“I have hundreds,” said Sonja Good Stefani, an attorney at Metropolitan Public Defender.
Hundreds of examples of legal matters, or other barriers, like debts, that attorneys like Good Stefani have resolved for people in Multnomah County. Legal matters that might otherwise have kept someone from gaining housing or a job.
“We had one woman who was staying in a shelter — clean and sober living,” Good Stefani cited as an example.
“Because it was a temporary shelter she could not stay there permanently. She had also been in a domestic violence situation that resulted in a massive amount of debt that was impossible for her to pay. And because of that domestic violence, her kids were taken from her. And she started down the path of substance use.”
But she got herself into treatment, “and we were able to work on her debt, negotiating with the debtors. We were also able to work on her criminal record and expungement,” she said.
Currently, the woman is in housing with her children. “And she wants to support her kids at a level to buy a home. We're working on that with her,” Good Stefani said.
Good Stefani and her supervisor, Cynthia Domingo-Foraste — alongside seven staff attorneys at Metropolitan Public Defender’s Community Law Division — help provide ongoing, tailored legal services for hundreds of people in Multnomah County including those who are formerly or currently involved in the justice system.
It’s called the Legal Clinic — and it’s part of ongoing, comprehensive work to navigate legal matters or even non-legal ones. Last summer, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners expanded funding for legal services with a focus on Black, Indigenous and communities of color, and also for those involved in the criminal legal system. It includes funding for first-time referrals by Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice, which oversees parole and probation.
The work can be costly. Legal fees for comparable services, through a private attorney, can cost thousands upon thousands of dollars. But Domingo-Foraste and Good Stefani provide their services for free to clients who’ve been referred from community organizations and Multnomah County.
The attorneys work collaboratively with culturally-specific case managers and County program staff to establish trust. Screening can result in legal advice or representation as well as referral to expungement clinics or legal services days where fines, fees, warrants, and lapsed driver’s licenses can all be addressed.
Referrals come from case managers at organizations such as Latino Network, Self Enhancement Inc. and the Native American Youth and Family Center. Referrals also come on behalf of clients from Multnomah County’s Department of County Human Services, the Multnomah Stability Initiative (which is part of the SUN Service System), the Family Reunification Program, Multnomah County Health Department’s Healthy Birth Initiatives, the Department of Community Justice Victims of Sex Trafficking program, and, recently, the Community Justice Department’s Women and Family Services Unit.
The work includes help with restraining orders, protection orders, guardianship issues, and custody. It can involve getting warrants lifted and finding help filing benefit appeals. And it covers landlord-tenant disputes, eviction defense, navigating court orders, immigration issues, felony issues, reducing fines and fees, negotiations on debt forgiveness, and name or gender changes.
Another woman had felony convictions stemming back several years, Good Stefani said, a barrier she’s working to overcome with help from the Legal Clinic.
“She got help and is actually working for the organization she got help through,” she said. “She also got her kids back and has been clean for five years. And now, she wants to advance her career. There’s a huge difference from having a criminal record and being a felon and how it can inhibit your chances.”
“She couldn’t even go on a field trip with her daughter because of those felony convictions,” Good Stefani said. “But even though she’s not quite eligible for expungement yet, we are working on her felony reduction. And she deserves it.”
Stephanie Simmons, a senior program specialist with the Department of County Human Services, helped establish the contract for the Legal Clinic alongside staff from the County’s Office of Diversity and Equity. Case managers who make referrals to the program do so from a position of empathy, Simmons said.
“They have to be able to say, ‘You deserve to be able to go on your kids’ field trips.’ It’s really something that runs parallel with poverty and people of color. These are people who all too often over-represented in every part of the system,” said Simmons.
Simmons said the work has helped families facing crisis reunite or stay together in the first place.
“The difference it makes, being able to count people in, rather than count them out because they checked a box,” Simmons said. “Taking that next step and saying, ‘Can we dig even deeper to provide the necessary support?’
“A lot of times you have people falling through the cracks, but a lot of times it’s people who are being pushed through the crack. It’s a piece of accountability.”
The Department of Community Justice’s Women and Family Services Unit, which provides supervision for women in the criminal legal system in Multnomah County, with an emphasis on women with children has been referring people to the Legal Clinic program for the first time. They're people who can face overwhelming collateral consequences, said Erika Preuitt, director of the Department of Community Justice.
“The work we do is both defensive and offensive work — getting ahead of old fines and fees,” said Domingo-Foraste. Or, “if you have an old eviction that prevents you from moving forward, vacating the eviction to put them in a place where old barriers aren’t continuing to inhibit.”
Amid the obstacles and curveballs thrown by the COVID-19 pandemic, Domingo-Foraste and Good Stefani continue to work one-on-one with clients over the phone. They meet virtually with judges and still work to negotiate debts, among other services that involve the time-consuming work of navigating an increasingly complex bureaucracy.
In 2020, Domingo-Foraste estimates they’ve helped 120 people with more than 350 to 400 legal matters.
The team is enthusiastic, not only about improving legal outcomes for people throughout the system, but also about improving self-esteem for those individuals and their families.
“It’s the little things — just getting your own attorney, that’s powerful in a way,” Simmons said. “It gives them a sense of empowerment.”