Rutgers Law Associates (RLA) has received a $250,000 grant from Vital Strategies to serve New Jersey residents in need who use drugs. Thanks to this grant, these residents now have access to a variety of legal services at no cost to them.
Individuals who use drugs may find themselves facing a range of challenges, including accessing recovery and other healthcare, securing housing, and navigating the bureaucracy of state aid. Those who are also poor can face additional, significant hurdles such as homelessness, victimization on the streets, loss of personal identification papers and documents, and the inability to prove identity causing rejection from any form of assistance. Compounding these challenges is the fact that this population is often subjected to intense discrimination. Labeled as “addicts,” they are presumed to be unreliable or undeserving of assistance, including pro bono legal assistance from providers with limited capacity to help all those in need. To bridge this gap, the new grant enables the RLA program to dedicate one-third of its legal time, attention, and manpower to the needs of this underserved community.
The impact will extend far beyond individual clients and their families. “People who use drugs are very often viewed as ‘other’ and non-deserving,” explains RLA managing attorney Andrew J. Rothman. “We are hoping we can have a broad impact in the state by simply doing this work, bringing visibility to this population, and getting decision makers to think about these folks in a different way.”
Rothman expects typical cases to involve navigating government programs like Social Security, securing Section 8 housing, prosecuting discrimination claims, getting state identification cards or driver’s licenses, clearing warrants, and ultimately, “providing legal services so that people who may have fallen off the grid can get back on the grid and on the road to recovery.”
Dionna King, Technical Advisor of the Overdose Prevention Program at Vital Strategies says, “Addressing the social determinants of health is as imperative as improving treatment and harm reduction access and availability. We hope this project provides a valuable service to people affected by harmful drug policies, while also revealing opportunities to advocate for necessary policy change.”
Enriching the Program
Rutgers Law Associates, the law practice within the Rutgers Law Associates Fellowship program, is comprised of newly minted lawyers, usually straight out of law school, committed to serving the needs of low- and moderate-income New Jersey residents at no cost or at a reduced, affordable fee. Rothman says, “The idea is much like a medical residency in that it provides these new lawyers with full-time on-the-job training, working on real cases under the supervision of a senior attorney.”
RLA is the nation’s first and largest postgraduate law residency program which, since its inception in 2014, has grown to include a team of nine fellows, two staff attorneys and a program coordinator (all of whom had been fellows in the program). The grant will not only allow RLA to expand its size by one additional fellow, but it will also help existing fellows broaden their experience
“The best lawyers, I believe, are the most empathetic lawyers who are best able to communicate with their clients, understand where their clients are coming from, and address their needs,” says Rothman, who supervises the work of all team members. “Working with this new population of clients will help RLA fellows develop that empathetic capacity and work with as wide a range of cases as possible.”
The grant will further enrich the RLA model by promoting partnerships with social services and health organizations. These organizations will not only refer potential clients to RLA and vice versa but will educate fellows on how best to interface with and support clients in need who use drugs.