Stories of Justice
CLSMF exists so that we can bring Justice to Central Floridians with the most need. Some are facing abuse and others are on the brink of eviction from the only place they can call home. Every woman, man and child that we serve are in need of access to a voice in the justice system that could potentially change their life. Justice matters to our clients and justice for all matters to Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida.
Odette and Molly: Finding how to live in peace
Odette, a hearing impaired Sanford resident, faced the possibility of losing her emotional support animal when city coding found out she had a pig. Molly, who is a small pig, helps Odette with her anxiety and is a source of comfort and safety. Unfortunately, farm animals are not allowed in Sanford city limits.
When a code enforcement officer initially came to her home to inform her that she was in violation, Odette, who is an ASL native speaker, was unable to communicate effectively. Odette panicked and thought that they were either going to confiscate Molly or arrest her. Distraught by the thought of losing Molly, she was not able to eat or sleep. She called CLSMF in a state of despair hoping that there was a way she could keep her beloved emotional support animal.
To her relief, CLSMF’s Helpline attorney answered Odette’s call with a gentle and understanding nature. The attorney was able to help Odette by advising her to obtain the proper documentation from her attending physician supporting Molly as her emotional support animal. She also advised to keep Molly off the property until the issue was resolved. The CLSMF attorney then negotiated with the City of Sanford Directors of Community Improvement. They were concerned, because this was the first time they had to deal with this issue of an emotional support animal and wanted to be sure to set the correct precedence.
The City of Sanford had to take many issues into consideration before accommodating Odette such as city zoning, HOA rules, neighbor’s rights and her right as a resident. The CLSMF attorney was able to negotiate a good outcome for all parties. Odette was able to obtain a permit that allows Molly to live with her, while still abiding by animal control rules such as containment, and leashing.
Odette was overjoyed at this news and now lives in peace with Molly in her home.
Building Hope for Veterans
It has been a long journey for Gulf War veteran Mario Figueroa. After three years battling for his benefits with the VA alongside CLSMF Veterans Advocacy Project attorney Chirsite Bhageloe, Mario was finally awarded 70% service-related disability rating in July 2015. The hard-working single father was so relieved that he would now be able to better care for his family. More good news followed when a few months later Halifax Habitat for Humanity chose him to be a recipient of their next housing project through a referral from Christie. “Habitat wanted to build a home for a low-income veteran and I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving than Mr. Figueroa” she said.
Mario has been through his fair share of struggles in his lifetime. He joined the Navy right out of high school and served as a combat medic in the Gulf War. Soon after he was discharged in 1993, his son was born and he was left to raise him by himself. When Mario originally applied in 2010 for his service-related disability he was denied by the VA. “He is not the kind of person who just sits back and waits for disability to come in, he has always worked to maintain his family; he works at whatever he can find so that he can pay the bills” his attorney said when speaking about the frustrations of lengthy process of his case. The appeals process took Christie all the way to DC and back to the regional VA office, but all her effort on his behalf was worth it when the VA finally awarded Mario $44,000 in retroactive payment and $1,335/month for his service-related disability.
Then in October 2015, Halifax Habitat for Humanity held a groundbreaking ceremony for this home and construction began. Habitat for Humanity is not a “give-away” program, but rather a true “hand-up” that allows for the homeowner to be a part of their housing solution. As such, homeowners are expected to complete what they call “sweat equity” which are hours on the construction site which serves as the down-payment on the home. The organization sets a standard number of hours that the homeowners must contribute, but Mario was so grateful for this opportunity that he completed triple the required hours. He enjoyed it so much that he has decided to continue to volunteer for the organization and help give others in need a hand up in life. Mario and his family were handed the keys to the new home on April 18, 2016. Christie attended the house dedication ceremony to support her client. She said that it was “so nice to see good things finally happening to such an honest, hard-working veteran.” Christie also said she felt honored to have played a part in making a difference in his life.
Alexis: Fourth Grade Autistic Child the Victim of Discrimination and Disability-Related Harassment
Every morning Alexis’ mother dropped her off at the bus stop, and every day she feared her fourth-grade daughter would be arrested for her disability while at school. Unfortunately, Alexis’ mother’s fears came true.
Alexis is young girl on the autism spectrum. Her mother knew that minor changes to Alexis’s routine and activities terrified her. She also knew that if teachers and staff disciplined her incorrectly or restrained Alexis for her autism-related behavior, instead of supporting her, the behavior would only worsen. She was right.
