Addressing clients’ needs through holistic representation

Immigrant Defenders Law Center, based in Southern California, has created a case management team staffed by four case management associates and one coordinator. The team focuses on three core social service areas—housing, health (including mental health), and education—to support clients’ long-term healing and ability to engage in their cases. Case management associates connect clients and families with an extensive network of more than 90 vetted organizations that can help clients address a complex web of intersecting systems and needs. The case management team’s close ongoing collaboration with organizations in the region has strengthened its ability to address clients’ pressing needs in a timely way.

For example, when a father and his daughter were evicted from their apartment, the team helped them find emergency shelter and connected them to a local housing organization that was able to place them in a subsidized apartment. When a mother was diagnosed with throat cancer and had a major operation, the team was able to assist the family with transportation to and from the hospital and provided them with food and clothing donations. According to executive director Lindsay Toczylowski, the team’s “role in creating linkages to community resources and social services gives families and individuals a sense of support, which ultimately allows them to be able to fully engage in the preparation of their legal case.”Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director, Immigrant Defenders Law Center, December 18, 2020, via e-mail.

The Bronx Defenders in New York City has a holistic defense team that includes four social workers and one supervisor, bringing an alternative and trauma-responsive skill set to the legal team. The partnership between attorneys and social workers allows for a stronger approach to developing case theory and strategy, while also increasing capacity to attend to the impact of the process on their clients. The social workers’ roles include gathering information in a trauma-informed way; assessing clients’ psychosocial needs to identify and connect them with necessary resources; working with attorneys to prepare clients to testify about traumatic incidents; collaborating with attorneys to prepare mental health experts for trial testimony; and writing release plan letters in support of clients’ bond applications to ensure proper therapeutic service referrals and access to benefits upon release. The supportive counseling the team provides to people in detention is particularly important because detention centers have inadequate supportive resources. The legal team is often the sole source of support to clients, who may also need direct assistance from social workers in preparing to testify about traumatic events in their past. The social work team also helps develop policy positions as a way to work toward broader change in addition to helping provide quality legal representation. “We believe in the positive impact of holistic defense,” says Knight, “yet it is also important to note that the long arc is towards the dissolution of the systems that enact these harms; the long arc is towards holistic defense being unnecessary because the system has been abolished.”Sarah Knight, social work supervisor, the Bronx Defenders, January 8, 2021, via e-mail.