Posted inEditor's Pick

The Defenders

Matthew Van Meter | Longreads and The Awl | April 25, 2016 | 6,411 words

What does the future of legal services for the poor look like?

Posted inNonfiction, Story

The Defenders

What does the future of legal services for the poor look like?
Common space at the Bronx Defenders. All photos by Matthew Van Meter.

Matthew Van Meter | April 2016 | 25 minutes (6,411 words)

This story was co-published with The Awl and funded by Longreads Members.

On December 20, 2013, Christine Morales got up at seven to make breakfast for Kierra, her two-year-old daughter. They lived in a public housing project in Hunt’s Point in the south Bronx, where Morales worked as a security guard at a grocery store. When they were getting ready to leave, the door of the apartment exploded. Police officers burst in, carrying shields, guns drawn. One waved a search warrant; Kierra started to wail. As an officer pushed Morales to the wall and handcuffed her wrists, her mind raced: she thought through everything she had ever done wrong, trying to understand what had brought the police into her home.

Morales’s arrest instantly set in motion a chain of dispiriting events. Because Kierra was two, and the arrest was for a drug charge, the Administration of Children’s Services opened an investigation. Because Morales lived in public housing, the New York City Housing Authority began eviction proceedings. The police built a case to lock her out of her apartment under a Nuisance Abatement law. Finally, she lost her security license, so she could not go to work.

After spending the night in central booking, Morales was assigned a public defender, Seann Riley, for her arraignment at Bronx Family Court. He asked her about her case and her concerns; she said she just wanted to see her daughter again. The prosecutor read her charge aloud: possession with intent to distribute—Morales’s boyfriend had been dealing drugs out of their apartment. However, Riley pointed out that when police raided the apartment, they had been looking for her boyfriend, not her. The judge released Morales. Meanwhile, her father had taken Kierra to family court, where a lawyer from the child-protection agency insisted that she be placed in foster care for protection. Morales’s boyfriend pleaded guilty to felony drug possession, and, two weeks after her arrest, the prosecutor dropped all the charges against her.

At her family court hearing, Morales learned that Kierra would not be coming home, despite the lack of charges. The judge told her she wasn’t trustworthy, and that her boyfriend had taken the fall for her. She was allowed to see her daughter, supervised, at the child protection facility. When time came to leave, Kierra would ask why she couldn’t go home with mommy, and Morales would try to explain, trying to keep it together until she walked out the door.

Morales’s experience is common in New York, and more common still in the Bronx. Kierra was one of more than ten thousand children placed in foster care, almost all after suspicion of parental neglect—a catchall term that includes everything from excessive corporal punishment to missing doctor appointments. Morales’s poverty was her vulnerability: living in public housing subjects a resident to twenty-four-hour surveillance and automatic eviction after being charged with even low-level crimes.

When the criminal charges against her were dropped, her public defender had technically done his job. The government is required to provide a lawyer to help people through criminal court, nothing more. But Morales’s lawyer was from the Bronx Defenders, which extends representation from criminal court to family court, housing court, and immigration court. Morales was one of 30,000 Bronx Defenders clients in 2014—the only criminal defendants in the city or the country to receive these across-the-board services.

Even after her charges were dropped, Morales had a family attorney and a parent advocate to challenge the family court judge’s ruling. When the police locked her out of her apartment, a civil lawyer from her team got them to let her back in after a few hours. Her advocate, who is not a lawyer, helped her set up parenting classes, and a social worker checked in with her to see how she was dealing with life alone and to offer moral support. Kierra finally came home in June 2014, six months after the arrest.

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