March 24, 2021
Q: When did you begin working at Legal Aid of WV (LAWV)?
A: Right near the end of the before times: September 2019
Q: How did you come to work at LAWV?
A: I had always known I would do some form of public interest work, but ultimately my clinic professor, Priya Baskaran, nudged me in the direction of addressing the opioid crisis. I wrote my personal statement about growing up without much in Wheeling, WV, and about my brother’s overdose when he was 15 years old. I don’t think she knew of my personal connection to the issue, but then again, who has been born in West Virginia without some connection or other?
Equal Justice Works worked hard to find me a sponsor to work on addressing the opioid epidemic, but it’s hard to find money in West Virginia. My last chance came when I interviewed for the Text-to-Give fellowship, a unique fellowship funded directly by Equal Justice Works, and was selected.
As part of my responsibilities as a Text-to-Give fellow, I spoke at a conference in D.C. to raise money for the 2020 fellowship. My story moved a lot of people to tears. I remember barely being able to enjoy the steak dinner and shakily trying to entertain a table full of Amazon executives after sweating through my suit, and some big firm lawyers and other fellows buying me drinks after. I wasn’t sure what we had in common to talk about, so I just kept talking about kayaking and white-water rafting. That trip still feels very surreal to me.
Q: Your position is a partnership with Cabin Creek Health, focused on legal assistance for West Virginians with Substance Use Disorder (SUD). Why this position is unique and important for LAWV?
A: As far as I know, there’s never been an SUD-focused legal project anywhere in West Virginia, which is a little crazy considering our statistics. It’s a medical-legal partnership, so it embeds me directly into Cabin Creek Health System’s Medication Assist Treatment programs. The population in recovery is complex, and often these people have only had negative legal experiences, so it’s important to build trust—in the medical staff first and then in the patients. We focus on socioeconomic and self-sufficiency first: driver’s licenses, expungements, employment, and income stability. I try to help the patients with anything else that might have a positive impact on their recovery. For a lot of people, that ends up being family law issues.
Q: How has your work at Legal Aid changed your views on community service and work surrounding SUD?
A: I’ve always been big on community service, but I never realized so many of the big players in providing help to the recovery community are in recovery themselves. It’s so inspiring; it’s like the opposite of that awful movie, Hillbilly Elegy, or some other portrayals of drug use in Appalachia. The good people who survive traumatic childhood experiences don’t “make it out,” go to Yale, and write stories that tear down and exploit the people they so eagerly left behind—they stick around to build their communities and help people who are still struggling.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your work?
A: It’s been hard on people in all stages of substance use disorder, really hard.
When you think about Maslow’s hierarchy of fundamental human needs, most approaches to poverty and SUD barely cover basic physiological needs and safety needs. Many people in recovery have destroyed relationships with family and friends, and they desperately need love, belonging, and community before they can really self-actualize during long-term recovery. Human connection is so obviously pivotal to mental health, and for people in the recovery community, the risk of a mental health spiral is simply scarier than what most people stand to lose: fatal overdose or suicide. And it only takes a few to really drag morale down from others in recovery and even from providers. All of that is on top of all the death and stress we’re all dealing with from COVID. No one is “bouncing back,” but with renewed hope for the future on everyone’s minds, they’re doing their best to survive. When this is all over and the data comes out, I think 2020 and 2021 will be the new peak years for the lasting damage done by the opioid crisis.
The clinic implemented telehealth but ultimately decided in-person meeting value overrode COVID concerns. I’ve still had to attend remotely, but clients get an in-person experience at Cabin Creek. Luckily, we did significant legwork improving clinic referral capacity, so we’ve had a steady stream of referrals and clients despite the special circumstances surrounding COVID.
Q: What are some stories of your work that stand out?
A: I’ve got a bad memory and a good one.
I remember a client’s story who had relapsed a few times, and it was because her old drug dealer was also her neighbor. He would leave small bags of meth on her fence post to drag her out of recovery and back in as a customer. Imagine your greatest temptation in life, and then imagine it being dangled in front of you for free at the start and end of every hard day. I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine how that feels. I can’t imagine that at all.
On a lighter note, I had someone call me crying after he got his license back. You’d think it was the happiest day of his life, just getting that piece of plastic we all take for granted. After living in rural WV and being deprived of one for so long, he probably felt like he had wings.
Q: How have the staff at Cabin Creek and LAWV supported this new endeavor?
A: How haven’t they? The support staff at Legal Aid is just so impressive. It’s true every law practice in the world would collapse without the support staff who know so much more about the process of the practice of law most attorneys ever do.
My supervisors have molded me from a dumb and naïve first year staff attorney into a slightly less dumb and much less naïve second year staff attorney. The sheer number of experts in specialized area of law here is perhaps our greatest strength. There’s always a go-to person if you need help.
As for Cabin Creek, they do such a good job at what they do—keeping people coming back and keeping them alive in the process. The work I do would be meaningless if the recovery process didn’t work. On top of all that, making time and providing space for me to interrupt their day and process to talk to clients.
Finally, the value of outside support and training cannot be overstated. I’d specifically like to mention Lois Vance, Corey Wilks, Dr. Ryan Morrison for educating me Aid on topics ranging from appropriate person-first language for people in recovery, to understanding the medication-assisted treatment process.
Q: Are there any specific names you’d like to mention for helping your work succeed?
A: I hate to narrow it down to a single name or even a list of names, but my previous Supervising Attorney Susana Duarte stands out. All the heaviest stuff I came across happened around her—we did a haunting domestic violence intake together and advised in a suicide crisis and several other emergency issues, seemingly somehow all on late Friday afternoons.
The reason she stands out is because she would always ask if I’m okay. I know full well I’ve only seen a fraction of what some attorneys witness, but it’s important to acknowledge our own humanity when we vicariously experience clients’ traumatic events in between timesheets and filling out forms. And I was ok, but it’s still good to have someone make sure.
Q: If you had to sum up the importance of Legal Aid to someone who isn’t familiar with it, what would you say?
A: Our society, with Legal Aid in it, has an atrocious track record for equal access to justice. Without Legal Aid, that inequality would be dystopian.
Q: Now a bit of background. Where are you from originally?
A: Wheeling, WV. Be careful if you visit, because the good DiCarlos is now called Patsy’s Pizza.
Q: What are some things you like to do in your free time?
A: Distance running, sports, writing short stories, video games, and mixology.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: If you encounter people with substance use disorder in your personal or professional life, at a minimum, just try to be kind to them. Most people in recovery distinctly remember what it’s like to be treated like garbage, and most success stories start with someone going out of their way to help.