Legal Fellowship Works to Keep Families Together   

By Whitney Rubenstein, Equal Justice Works Fellow

Whitney_Rubenstein2Ms. Matthews, a client of the East Bay Community Law Center, is a black, single mother of three living in Oakland public housing.  She has worked hard to create a stable life and home for her family despite often lacking resources.  However, when Ms. Matthew’s 16-year-old son was arrested, she faced an impossible decision: ban her son from the family home or keep her family intact but risk eviction and homelessness.

This is because in Oakland, Calif., (and other cities) a family can be evicted if any household member or guest, including a minor, allegedly engages in criminal activity on or off of Oakland Housing Authority premises. Less than half of these arrests result in formal charges or a conviction, but once arrested, it’s too late. The Oakland Housing Authority can, and does, commence eviction proceedings against the family.

The effects of Oakland Housing Authority’s broad sweeping policy on crime are exacerbated by the disproportionate arrest rates of poor youth of color in Oakland, many of whom live in public housing. Black youth in Oakland are arrested 23 times more than white youth despite comprising less than 30 percent of the youth population.

Eviction is the end of the line for families like the Matthews. It leads to homelessness, displaces families and uproots children from their schools. Families are caught in systems that punish them when what they so desperately need is help.  My project offers this help through a unique approach to change.

A different model: providing legal and social support

For the next two years, I will be working on behalf of families like the Matthews as an Equal Justice Works Fellow.  My project, which is sponsored by The Clorox Company and The Morrison & Foerster Foundation, is part of Equal Justice Works, the largest post-graduate fellowship in the country.

Traditional legal models view juvenile justice and housing as two separate issues, but for families like the Matthews, these issues are interconnected.  My project is a holistic model that provides legal representation to the young person in the delinquency matter, legal representation to the family in the housing matter and social work support for the entire family. While the lawyer is advocating inside the courtroom, the social worker is helping to link families with services such as mental health counseling, after school programming and employment training.  The goal is to keep the family housed and the youth out of the juvenile justice system.

Prior to attending law school, I was a New York City public school teacher in Brooklyn and then went on to obtain my Masters in Social Work from Columbia University. As a social worker, I worked in interdisciplinary legal and social work settings, advocating for court-involved youth and families, and I returned to law school to carry on this work as a legal advocate. Now as an Equal Justice Works Fellow, I am continuing this work.

Better outcomes for families in need

I’m three months into the fellowship and have already learned to celebrate small victories, because the larger ones can be few and far between. I‘ve learned that while my role as a legal advocate is limited to the four corners of the law, my role as a social work advocate lets me think beyond that box to help my clients solve their problems. And perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that when these clients have a legal and social work advocate working with them, other stakeholders are more willing to listen and to take chances on these families, leading to better outcomes for everyone.

I know I will face challenges over the next two years and my work will be met with resistance. But I also know that I will not let these challenges deter me, and instead, I will work tirelessly to change our current legal landscape. I am committed to doing the right thing every single day so that families like the Matthews can finally have a voice within these systems and receive the services they desperately need to find stability and thrive.

Whitney is an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by the Morrison & Foerster Foundation and The Clorox Company.  She holds a law degree from the UC Berkeley, School of Law and a Master of Social Work from Columbia University, and is a dedicated advocate for youth and their families. In her free time, she loves to spend time with family and friends, read and travel to new places.     

Read more about The Clorox Company’s pro bono program.