My work with legal and access to justice non-profits has starkly highlighted to me the importance and necessity of holistic advocacy, and yet the unfortunate rarity of the practice. As I’ve written here before, holistic advocacy is simply the idea that social problems are all deeply interrelated and thus require service delivery non-profits to focus on an individual as a whole, in a comprehensive manner, in order to effectively solve their problems, help pull them out of poverty, and affect true change.
I’ve drawn this model from the Bronx Defenders, who have a brilliant “Center for Holistic Defense.” They define holistic defense as:
A client-centered and interdisciplinary model of public defense that addresses the circumstances driving poor people into the criminal justice system and the consequences of that involvement by offering criminal and civil legal representation, social work support, and advocacy in the client community.
Such a model of interdisciplinary advocacy on behalf of the client can be applied in a wide range of legal aid fields (not just criminal defense), to ensure the client is pulled out of poverty in a truly sustainable manner. Sadly, most legal organizations don’t seem to take this approach, instead choosing to solely solve a client’s narrow legal problem – by representing an individual in a discrimination claim, criminal charge, asylum application, or divorce proceeding – for example. But quite honestly, I still cannot fathom how an organization can help clients with one narrow legal problem, and then ignore other aspects of their lives.
And yet, it happens all. the. time.
Let me give three key examples where the need for holistic, comprehensive advocacy by legal service providers is clearly needed.
1) Domestic and gender-based violence:
Say a legal aid organization provides assistance for a survivor of domestic or gender-based violence, helping her get a divorce or “separation due to harm” from an abusive spouse. Say the NGO goes further to help the woman obtain custody over her children and ensure she is receiving alimony payments as required by the law. Often, the organization stops there and pats itself on the back for a job well done. But no, this is not enough! If we are true advocates, we cannot stop there. Because what happens when the client gets a divorce? Does she have adequate and affordable housing? Is she remaining safe from stalking or additional violence from an ex-spouse or ex-boyfriend? Does she feel safe? Does she have employment to support herself and her children? Does she have medical or psychological needs relating to the trauma of violence and abuse she has experienced? Does she have sufficient education to get the types of jobs she wants, and needs? Is she a legal resident in the U.S. or does she need assistance with her immigration status?
There are so many “collateral” problems that result after a survivor of domestic abuse has received legal aid, that simply addressing the solely “legal” aspects of her life cannot be enough to truly pull the client out of poverty and to fully solve the original legal problem. After all, in the U.S., many women end up homeless after leaving a spouse, and many of them remain traumatized by their past abusive relationship. Indeed, many women return to abusive partners for these reasons – fear, guilt, and financial difficulties. So, it’s clear that simply getting a woman a divorce is not enough; a more holistic approach is necessary.
In the developing world, the status of divorced women is further precarious; not only are women even more likely to be financially dependent on their spouse, and thus likely to end up homeless or without a source of income after divorce, but they are more likely to be social outcasts and experience significant social stigma. In many countries, divorced or separated women are looked down upon, cast out by their family, and often further abused should they attempt to return to their family.
When the situation is so serious, how can legal organizations and service providers seriously help a woman with one aspect of the problem – the divorce or child custody alone – and ignore the rest? Yet, many seem to do just that.
2) Criminal defense
The Center for Holistic Defense, where the definition of ‘holistic defense’ has originated, clearly focuses on the criminal defense aspect of legal services. And the ‘collateral’ consequences that result from a criminal conviction should be clear.
Poverty and forays into the criminal justice system, at least in the U.S., are deeply related. Many end up in the criminal justice system due to drug use and gang activity. Beyond that, many who end up in jail once continue to cycle in and out of the system, which in its current state seems to exacerbate rather than solve the problem of crime. In order to reduce recidivism and crime rates, one has to address the needs of the criminal client in a truly holistic manner.
Focusing on re-entry is thus, extremely important. When a client is released from prison, often they face significant difficulty in finding a job, obtaining affordable housing, and not getting drawn into criminal behavior once again. Discrimination against ex-offenders plays a part in making it exceedingly difficult for those to re-enter society with dignity, and to make a decent living. The resulting poverty and even homelessness often pushes people back into criminal behavior and the prison system, leaving them few alternatives.