Alexis was arrested the first time for running out of an improperly supervised classroom and making contact with a staff member with a stick she found. This initial arrest shocked her mother, but her shock was made worse when she was put on notice that the school would arrest Alexis every time that she engaged in similar disability-related behavior. Rather than viewing Alexis’ behavior as a manifestation of her disability and following her behavior plan, or properly training her teachers, school staff chose to involve law enforcement and criminalize her behavior. The second arrest came just a few short weeks later when a staff member walked into Alexis’ legs while Alexis and some other students were sitting on the end of a stage, swinging their feet. The staff member had Alexis charged with felony battery.
Alexis’s story is emblematic of a much larger problem in Volusia County and across the state, called the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Rather than providing children with disabilities the supports and services they are entitled to under Federal law, schools instead chose to criminalize their behavior problems in an effort to remove them from the school. Children of color and children with disabilities, like Alexis, who can not afford counsel, end up spending their childhoods in alternative schools or the juvenile justice system. Their futures are shattered.
Once a child is removed from their school, even for a short time, the odds of that child having a decent future diminish drastically. This is especially true if an arrest takes place, which sadly happens too frequently to children in Florida. For instance, if a child makes unwanted contact with a school employee in the state of Florida that child can, and often is, charged with “felony battery on a school board official”. Because it is a felony charge, it can not later be expunged or sealed. Many of us today could not hold our current jobs had we been arrested for a felony, nor would the military take us. All because a child with a disability acts out and the staff paid to help them to manage that disability, choses to charge them with a crime instead.
After Alexis was arrested the second time, her mother contacted CLSMF Children’s Rights Unit. Our attorneys are filing an Office for Civil Rights complaint on behalf of Alexis and other similarly situated students, alleging discrimination and disability-related harassment.
CLSMF Children’s Rights Unit attorneys have worked tirelessly around the state to stop the school to prison pipeline. We have collaborated with all key stakeholders including schools, law enforcement, state agencies and the community to end the practices that lead to the disproportionate discipline and arrest of children with disabilities and children of color in the state of Florida. As a result of this collaboration, several districts have made major changes in the staff training and policies that allow these arrests.
CLSMF Children’s Rights Unit attorneys realize that we can not stop this problem alone. We need the help of other advocates, the community and the children themselves. To that end, we have engaged in a massive training project called “All Aboard Florida”, training pro-bono attorneys, state agency attorneys working with children, and Guardian ad Litem volunteers in how to work against the school to prison pipeline. Finally, our “Come Home Safe” project aims to train youth how to successfully navigate an interaction with law enforcement in an effort to improve the outcome of the interaction, and indeed, come home safe.
A Young Boy’s Seizures Almost Cost His Family Their Home
As a single mother of two young boys, one of whom suffers from epileptic seizures and uses the support of heavy leg braces to walk, Janet works tirelessly to support her family. Among the many struggles she encountered, finding proper housing was at the top of her list. When the day came that she finally found a place to call home she was so relieved. Her one concern, however, came when she found out that the only unit available for her family to move into was on the second floor. Janet was hesitant about a second floor unit because, due to her son’s disability, there would be unavoidable loud noises that would come when her son had seizures and his braces would violently hit the floor. She feared this would cause issues with the neighbors.
One day her landlord confirmed her suspicions and informed Janet that her neighbors had been filing noise complaints against her. Janet gave her landlord permission to discuss her son’s disability with them so that they were aware of what was causing the noises and hoped that they would have sympathy and stop filing complaints, but the complaints kept coming. Janet did not have anywhere else to go. If she were evicted they would end up on the street.
Unfortunately a short time after the one verbal warning Janet received from her landlord, she was served with a 7–day notice to vacate the property with no opportunity to cure. She was distraught by this news and sought help with CLSMF’s Fair Housing Unit. Advocate, Rosemary Ramirez, accepted Janet’s case and immediately sent a letter to the landlord of the property requesting reasonable accommodations based on her son’s disability. If Janet’s family could be offered a first floor unit it was likely that the noise complaints from neighbors would cease. Because of the quick reaction by Rosemary, Janet’s landlord agreed to provide the reasonable accommodations she requested and soon after she was moving into a first floor apartment.
Often times people are unaware that they have certain rights under the Fair Housing Act or even that they are being discriminated against. Many times when clients come to CLSMF and begin discussing their problem, what is uncovered is a fair housing issue. The Fair Housing team steps in and uses the power of the Fair Housing Act in favor of those it is meant to protect. It is because of the work of CLSMF’s dedicated advocates and attorneys that clients like Janet who face discrimination or unfair housing practices are able to establish and maintain stable homes for their families.
