At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of pro bono attorneys at Cohen & Gresser LLP for their bono work fighting to make sure “Camilla,” a victim of trafficking, received the public benefits she was entitled to.
Cut off from public benefits
Camilla, a victim of human trafficking from Mexico and a monolingual Spanish speaker, originally came to Sanctuary for immigration assistance. But last summer when Camilla checked her public benefits card she realized that, for some reason, she had not received her cash assistance or her food stamps and could not buy groceries for her family. Camilla, like many of Sanctuary’s lowest income clients, relies heavily on her monthly public benefits to meet basic living needs, like food and clothing. But these critical benefits are often cut off, or drastically reduced, for no legitimate reason and/or with no appropriate notice. This sudden lack of resources is devastating for our clients, and it was devastating for Camilla.
Camilla went to her local welfare center to find out what happened and discovered that her benefits case was closed, without any notice, because she had allegedly failed to recertify her case (public benefits recipients must periodically recertify their eligibility to receive benefits). Camilla contacted Sanctuary for assistance and Sanctuary reached out to Cohen & Gresser, who had recently hosted a Sanctuary for Families Public Benefits training at their firm.
Cohen & Gresser attorneys step in
Cohen & Gresser attorneys Scott D. Thomson, who speaks Spanish, and Matthew V. Povolny volunteered immediately to represent Camilla at her fair hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) to determine if her benefits should be reinstated. Neither had ever done a public benefits fair hearing before, but they both got up to speed on the law and the procedures incredibly quickly. Their first fair hearing was a success: Camilla’s much-needed benefits were restored, she was awarded retroactive benefits from the time they were cut off, and she received another opportunity to recertify for her cash assistance and SNAP (i.e., food stamps) benefits.
Although Scott and Matthew had successfully wrapped up Camilla’s fair hearing, they maintained close contact with her to ensure that the Human Resources Administration (“HRA”) complied with the fair hearing decision. Thanks to their diligence, they soon discovered that Camilla was not receiving adequate benefits for her household. In fact, HRA was only providing benefits for her minor son, who is a US citizen. But, even though she is not a US citizen, HRA should also have been providing benefits to Camilla, who qualified to receive benefits due to her status as a certified victim of trafficking under the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Scott and Matthew jumped right in and filed a fair hearing request for Camilla to argue that her cash assistance and food stamps amounts were inadequate. Not only did they win the fair hearing, they educated the ALJ and the HRA representative about a non-US citizen’s eligibility for benefits if they are a certified victim of human trafficking. Says Scott:
“I was impressed by the Administrative Law Judges. They really wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on, and they pushed the agency representative to do the right thing. The agency representatives came around once we helped them understand the issues.”
Joy and stability
As a result of their committed advocacy, Camilla received over $2,200 in retroactive benefits and will see an increase in benefits going forward. The success brought immense joy and stability to Camilla, who, prior to this experience, was reaching her breaking point with the complicated welfare system and wanted to give up fighting and just hope for the best. Matthew and Scott both agreed that seeing the very personal effect that their successful representation had on Camilla was one of the most rewarding parts of working on a public benefits pro bono case. Said Scott:
“We knew how much she needed that money to use for food and her son’s expenses. It was really great to have a direct tangible effect on someone’s daily life.”
They both plan on continuing to do pro bono work at the firm, which has a strong commitment to pro bono. Matthew explained:
“There is a tremendous feeling of what a great opportunity pro bono gives you to help people in the city that you pass by in the streets every day. It’s always a great feeling to give back.”
Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Cohen & Gresser’s outstanding pro bono work. Learn more about the event here. If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.
Nicole Fidler is the Pro Bono Supervising Attorney at Sanctuary for Families.