Clearly, we have to address the roots of the problem and focus on re-entry and rehabilitation for ex-offenders. When someone has been released from prison, case workers and legal aid providers should work together & ask the following questions: Does this individual have affordable housing? Does he have a job to pay the bills? Does he have the education needed to achieve his goals? Does he have meaningful goals to work towards? Does this individual have a support system to turn to? Is he an undocumented immigrant, or does he need immigration assistance? Is this person receiving any government benefits he or she is entitled to? Is this person receiving necessary health care?
All these factors play into rehabilitation and re-entry into society. But often, the holistic approach is not taken; an individual is represented, serves his or her sentence, and is simply released without sufficient focus on ensuring that he or she is truly rehabilitated, and living a stable life.
Check out Robin Steinberg’s video, speaking about this need:
3) Asylum claims
My third example runs along similar lines, so I’ll keep it short. Many legal aid/service organizations provide representation to individuals seeking asylum in the U.S. Often, these individuals face political or religious persecution, or violent repercussions in their home countries and need asylum to stay in the U.S. legally, seeking a better life for themselves and often their families. Asylum is often a matter of life and death.
However, legal aid organizations routinely seem to represent someone in an asylum claim, and if it is successful, have their role end there. This simply doesn’t cut it, in my book. The same questions come up again: Has the client found a job? Has he/she managed to find an affordable place to stay? Does the client have psychological needs or unaddressed trauma resulting from the violent situations he/she is fleeing from? Does the client need medical or psychological assistance? Does the client have health care? Has the client managed to stay out of poverty, even after gaining the legal right to stay in the U.S.? Does the client know English, how to use the computer, and other basic life skills?
There are a wide range of issues which new immigrants to the U.S. face, and those arriving here without legal status are often in an even more precarious position. Have you read the moving story – “Strength in What Remains” – of Deo, a medical student in Burundi, who fled the genocide only to come to the U.S. and end up homeless in Central Park? How can we accept this and let this happen? Legal aid providers should go beyond just providing asylum representation to more holistically considering the needs of the immigrant in adjusting to a new life in a new country.
Organizations, both legal and social services, need to stop saying: “this is not my responsibility, my only responsibility is to provide [insert X service here] .” This happens too often, and I feel I have a responsibility to speak out against the inefficiency and yes, injustice of such a sub-par approach. As advocates and activists, we should be working towards social justice – not just a narrow type of justice that fits the aims of our organizations.
We don’t need the piecemeal legal and social service model that currently exists in much of the U.S. and the world. We need something better. I see too few organizations that are willing to solve problems through a truly holistic mindset.
We need seamlessness & comprehensiveness in legal and social services, as the Center for Holistic Defense aptly describes:
There is no complex intake or eligibility process to be repeated when guiding a client to other services or advocates, thereby relieving the client of the burden of having to retell her story while enduring yet another exhausting intake process. If there is administrative complexity, it is borne by the holistic defender, not by the client in need of help.
Holistic advocacy requires legal and social service organizations to re-assess their methodology and slowly begin adding more interdisciplinary teams to their staff. Legal organizations should have people on staff to address myriad client needs – social workers, immigration lawyers, housing specialists, domestic violence attorneys.
We need to begin keeping tabs on clients for the long run — don’t just solve their legal problem and say see ya later- that’s one more success story to tell donors! Keep records. Follow up. Ensure they are on track to achieve progress and goals, to pull themselves out of poverty or the criminal justice system in a long-term sustainable manner. And if not, do something to change that and connect them with the right services and opportunities they need.
We need to begin understanding the needs of a community as a whole. Where does your client come from? What factors in his/her community is leading to their legal problems? And how can we address the roots of these problems at the community-level?
This is a global problem, a worldwide paradigm shift to be made. We need more holistic advocacy, and I intend to dedicate a significant part of my life towards addressing this gap.
Let’s make this a movement.