Faculty Post: Poverty & Children with Disabilities

by Professor Mary O’Connell

Why are poor people poor? There’s a question lawyers, law students – indeed, many in the U.S. and around the world — could chew on for many hours. The answers, one would assume, are highly complex, and vary substantially by country and over time. In fact, however, American law has shown a remarkable tendency to oscillate between two highly simplistic explanations of poverty, what we might call the “luck hypothesis” and the “work ethic” hypothesis. Under the luck hypothesis, anyone could wind up poor. Those of us who aren’t poor were/are lucky. We had gifts like competent, loving parents, good health, decent schools. Those who are poor, under this hypothesis, have been unlucky. Under the “work ethic” hypothesis, by contrast, the poor are, at least disproportionately if not entirely, individuals who lack self-discipline and good habits. Yes, people are dealt different hands in life, but those who wind up poor didn’t try very hard. They don’t plan, they don’t work hard, they don’t capitalize on what is available to them. Given these competing – and seemingly mutually exclusive – hypotheses about poverty, what makes for sensible social policy?

For many years, I’ve had the privilege of working with two NUSL grads – Attorney Taramattie Doucette and Attorney Jane Smith of Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) — the founders of the Children’s Disability Project at GBLS. Tara and Jane work with poor families who have a child with a disability. Under the Social Security Act (SSA), a child with a disability whose family has an extremely low income qualifies for Social Security benefits. (The family must also have assets of less than $2000, in toto, though a car and a house — if they own one – are excluded). Added to the Social Security Act in the 1970’s, the children’s disability provisions seem to reflect the luck hypothesis. A child with a disability probably faces challenges that a non-disabled child does not, and those challenges are shared by her family. When that family is very poor (and 9.7% of U.S. children live in what the U.S. Census Bureau denominates “extreme poverty”), wise social policy might provide a modest income stream to help the family help the child.   It turns out, however, that today’s poor children with disabilities find themselves in the path of exactly the luck/work ethic collision described above. While the diagnoses of some disabilities are steady or falling (e.g., cerebral palsy), others are expanding – some rapidly. Rates of childhood diabetes, for example, have exploded, as have diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and what are referred to generically as “speech delays”, a possible early indicator of dyslexia or other learning disabilities. But what are these new diagnoses? Are they made up disorders, fastened on by parents eager for the income that SSD (Social Security Disability)-Children’s might bring? Are they the child or parent’s “own fault”, for neglecting exercise, eating a poor diet, etc.? While it might seem that a medical diagnosis of a disability – signed off on by an M.D. – would be sufficient to meet applicable legal requirements, disability law is an ever-changing mix, with lots of discretion on both the administrative and judicial levels. Is ADHD a “disability”? Should very poor parents whose child is diagnosed with ADHD get financial help? Or does the existence of benefits push parents to burden their child with a label that may compromise her chances for a bright future?

It’s easy to assume that the most complex legal arguments arise in clashes between corporate titans – and to be sure, many do. But much of American law’s complexity – from the text of arcane regulations, to procedural mazes, to Congressional inertia and deep philosophical rifts – plays out in the daily lives of poor children – a stunning 22% of whom currently live below the federal poverty line. Painful as it is to say, this seems to be a growth industry – with lots of room for the work of good lawyers.

Faculty Post: Human Rights and Gender-Based Violence

by Katherine Schulte, Supervising Attorney, Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University School of Law

Monday March 10, 2014 marked the launch of the 58th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW58).  Representatives from Member States, UN agencies, and civil society have come together in New York City to address the issue of equality for women and girls.  The theme for this year’s session is “Challenges and Achievements in the Implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for Women and Girls.” These goals were adopted 13 years ago to promote women’s fullest enjoyment of their rights. Particular target areas include eradicating the disproportionate poverty of women and girls, increasing women’s participation in politics, and ending gender-based violence. CSW58 provides an opportunity for stakeholders to review what progress has been made in these areas, and what improvements are still necessary.

NUSL is fortunate to have connections to the important work happening at CSW58 this week.  In November 2013, Northeastern University School of Law’s Program on Human Rights in the Global Economy hosted their annual Human Rights Institute, co-convened by the Due Diligence Project (DDP) and NUSL’s Domestic Violence Institute.  The Institute, entitled “Human Rights and Violence Against Women: Applying the Due Diligence Principle,” brought together over 100 advocates, scholars, and activists to discuss the relevance of a human rights framework to the issue of ending violence against women in the United States context.  The Due Diligence Project’s work shines new light on efforts to end gender-based violence, putting forth a Framework of guiding principles in 5 areas, known as the “5 Ps” of the due diligence principle:  prevention, protection, prosecution, punishment, and provision of redress.

The Due Diligence Project formally launched its Framework for accountability to end violence against women on March 13, 2014 at an event sponsored by the Governments of Malaysia and Germany.   In keeping with the CSW58’s theme, the DDP convened a panel titled “Beyond 2015: Due Diligence Framework to End Violence against Women.”  The DDP’s efforts are an important step not just in achieving justice for individual survivors, but in creating a broader system of accountability for combating the epidemic of gender-based violence worldwide.

