Overcoming Stereotypes, Finding Justice
By Milo Mumgaard
Legal Aid of Nebraska
Last month in this column, we described how it’s a very good time for new heroes in our legal profession. It’s also a great time to recognize Legal Aid’s clients, who each day heroically seek a little bit more justice in their own lives.
It’s fair to admit there are many stereotypes about the people who benefit from Legal Aid’s free services. It’s also true these are usually the same stereotypes shared about low-income people generally – among them, being lazy, irresponsible, shiftless. After all, living in poverty, struggling to find a good job or home, and suffering from violence – to be in the predicament they’re in, it must be the result of poor life choices foolishly repeated. Check out some of this stuff on the internet to get a taste, if you weren’t already aware.
The nice thing to know, though, is the truth about Legal Aid’s clients is far less dramatic. It turns out our clients are – spoiler alert – just about like everybody else. They do have their personal shortcomings, and some are a little on the unpleasant side. But mostly, they are simply preoccupied by the daily struggles we all experience – kids to school, mouths to feed, clothes to clean, jobs to do.
The challenge of dealing with these needs, however, is profoundly more difficult when income is low and options are few. And the experiences they have with the legal system are often far different, and significantly more negative.
These stereotypes were recently placed in stark relief during a Judiciary Committee hearing at the Nebraska Legislature on a bill addressing debt collection practices. Legal Aid was asked to provide testimony about the thousands of people it represents annually with debt problems. Lea Wroblewski, Legal Aid’s Managing Attorney of the Access to Justice Program in Lincoln, took this head on:
“Contrary to some stereotypes, most of Legal Aid’s clients work or have a work history and are now disabled. They also have minor children dependent on them. Working low-wage jobs and paid hourly, they struggle trying to make rent and buy food for their families. An unexpected expense, like an illness that causes a temporary reduction of work hours and additional medical expense, results in bills they are unable to timely pay and a downward, predictable spiral seen by Legal Aid day after day, month after month, year after year.”
In her testimony, Kate Owen (the Managing Attorney of our Omaha office) also made it clear who we represent, and what we know:
“It is not an understatement at all to say that, every day in Nebraska, hundreds of low-income Nebraskans are facing the full weight of Nebraska’s justice system and the loss of wages, emptied bank accounts, and the risk of jail over often very small debts, debts incurred almost always to address a crisis or to meet basic needs. This drains the limited income and resources from these communities that would otherwise be used to support families and provide stability and security.”
But most riveting was the testimony of Taraesa Sumrall, Legal Aid client. Taraesa is a working mother whose health insurance did not cover all of a necessary medical service. The remaining $176 debt led to a judgment, and then to a too-common experience. One night:
“I was at home with my two children, who were 17 and 15 at that time. At about 8:30 p.m. my daughter told me a sheriff was at the door. I went to the door and the sheriff asked me to confirm who I was. He then told me I had a warrant out for my arrest and he was going to take me to jail. I asked what the warrant was for, and he could not tell me. I had no idea why I was being arrested … At jail I was searched and then required to change into orange jail clothes and flip flops. No one could tell me why I was being arrested … I was upset and scared … My kids were afraid and had waited up for me to get home … What happened to me was humiliating and extremely upsetting. I had no idea I could be arrested and treated as if I committed a crime for not paying a small medical debt.”
Stereotypes are tough to beat, but not half as hard as overcoming these unjust results. Legal Aid is proud to represent clients like Taraesa, day in and day out, to achieve just that.
This column appeared originally in The Daily Record, Volume 132, Issue 55 on March 17, 2017.