A Day in the Life: Legal Aid of Manasota

by Piyali Syam | March 26, 2013

Jaime Rubin interned with Legal Aid of Manasota in Sarasota, Florida, during each summer throughout her time at University of Florida Levin College of Law. Having taken a Disability Law course in law school and knowing she wanted to continue working with children and families, her research led her to discover a serious lack of services, legal and otherwise, for children in need of special education. Her Equal Justice Works project, funded by the Florida Bar Foundation, aims to create a collaborative network of support between educators, legal professionals and community organizations to help children with special needs receive ESE (Exceptional Student Education) services, legal representation and stricter IEP (Individualized Education Program, a set of accommodations designed to meet the educational needs of special education students up to the age of 22) enforcement.

8:00 a.m. Arrive at the office. My mornings are usually taken up with client meetings, client phone calls, and general calls. I spend a lot of time on the phone; taking phone calls from parents, calling school officials to set up IEP meetings, calling ESE specialists, advocates and other attorneys. Probably the most challenging part of my job is just getting a hold of people and waiting for them to return my messages! When I first meet a parent of a special needs child, I listen to his or her story and then check to make sure that he or she meets our income requirements. Then I set up a meeting to try and get a sense of the client’s needs and to have him or her sign release forms, which will give me permission to access documents that could help our case. In between meetings and phone calls, I spend some time sifting through these documents such as school and medical records.

9:00 a.m. In between my special education cases, I typically take on one or two family law cases as well, so some mornings I have to be in court for a divorce hearing, for example. Special education cases rarely end up in due process filings, so these cases hone my in-court experience. Family law cases also may not make it to trial, but they often involve hearings and a great degree of mediation—a skill which is invaluable in special education advocacy.

10:00 a.m. When I can, I set up a booth at resource expos, which is a great way for me to get my name and my services out there. Under special education law, schools should be identifying children who need ESE services, but it’s always parents who reach out to me for help navigating the system.  Community outreach comprises a huge portion of my work, since I’m the only legal services attorney in Sarasota working in this field. Disabled children are usually unable to advocate for themselves, and their parents are not in school with them every day to see the kinds of issues they face in the classroom.  

12:00 p.m. Have lunch with my coworkers at the office. We’re a small group, so we’re very close-knit. If I have some free time, I might watch some webinars. Some days I set up lunch meetings with a local attorney, a parent advocate or the Executive Director of a local organization that may have an interest in my program.  

1:30 p.m. IEP meeting with an IEP team for the individual child at issue, which can run anywhere from one to four hours. During the meeting, I, the parents, and a team of officials such as school teachers, principals, special education heads and therapists discuss what the child’s educational and/or behavioral issues are, whether an evaluation of the child’s eligibility for an IEP needs to be done, if an IEP needs to be started, whether an existing one needs to be revised and if the child is making progress or not.

Enforcement of IEPs by the schools is a big problem because schools often don’t have the resources to provide the accommodations promised and required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Moreover, funding for these sorts of programs is always getting cut by the government, so a lot of the time schools just try to push these kids through the system. I’ve so far worked with kids with ADHD who had failing grades, a boy with autism who was not being properly managed on the bus, twins with emotional behavioral issues who the school was unnecessarily trying to push into an alternative school and a child who moved from out of state to Florida and was not receiving the compensatory services he was awarded in a lawsuit against his former school. Many of these kids have disciplinary problems and just get repeated suspensions because the school does not know how else to manage them.

4:00 p.m. Attend a monthly meeting with the Developmental Disabilities subcommittee of the Community Alliance of Sarasota, which is a great way not only to keep up with legislative issues and goings on in the disability community, but also to gain referral sources. I spend a lot of time connecting with other organizations who deal with the disabled population to sell myself as another resource for the community.

Another big goal of mine is to set up a sustainable pro bono program with local firm attorneys. Legal Aid has a pro bono program, but it has typically focused on issues like foreclosure, family law and domestic violence rather than children’s issues. Some firm attorneys have reached out to me, and my hope is that they will start taking on special education cases pro bono.

6:00 p.m. On lighter days, I leave around 4:30 or 4:45, but crazy days keep me at the office longer. Since I’m not billing my clients, I have the freedom to give each client the time and attention they deserve. Clients are free to come in and share their frustrations with me or even to just cry, and if I have to make 75 phone calls to get in touch with an ESE specialist, I can do that. Families of children with special needs are constantly fighting an uphill battle in so many ways, and education is just a small part of that, so if I can make their lives just a little easier by fighting for them on this front, making phone calls and setting up meetings, that’s one less thing they have to worry about. It’s really rewarding to feel like I’m helping to relieve some of the enormous pressure families with special needs children face. 

Filed Under: Job Search | Workplace Issues


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