Three students honored for pro bono work to address the justice gap
Stetson University College of Law hosted the inaugural Wm. Reece Smith Jr. Pro Bono competition this semester, announcing three honorees on Sept. 26.
Second-year law students Haley Coet, Taylor Greenberg and Melody Jacquay were honored at a special program for their outstanding volunteer service. Coet was selected as the overall winner of the competition.
Professor Judith Scully, co-coordinator of the Social Justice Advocacy concentration and pro bono program at Stetson, said that the competition was designed as a way of honoring students who go above and beyond in volunteering their time to serve the community and address the justice gap.
Haley Coet volunteers with the West Florida Center for Trafficking Advocacy. She has logged more than 200 hours with the group, which helps human trafficking survivors expunge their criminal records.
Coet said that her interest in helping human trafficking victims began in high school, when a mission trip to Immokalee, Florida, opened her eyes to the reality of modern day slavery. She volunteered with the Coalition for Immokalee Workers while still a teenager, and later as an undergraduate college student, started the Task Force for Human Trafficking at her church. The task force trains people to identify the victims of human trafficking, said Coet. She regularly speaks at conferences, educational and outreach events to educate people about human trafficking. In the past year, Coet started working with Miracles Outreach, a safe home that cares for children in the foster system who have been trafficked or abused in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Coet explained that Miracles Outreach is a grass roots effort that started when the co-founders of the organization offered children in a poor area they encountered on the streets a safe place to stay.
“The legal profession gives you an opportunity to help people,” she said of her choice to attend law school. “I felt Stetson was a place to sink in roots and grow,” she said.
Shortly before starting at Stetson law school, Coet met Brent Woody at a workshop on human trafficking. Woody is an attorney whose pro bono practice through the West Florida Center for Trafficking Advocacy assists the survivors of human trafficking in expunging criminal records that make it difficult for them to obtain employment and start their lives over again.
“He’s one of only a handful of attorneys offering this service,” Coet explained. “These victims have suffered years of trauma—and then they are labeled as criminals.”
“Something as small as expunging records can make a huge difference. The relationship with advocates helps them avoid being re-victimized,” said Coet.
After law school, Coet plans to balance a pro bono practice with private practice. She aspires to work for or possibly create an organization after law school that offers human trafficking victims services in a broad spectrum of areas, from immigration to human trafficking to family law.
“I know I’ll be a better attorney because of pro bono work,” said Coet.
At age 15, Taylor Greenberg decided that she wanted to go to law school to speak up for others that couldn’t speak for themselves.
“I’ve always wanted to be a voice for people who have been wronged and are at their most vulnerable and in need of an advocate,” said Greenberg.
Today, Greenberg is a student in Stetson’s Social Justice Advocacy Program. Her mentor is adjunct professor Judge Irene Sullivan.
“I knew of Stetson’s advocacy program,” said Greenberg. “The Social Justice Advocacy Program was exactly what I wanted in law school.”
As an undergraduate student at Florida State University, Greenberg became interested in working as a Guardian Ad Litem, an interest that has extended into law school. At Stetson, Greenberg launched Child Advocates of Stetson Law, a student organization on campus that connects and recruits Guardian ad Litem volunteers.
Active in the 18th and Sixth Judicial Circuit, Greenberg has advocated as a Guardian Ad Litem for 19 children and teens since 2013.
“A lot of times they act out because no one cares for them,” said Greenberg. “They all just want to be accepted and loved.”
Greenberg said that Guardian Ad Litem volunteers are required to meet monthly with their assigned children to make sure that their needs are being met and that they are on track for a permanent home.
“A lot of times, teens spend way too many years in foster care if they are without an advocate,” said Greenberg.
She described one 16-year-old she was appointed to who was once failing classes, running away from his group home, and on the path to prison. Now at age 18, he is living with a foster family and is on track to graduate high school and attend college.
“He said he felt no one really cared about him so he didn’t care about himself until I came into his life,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg’s student organization, Child Advocates of Stetson Law, is hosting an “Inspiring Youth Event.” On October 22, 30 teens from the Guardian ad Litem program will be paired with 30 Stetson law students. The event will include International Child Welfare Advocate Ashley Rhodes-Courter who will speak about her experiences in foster care and overcoming adversity. Every teen will receive a signed copy of her book.
“As attorneys, being able to help a person with what you know and to use those skills is the whole reason we are here,” said Greenberg.
Student Melody Jacquay came to law school specifically to help indigent people. She has refined her focus to include poverty law, criminal defense and criminal justice reform.
“I believe in having a system of fairness—a standard of innocence until proven guilty,” said Jacquay, who recently volunteered with the Hillsborough County Public Defenders Office. The experience of working with the Public Defenders Office was inspiring, Jacquay shared.
“Every attorney I met really cared about upholding the protections of the Constitution,” she said.
At the Public Defenders office, Jacquay worked on a template motion to help poor clients charged with petty misdemeanors have bail waived if they cannot pay to bond out of jail. The bond motion was tailored to clients who were homeless. The motion reinforces the principle that people are innocent until proven guilty.
“There is a societal lack of understanding in working with indigent clients and a stigma that poor people do bad things,” said Jacquay.
Jacquay explained how being caught up in the justice system for petty crimes makes it hard for people to obtain employment, and can lead to a life of crime and a cycle of poverty.
She said that her work with two clients broadened her perspective of the experience of being a young black male fearing trouble with the police.
Jacquay asked, “Have you ever made a mistake or been accused of something you did not do?”
At the P.D.’s office, Jacquay said she was impressed with a training program for new attorneys that urged them to think outside of the box and question police investigations. She saw firsthand how the training helped improve new attorneys’ confidence.
She noted how volunteering, and talking with career development helped her to strengthen her dedication to indigent defense.
Jacquay said that her definition of success as an advocate is knowing that you made a difference in someone’s life.
“Every day, you can do work that feeds your soul,” Jacquay said.
Post date: Oct. 20, 2016
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