, and what power do we possess to change it? The pursuit of answers generates the concept of "public service," which I find most remarkably depicted by a prayer from Jewish theologian Jack Riemer:
We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to end war, for we know that you have made the world in such a way that man must find his own path to peace within himself and with his neighbor.
We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to end starvation, for you have already given us the resources with which to feed the entire world, if only we would use them wisely.
We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to root out prejudice, for you have already given us eyes with which to see the good in all men, if only we would use them rightly. We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to end despair, for you have already given us the power to clear away slums and to give home, if only we would use our power justly.
We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to end disease, for you have already given us great minds with which to search out cures and healings, if only we would use them constructively.
Therefore we pray to you instead, O God, for strength, determination and will power, to do what we can, to do what we must, to do instead of just to pray, to become instead of merely to wish.
My experience at Pine Tree Legal this summer brought to life several of the inequalities highlighted by this prayer. I was deeply frustrated by the result of one of my cases that went to a hearing. The regulations for the federal Section 8 housing subsidy program do not address how to treat marital assets distributed as a result of divorce. This significantly reduces the accessibility of such public benefits programs for victims of domestic abuse, as the housing authority expects the client to contribute more than her resources allow toward housing.
Another eye-opening experience was the visits that I made to a few blueberry farms to do outreach work with the Pine Tree Legal Native American and Farmworker Unit. I was shocked to realize from how many worker protection laws farm workers are exempt. I recognize that these regulations stem from economic concerns for small family farms, but what about the safety and welfare of migrant workers at larger enterprises? My tasks during outreach included talking with workers about any safety concerns they had and distributing bilingual harvest calendars with information about their legal rights.
Toward the end of the summer I also had the opportunity to interview several former Pine tree Legal clients regarding the advice that they had received from our office. Due to funding restrictions from the federal government, Pine Tree Legal cannot represent every eligible client. They clients I spoke with had received "advice and counsel only," meaning that they had been sent issue-specific client education materials after speaking with an intake advocate at our office. Some clients said that the written information on the eviction process had helped them to successfully challenge their landlords. Others reported that they could not understand the material, so it was not of use to them. Ideally, Pine Tree Legal would have the staff and funding to help everyone.
As a summer intern, I also had two opportunities to meet the Maine Supreme Court Justices who currently live in Bangor, Maine. Since Maine is the only state without a home facility for its Supreme Court, two of the seven Justices reside in Bangor . Both of these Justices praised the highly congenial relations of attorneys in the Bangor area. Northern Maine is not highly populated, so the attorneys there know and respect each other as they meet frequently in litigation. While the Justices find the legal theory which they apply in their judgments stimulating, they also miss practicing as attorneys in this particular community. Having spent a summer at Pine Tree Legal, I can begin to understand why.
I owe my deepest thanks to the people who have made my summer at Pine Tree Legal possible. I could not have done the work that I did without the aid of my co-workers. They shared with me invaluable legal knowledge and advice. I am also very grateful to the Parents Fund for their generous support in the form of an internship grant. This glimpse into the world of legal aid was not one which I could have gained in the classroom. I hope that this program continues to grow and to give more students the "strength, determination, and will power, to do what we can, to do what we must, to do instead of just to pray, to become instead of merely to wish."