FIU Embrace LAW tackles the legal labyrinth faced by of adults with disability.
Getting a lawyer to meet with you in the evening is pretty unusual. And getting an attorney to see you on a Saturday during a holiday weekend is pretty much unheard of.
But that’s the type of service David A. Suarez received from FIU Embrace LAW when he was looking for help to get legal guardianship of his son, Sebastian.
Sebastian is 17 and has autism. He turns 18 in November.
FIU Embrace LAW is part of the larger program, FIU Embrace, an initiative at Florida International University aimed at promoting health, wellness and overall functioning for adults with developmental disabilities. FIU Embrace LAW provides free legal services to adults with these disabilities and their families through a partnership with the FIU College of Law, one of the top 100 law schools in the nation according to U.S. News and World Report.
When Suarez first sought help from FIU Embrace LAW, he explained to the law student who would be taking on his case that he didn’t get off work until six. The student waited for him, and they met at seven. After he had trouble making another appointment during the week, she suggested they meet Saturday morning. It was the Saturday before Memorial Day.
“They went around our schedule to facilitate and help us, all with a cheerful attitude,” said Suarez. “That was remarkable to see that. You can see that they are truly in the business of helping people.”
Suarez says it was a completely different story when he was trying to get guardianship for his older son, David, who also has autism. He didn’t have this FIU resource to turn to and met with a lawyer in the community.
“It would have to be in the middle of the day, and I had to miss work,” said Suarez. “I went a few times. There was a big difference.”
Suarez says that lawyer was also very expensive, which put a burden on his family’s finances.
Michelle Mason is the director of the FIU Embrace LAW and the senior associate dean for clinical education, experiential learning and engagement for the FIU Law School.
She says most of the people the program serves struggle with finances and often can’t afford legal representation.
She says their clients are referred to them by FIU Embrace and have a variety of legal needs, including family law, landlord-tenant issues, immigration, guardianships, powers of attorney, simple wills and issues surrounding Medicaid and Medicare.
Mason says it’s rare to find one agency that can handle so many different legal issues, so they’ve become a one-stop shop for families that often have trouble just getting around Miami for appointments due to a lack of transportation.
“That’s a great benefit that we offer to families,” said Mason. “It’s a matter of having a host of experts in house along with our law students who are able to provide for those kinds of needs.”
Five to six lawyers work for FIU Embrace LAW program, which is part of the law school’s legal clinic, and more than 20 students routinely serve there. The program has a requirement that students must be involved with every case. This is part of the effort to train these students to deal with the legal issues that frequently confront families with children who have developmental disabilities.
Mason says helping parents get guardianships or powers of attorney are the two most popular services they provide. In most cases the adult child with a developmental disability hasn’t been ruled incompetent by a judge, so there are lots of questions to sort through with the family about the child’s level of competency.
“Is he or she competent enough to say yes, I want my parents to make medical decisions for me, or yes, I want my parents to handle my bank accounts,” said Mason.
She stresses that their goal is not to take away autonomy from the adult with a developmental disability.
“It’s about respecting that they have a certain kind of autonomy and agency and working with the families to figure out what that means and what that will mean for the family across the board,” said Mason. “We’re very careful about and pay a lot of attention to making sure that we’re working with our client most directly and meeting the needs of our client, but also thinking about what does the family need and what’s going to assist the family long term.”
A holistic approach to service for the disabled
Nicole Attong is the director of FIU Embrace. She says many parents who seek help for their children through the program are on long waiting lists to receive legal services in the community to help them with these issues, while some don’t even know about the resources that are available to them. She says their Spanish-speaking clients in particular often have trouble accessing this information.
She says issues of competency often arise when parents seek medical care for their children though FIU Embrace MEDICAL., a program that provides healthcare services for adults with developmental disabilities.
“We’ve been getting a lot of patients that are walking in the door in their early 20s who we recognize have limited capacity and understanding of some of the medical decisions that they must make, so questions of their ability to make those decisions come up,” said Attong.
To help families in this situation, FIU Embrace decided to offer free legal advice and guidance to the program’s medical clients.
“Because without the proper legal work our doctors could not continue to provide medical care,” said Attong.
FIU Embrace LAW also refers clients who need help outside of the areas they focus on to attorneys in the community who provide low-cost or pro bono services. For example, they provided a referral to a family that was being asked to leave their apartment because their child with autism was sometimes loud and aggressive.
Additionally, the project goes out into the community to hold training sessions about various legal issues that an adult with developmental disabilities might face. The program also provides information to social workers and others who work with this population to help them be able to advise families about these issues.
Attong says FIU Embrace LAW ultimately hopes to prepare the next generation of attorneys to work with these families.
“Regardless of where our graduating students go, we want them to have the experience, the knowledge base and the desire to continue to work with this population,” said Attong. “It’s not just about serving the individual. It’s about building the workforce.”