The Mandel Legal Aid Clinic is noted for two things: the practical education it offers to the students who work there and the legal services it provides to the underserved. Thus, it is unsurprising that a social worker and a group of students from the School of Social Service Administration are essential elements of the clinic.
“Our role is to help the attorneys meet their identified goals,” explains Michelle Geller, who has been the social worker at the clinic since 1996. “My role is very fluid. I am identified as an agent of the clinic, as are my students, so we are covered by privilege, which is obviously very important to our work. But really, our role is trifold.”
First, the social worker and her students work with the attorneys to help them to better understand their clients—their backgrounds, interests, behaviors, and motivations. Second, they do hands-on assessments for services that clients might need while their cases are being handled and afterward. Finally, they also do a lot of system advocacy work, working to make better and more appropriate services available throughout the system.
The three to five positions available at Mandel have become quite popular with SSA students and Geller has the opportunity to handpick her students. During the past thirty-five years, the first- and second-year social work students have worked with the attorneys and students on nearly every project at the clinic, from homeless assistance to child support to mental health.
“We are really trying to get more recognition from the professionals who work with our clinics,” Geller notes. “Business people, educators, public-policy makers—all of these people need to better understand what we do and what we can offer.”
One example of the kinds of cases the SSA students have worked on since they arrived at the clinic in the early 1970s is People v. RH, in which the state wanted to transfer the case of a fourteen-year-old accused of murder from the juvenile justice system into adult court.
The first goal of the attorneys on the case was to show that RH had not availed himself of all the services available through the juvenile system and therefore could still benefit from staying there. In order to prove this, the attorneys needed an enormous amount of family background, services, and education history to make their case.
“The state was arguing that he had received a whole range of services, and my students did the work to show that he really hadn’t,” Geller says. “We were working for therapeutic jurisprudence—which means holding the juvenile responsible for what he did without exposing them to a full-blown criminal rap. The kids are more likely to engage in positive behavior and ultimately, there is more likely to be a positive outcome.”
Eventually, the clinic team managed to get all of the charges dropped against RH, but the social work students remained involved, helping him to get proper education services and continuing to meet with him to help him find options for the future. Having grown up in a gang-infested neighborhood, he did not initially see any other way to lead his life. Today, his goal is to become a counselor in a juvenile detention center.
“This was definitely a case where the law students really came to understand just how valuable social workers can be in helping public interest law meet its goals,” Geller explains.