Monday, October 4, 2010

New YLS Clinic Offers Legal Assistance to Connecticut Veterans

Yale Law School launched a new clinic this semester to train students to address the needs of an underserved and often stigmatized population—Connecticut’s military veterans. Yale’s program is one of a handful of veterans’ clinics now operating in the nation, and the only one at any law school in New England.

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic was founded by Clinical Professor Mike Wishnie ’93 to assist Connecticut’s approximately 250,000 veterans, many of whom face significant obstacles in securing Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability compensation or pension benefits, obtaining discharge upgrades, and addressing a range of civil legal service needs. Among the areas of early concentration for the clinic are representing individual veterans and veterans organizations confronting issues related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), wrongful personality disorder discharges, and military sexual trauma (MST).

The clinic enables students to represent veterans and their organizations in a wide variety of litigation and non-litigation matters related to their military service or return to civilian life. Over time, the clinic expects to assist veterans with housing, employment, health care, foreclosure, and immigration and other issues, in addition to VA benefits and discharge upgrades.

Currently, eight law students and two psychiatric fellows from the Law & Psychiatry Division of Yale Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry participate in the clinic, which includes a weekly seminar as well as live-client fieldwork. The clinic is led by faculty from both the law school and the medical school.

“Some veterans have acute legal needs, but legal services offices and law firm pro bono programs have not traditionally handled matters such as VA benefits cases and discharge upgrades,” said Wishnie. “This was a rich opportunity for students to learn to address the unmet needs of an underserved population, to engage in interdisciplinary work with mental health professionals, and to learn new areas of law.”

Interest among students was immediate, both from those with a personal interest in veterans and the military, and those concerned with particularly vulnerable populations, such as women, recently returned, non-citizen, LGBT, and elderly veterans.

Clinic member Kate Swenson’s ’12 husband is an officer in the Army.

“I was motivated to sign up for the clinic after hearing stories from my husband’s friends about the unique problems facing armed services personnel,” she said.

“I signed up to help veterans tell their stories and to shine some light on a system that too often discourages or prevents those stories from being told,” said Will Bornstein ’11. “Veterans of all generations have served this country admirably. Unfortunately, government bureaucracy doesn’t have the best track record of serving them once they have returned to civilian life.”

So the students have stepped in, some of them working to get discharge upgrades for veterans challenging their “other than honorable” discharge status or their characterization as personality disorder discharges. Veterans who receive such discharges may not be eligible for housing loans, employment, and other benefits. Students are also representing local and national veterans’ organizations in their advocacy efforts on such issues as PTSD and MST and other legislative and regulatory matters.

Tasha Brown ’11, a former Marine, is helping a disabled veteran become a U.S. citizen. She’s also working with an institutional client to ensure that military members are not being discharged for personality disorders—thus making them ineligible for disability benefits—when a more appropriate diagnosis would be severe head trauma or PTSD.

“The concern is that the military is erroneously classifying disabled services members as having personality disorders when they do not, in order to avoid paying disability benefits,” Brown said.

“I think that the clinic is fascinating because it combines a variety of issues including poverty, homelessness, mental health, crime, disability, and almost any general legal problem imaginable,” said Swenson. “Some of these issues literally mean the difference between being on the street and not. It is rewarding to do what we can to help our clients realize their goals.”

“Navigating the legal systems that affect veterans is both challenging and intellectually interesting,” added Bornstein. “But the most rewarding part of the clinic is the human component—meeting veterans, hearing their stories, learning about their successes and struggles, and figuring out a way to help.”

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic faculty includes Wishnie, YLS Clinical Visiting Lecturer Margaret Middleton, Yale Medical School Professor of Psychiatry and Adjunct Professor of Law Howard Zonana, and Yale Medical School Associate Professor of Psychiatry Madelon Baranoski.