“Adulting” is hard. That’s the first thought that comes to my mind at the end of this four-day week that felt like an entire month. Although Bella and I have both had full-time internship experiences in the past, it was still quite a challenge to drag ourselves out of bed at 7am sharp, hop on the metro every day with our droopy eyes, and be energetic for a brand new day filled with unfamiliar things to learn. And yet in retrospect, it turned out to be worth it.
This is the first time that Dade Legal Aid has been a partner for DukeEngage Miami, and we feel as if we are exploring an uncharted territory. The non-profit organization mainly provides or assists with the seeking of legal representation for low-income populations in family law, including divorces, custody, paternity and guardianship, probate, child advocacy, domestic violence and more. It also has a newly launched Venture Law project, and the largest pro bono referral program in Florida – the “Put Something Back” program – which follows the 150% Federal Poverty Guidelines.
If possible, attorneys at Legal Aid conduct intake interviews and accept the cases that clients bring forth, but if the specific case is ineligible for an attorney at Legal Aid, we encourage them to apply for the PSB pro bono program (if eligible) or refer them to other legal agencies. For example, in family law cases, only clients who have minor children that physically live with them are eligible. Intriguingly, we discovered that Dade Legal Aid and other DukeEngage Miami partners such as Legal Services of Greater Miami supplement each others’ services. LSGM, for instance, deals with housing cases only for U.S. citizens, while Dade Legal Aid only accepts housing cases for undocumented immigrants specifically. The one exception that Legal Aid makes for income requirement is for domestic and sexual violence cases. Regardless of income, all petitioners of domestic violence who have obtained a restraining order from the court are accepted at our office. It is then completely appropriate to call Dade Legal Aid a safety net of literally the most vulnerable populations in the county.
The housekeeping and logistical staff, pro bono program and guardianship department are located on the first floor, while the executive director Karen, most attorneys and the domestic violence unit are on the third. For the first few days, Bella and I rotated around and shadowed different departments. We gained a basic understanding of all processes that take place in the office, from first contact with the clients to the closing of a case. We sat at the front desk to help with applications, some basic Q&A, and preliminary screening, helped with guardianship reports and refine the details of the pro bono referral program. We were a given a few opportunities to sit in client intakes and hearings at court right next door, the former of which we will be responsible for assisting in the following weeks.
This exposure, although brief, was nothing short of impactful. From seeing a woman emotionally break down in court for the father’s abuse of the child, hearing details about domestic violence such as alleged threats to shoot the victim with a gun and severing her body, to seeing underprivileged clients desperately begging for the acceptance of a case and stories about their unemployment, I felt pushed out of the Duke bubble and into first-hand contact with populations victimized by larger systems and institutions. The physical presence of these people and actual human-to-human interactions, rather than numbers and facts on paper, are what lead to empathy. As Wendy – another intern that we met – says to us: “Sometimes they just want someone to listen.” And this journey is only beginning.