Marcelo: Disabled 7-Year Old Boy Who Faced Felony Battery Charges
All school year, Marcelo’s mother had been asking the school board to fulfill their responsibility and evaluate her first-grade son, but she was ignored and denied. Like most spectrum disorder kids, Marcelo finds change, discipline and restrictive environments frightening and anxiety-producing. In the midst of a tearful emotional meltdown, Marcelo inadvertently hit a teacher’s arm when he swatted away a tissue he was offered. Instead of seeing the child’s behavior as a manifestation of his disability, school faculty treated him like a criminal which led to the extreme of a felony battery charge.
Marcelo’s story is characteristic of an alarming trend called the “school-to-prison pipeline” where behavioral problems are criminalized by school faculty and administrators and the child winds up with a criminal record, in an alternative school, or simply cast off by the school district. Thankfully, CLSMF Special Education Unit attorneys intervened to have the expulsion withdrawn and got the behavioral and educational assessment granted. With gratitude and relief, Marcelo’s mother said that without CLSMF’s intervention, her son “would have been disabled and end up in a setting further from help…although I had been asking for help from the school board for months, without an attorney they would have never done that for me.”
A Fresh Start for U.S. Army Veteran Ronald
U.S. Army Veteran Ronald Amador served as a Combat Medic in Iraq and Afghanistan for years. When he came to CLSMF, he was suffering from severe PTSD which had led to suicide attempts, involuntary hospitalizations, substance abuse, and ultimately homelessness.
It wasn’t until Ronald sought help with the Veterans Advocacy Unit at CLSMF that his life began to turn around. With full representation, a CLSMF attorney secured a 100% disability rating from the VA, a settlement for retroactive benefits and an increase in his monthly compensation, which afforded Ronald newfound financial security and necessary benefits that put him on the path to building a more stable and contented life.
Ronald was so grateful that he donated $1,000 to CLSMF and agreed to a TV news interview to put a local face to the VA backlog. In a touching thank-you letter to his CLSMF attorney, Ronald wrote:
“[you] made me have a little hope even when I didn’t. It is real special to have someone who will stay with you ‘til the end. You got me believing a little more in life and make me very proud and honored to have defended and help enjoy the freedom you have today. You have made an everlasting mark in my life.”
Helping an Elderly Widower Preserve His Home
In recent years, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida has received thousands of calls from Central Floridians facing foreclosure. One elderly gentleman, Everette Coates came to CLSMF’s Housing Counseling Unit with little hope of saving his marital home. He had been a small business owner in Groveland for decades, but like many during the recession, was forced to close his doors. Soon after, Everette began to fall behind with his mortgage payments and to make matters worse, he lost four family members in two years: his wife to cancer, his youngest son, his mother and brother.
On top of Everette’s tremendous grief—with limited income coming in—he was facing foreclosure. When he finally found CLSMF’s Housing Counseling Unit he was in dire straits. Over the course of 16 months, the CLSMF housing counselor worked with Everette’s lender to grant him $21,000 in loan forgiveness, nearly 50% lower monthly mortgage payments and greatly reduced loan interest rates (2%-down from 5.875%) on the life of Everette’s loans. The day his loan modification paperwork arrived, Everette came to meet his CLSMF Housing Counselor and shared: “I was up against a brick wall…but after I met my housing counselor, things started to open up in my benefit…I don’t even want to think about what life would be like if hadn’t come.”
Everette was able to stay in the home he had bought with his late wife and enjoy a measure of peace after such personal and financial loss. This story is just one of hundreds that our Housing Counseling Unit tackles with success.
Gaining Protection for Two Victims of Domestic Violence
Hannah, a stay-at-home mom from Marion County, had suffered years of outbursts and injuries at the hands of a violent husband who was so controlling that she he wouldn’t let her leave the house even to check the mail.
After a particularly brutal assault, Hannah knew she needed to protect herself and her daughter, but had no money to hire a lawyer. Thankfully she acquired the help she needed at CLSMF’s Domestic Violence Advocacy Project.
Hannah’s CLSMF lawyer obtained an essential Injunction for Protection, and later negotiated an award settlement to relocate Hannah to a safe undisclosed place, child support, and a safety-focused parenting plan. When Hannah found the courage to leave, she knew she couldn’t do it alone. With the help of CLSMF, she is now safe from her abuser’s reach, has employment and is living free from abuse and terror.
There are thousands of women like Hannah across the 12 Central Florida counties that CLSMF serves. They need your immediate help and support. Please consider a gift to CLSMF so that together we can be the difference that changes someone’s life.
