Story by CVT volunteer Patricia Busse
It’s not typical for attorneys and mental health professionals to serve clients as a team, but lawyer Deirdre Giblin said she couldn’t imagine handling her asylum and refugee cases—often involving incidents of trauma and torture—any other way. She is a part of an innovative program called the Refugee and Asylum Assistance Project (RAAP) at the Community Legal Services and Counseling Center in Cambridge, Mass., where lawyers and counselors team up to serve refugees.
“It’s a different kind of case if you’re just trying to function on a legal basis and not internalize all the trauma and emotion,” said Lisa Weinberg, another Immigration Attorney at RAAP. “It’s not ideal.”
After the trauma that many refugees and asylum seekers have endured in their home countries, going through the American legal process including retelling a story of torture in detail—often multiple times—could be re-triggering and traumatizing, said RAAP Associate Clinical Director Mojdeh Rohani.
Aside from the obvious benefit to the client of having a professional counselor available to help them deal with those emotions—mental health can also be critical from a legal perspective, Giblin said.
A client’s mental health is key in their ability to provide credible testimony, and credible testimony is critical to the success of their case, she said.
“A lawyer in the field cannot be successful with their client unless they have some good mental health support,” she said.
Beyond mental health, social workers at RAAP help clients meet their basic needs, like food, housing and medical care, said Clinical Social Worker Lauren Shebairo.
“We can’t even think about having them prepare for a trial without their basic needs being met,” Giblin said.
In addition to therapy and basic needs, the clinic also helps clients build community with one another.
In spring of 2009, Shebairo initiated a biweekly group for refugee and immigrant women who have been affected by torture and trauma and are currently experiencing social isolation. The group has been designed to provide women from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to come together to provide mutual support to one another while enjoying a variety of artistic and expressive activities, including a group sculpture project.
Although the partnership between lawyers and mental health professionals is unique, it seemed natural for the Community Legal Services and Counseling Center, which has been teaming up counselors and attorneys for more than 40 years to serve clients in areas like family law, disability and housing issues.
In 2001, the partnership between immigration attorneys and counselors started after a lawyer saw the need for psychological evaluations of clients and sought the help of volunteer clinicians, said Clinical Director Dr. Paul Goldmuntz.
In 2007, the organization formally named the Refugee and Asylum Assistance Project and it became an official branch of the overall organization.
RAAP relies heavily on the work of volunteers. Three staff attorneys mentor about two dozen volunteer lawyers who work on between 120 and 140 asylum cases per year. They also use volunteer interpreters, Giblin said.
On the counseling side, about 23 mental health professionals volunteer to evaluate clients. These clients are able to be seen for ongoing counseling and treatment as needed, Rohani said.
Clients come from about 35 different countries per year, and the mix of countries of origin typically changes based on which parts of the world are in turmoil.
“There’s about a six-month lag time from what you see on the news, and what you see in our door,” Giblin said.
Not only do they see clients who were targeted for their politics or affiliations, but they also serve those harmed because of their gender or sexual orientation, Weinberg said.
“We’re starting to see a lot of people fleeing because of their status as a transgender person, or sexual orientation,” Weinberg said. “All over Africa, the attention on homosexuality has really increased over the last few years, but we really see those from all over the world.”
They’re also seeing a lot of cases where women can’t get domestic violence protection from their government, she said.
While attorneys and mental health professionals with the organization tout the benefits of their teamwork, they admit there is some work involved in bridging the gap between the two professions.
For example, legal professionals are often working fast on a tight deadline, while mental health professionals typically take their time and avoid pushing people faster than they want to move, Goldmuntz said.
Still, they say, it’s well worth the work.
“It really helps the attorneys too, it doesn’t just help clients,” Giblin said. “What we’re doing here is more holistic. It’s a great program for both the clients and the attorney.”