A human rights framework has much to offer in encouraging proactive versus purely reactive responses to gender-based violence.  It’s nearly impossible to read the news today without seeing headlines about sexual violence.  In addition to individual accounts of horrific assaults, media reports send troubling messages about a widespread culture of sexual violence.  At one end of the spectrum, there is tolerance of violence and complete impunity for perpetrators; just last month Human Rights Watch released a report titled “Here, Rape is Normal,” aimed at combating rampant sexual violence affecting displaced women in Somalia.   Sexual assault is a constant threat within US borders as well, as is evidenced by the recent filing of federal complaints against UC Berkeley by 31 students and alumni who alleged “deliberate indifference” to their reports of campus sexual assault.  As one survivor powerfully stated, “You are more likely to be sexually assaulted if you go to college than if you don’t.”  The frequency and pervasiveness of reports like this show that we must reimagine how we, as a global society, respond to gender-based violence.  Gender equality cannot be achieved if women’s physical and personal integrity is constantly under threat.

This is just part of the conversation that is happening at CSW58. Preliminary reports from CSW 58 acknowledge that important progress has been made, but that huge gaps continue to exist for women and girls worldwide. Closing these gaps is not just about advancing women’s rights—it’s about breaking down structural gender inequality and viewing women’s rights as equal human rights.  Even though there is still much work to do, there is no doubt that forums like CSW58 are an important step in the right direction.

To get updates from CSW58, follow @UN_CSW and #CSW58 on Twitter!

Faculty Post: “What will I learn in the first year of law school?”

by David M. Phillips, Professor of Law

“What will I learn in the first year of law school?,” is a frequently asked question directed at a law professor. There are many answers to this question. Without pretending to be exhaustive, let me tender a partial answer, one focusing upon a changing conception of what we mean by law and one related to a skill that the first year of law school enhances.

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Faculty Post: A Reflection on the Future of Legal Education

by Luke Bierman, Associate Dean for Experiential Education and Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Law

The Northeastern University School of Law Class of 2014 will graduate at the end of May, leaving the members of this class with just one more quarter to spend as students at the law school.  Some of these students are completing their last classes as they prepare to head off to co-op.  The rest of these students are starting to appear in the Dockser Commons as they return from co-op for their last classes before graduation.

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Faculty Post: Raising Awareness about Human Trafficking, at Home and Abroad

by Katherine Schulte, Supervising Attorney, Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University School of Law

This week, the Law School hosted a series of events to recognize Human Trafficking Awareness Month.  The events were co-sponsored by the Law School’s own Program on Human Rights in the Global Economy and Domestic Violence Institute, along with several partners within Northeastern University:  the College of Social Sciences and Humanities’ Human Services Program; the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice; Bouvé College of Health Sciences’ Institute on Urban Health Research and Practice; University Health and Counseling Services’ ViSION program; and student groups Not For Sale and UNICEF.  The fact that these diverse partners share an interest in raising awareness around this issue speaks to the important and cross-cutting nature of human trafficking.

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Faculty Post: Fair Play? Prosecutors and the Duty to Disclose

by Professor Daniel S. Medwed

The famous phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” is associated not only with Spiderman, but also with American prosecutors, who possess the discretion to charge people with crimes and are therefore arguably the most powerful players in the criminal justice system. One significant check on that power is the Brady doctrine, which stems from a 1963 Supreme Court case holding that, prior to trial, prosecutors must disclose all information to the defense that is “favorable” to the defendant and “material” to guilt or punishment.

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Faculty Post: Fighting for Whistleblower Rights

by Emily Spieler, Hadley Professor of Law

Edward Snowden caused an international debate about whistleblowers when he turned secret national security information over to the media.  The conversation that has ensued about our privacy has been deeply important – both to our sense of our own democratic principles and to our understanding of the needs for secrecy in national intelligence.

But while Snowden may not be the typical whistleblower, he nevertheless represents a class of people who decide that they must step forward and raise concerns about activities they believe to be illegal or unsafe.  Sometimes, these concerns involve suspected evasion of laws.  Often they raise issues that affect the well-being of others.
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Faculty Post: the Classroom and the State House

by Professor Gabriel Arkles

It may sound cliché, but one of the things that I love about teaching is how much I learn from and with my students. It especially delights me when the work the students do outside the classroom, the work I do outside the classroom, and the work we do together inside the classroom build on and strengthen one another.  Teaching and doing legislative testimony this semester created one of those opportunities.

At Northeastern University School of Law, we work hard to support students as they prepare for contemporary law practice. We know that litigation is an important tool, but far from the only one that lawyers use to protect their clients’ interests and advocate for social change. Thus, after researching and writing a challenging memo about a tort issue from a litigation angle, my students this semester examined related issues from a policy standpoint: they prepared and presented oral and written legislative testimony in a simulated state legislative hearing about a possible end to tort remedies.
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Tribute to Madiba by Hope Lewis: A Smile that Called for Transformation

This blog post was written by Northeastern University School of Law Professor Hope Lewis, who co-founded the law school’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, for the IntLawGrrls blog.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.—Nelson R. Mandela, 1964

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