Adoption Support for Mary Ellen’s “Forever Family”
Mary Ellen is a single woman from Marion County who takes pride in her full-time job and in building community with her neighbors. One day, Mary Ellen met two beautiful little girls who had special needs. She later found out that these precious little girls had no parents and were looking for their “forever” family. Mary Ellen opened her heart and home, adopted the two special needs children and together they became a “forever” family.
Mary Ellen began the process with the IRS to file for an adoption credit, but the IRS refused to recognize her eligibility for the credit. While Mary Ellen is employed full-time, she could not afford to hire a tax attorney. She turned to the Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida’s (CLSMF) helpline who quickly referred her to our Low Income Taxpayer Clinic staff attorneys. CLSMF’s staff attorney acted quickly and was successful in getting the adoptions properly recognized by the IRS. Mary Ellen received her credits and was able to use that money to make her home accessible and safe for her two special needs daughters.
Mary Ellen was juggling a full-time job, adapting to her new role as a mother of special needs children and facing the monumental task of trying to be recognized by the IRS. CLSMF stepped in and alleviated some of that burden and worry, through our quality staff attorney services. For Mary Ellen and her two little girls, justice matters because without it they would be unable build a better life together. CLSMF will always be there in their time of need.
A Victory for Renters’ Rights
Aloha Mobile Home Park is one of the many unjust situations for low-income renters that the Affordable Housing Project has fought to change over the last 7 years. This unique CLSMF project has become a vehicle for preserving existing affordable housing and creating new units for low-income families in Central Florida.
Aloha Mobile Home Park was a 30-unit complex with dilapidated mobile homes, broken windows and doors, compromised electrical and plumbing systems, raw sewage, and rat and insect infestations. The park had deteriorated to a point where the Daytona Police Department targeted it for code enforcement inspections, and called CLSMF’s Affordable Housing Project attorney to work as their partner for tenants’ right to safe and secure housing. CLSMF immediately disseminated information to tenants’ about their legal right to withhold rent, while allowing Code Enforcement to inspect violations, and enforce the landlord’s duty to repair and maintain the dwellings.
Through the collaboration between CLSMF and Code Enforcement—a partnership that continues to this day—the City of Daytona assessed over $300,000 in liens against the property to bring the owner into compliance with the law. When he would not, CLSMF’s attorney negotiated settlements for the tenants to relocate, including utility transfers, security deposits, and cash settlements that amounted to over $35,000. CLSMF was able to work out settlement agreements for all the renters of an equivalent of three months’ rent in cash and to obtain funds from the City’s human services department to provide separate security and utility deposits for each resident at a new residence. For the lone mobile home owner, CLSMF negotiated a payout in excess of the statutory relocation amount plus the equivalent of one year’s lot rent. Lastly, during this time, the mobile park owner continued to scam new tenants to move in from out of state, in response the CLSMF attorney represented them and obligated the owner to return their deposits and rental fees. CLSMF’s vital work with this mobile home park helped to protect the rights of dozens of citizens in Volusia County and help them relocate to safe and affordable housing.
Safety and Independence Restored for Elderly Homeless Veteran
George had $3 in his pocket and was severely dehydrated and confused when he landed in Halifax Hospital in Volusia County. The US Army Veteran had been homeless on and off for many years. George is now safely living in an assisted living facility now that Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida’s (CLSMF) Elder Abuse Advocacy program helped get him back on track financially and legally.
Having no address, George trusted a fellow homeless man to help him by also having access to his bank account where George’s Social Security and Veteran’s benefits checks were being deposited, but instead of helping George the man was pocketing the money. George reached out to CLSMF for help and we quickly responded to his need.
While George was still recuperating in the hospital, CLSMF was able to get a new power of attorney for him and took it to the bank to remove the man from his account. Our Elder Abuse Advocate also worked with George on his concerns for health care and financial scams. George found vibrancy for life again and is now thriving in his new environment. Justice matters to George, as it helped him move from the streets to a facility that will help care for him.
CLSMF reacted with care, concern, and honor as we worked with this US Army Veteran. Through our Elder Abuse Advocacy program we will continue to support and help senior citizens, like George, with concerns such as living wills, financial scams, health care, and durable powers of attorney.
Help us be their safety net
These are stories of real people living right here in Central Florida who thought that they had nowhere to turn. But they were wrong. Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida was the safety net for the child, the senior, the mother, the veteran, and all of the real people behind these stories. Our dedicated attorneys and advocates provided them with the free legal aid that they needed to get an education, find safety, save their home, and, most importantly, get peace of mind.
You can be there for the people of Central Florida too by donating today.