“You have the right to an attorney” applies only to people charged with crimes. Folks seeking justice in the civil courts have no such right. That leaves legal-aid organizations as the only resource for those who must fight the system — but don’t have the means to do it.
Story by Robin McDonald | Photographs by Melissa Golden
For the lawyers of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society’s DeKalb County office, weekly case meetings carry the resonance of a ritual.
Every Friday at 10 a.m., nine lawyers and a paralegal spill into a conference room in Decatur to triage too many cases for too few people.
Juggling tankards of high-test coffee, snacks, and armfuls of files freighted with the sobering stories of people who need help and have nowhere else to go, the lawyers of Legal Aid find themselves forced by necessity to fish from an endless sea of need for the cases they know they can win, where they are most likely to make a lasting difference.
Out of hope, out of time, out of money, at wit’s end, at the end of their ropes, at the end of the line, over 20,000 people find their way each year to the 94-year-old Atlanta Legal Aid Society and one of the organization’s 75 attorneys.
“When they come to us they are in dire straits,” said Jessica Felfoldi, a senior attorney at Legal Aid’s DeKalb County office. “They are coming to us because there is some sort of crisis in their lives. You immediately sense the distress and, sometimes, the desperation they feel.”
“One of the hardest parts of our job,” she said, “is how many people you have to turn away.”
But choose they must.
The reasons are simple. For an organization that survives on annual grants, donations, volunteers, and the kindnesses of strangers — none of it guaranteed — there are not enough lawyers and not enough money to help everyone losing homes, losing children, losing livelihoods, losing heart.
Unlike the nation’s criminal justice system, there is no constitutional right to a court-appointed lawyer in a civil case, no matter how urgent the need.
In Legal Aid’s DeKalb County office alone, about 30 new cases roll in every week. Every Friday, the office’s nine lawyers must turn two-thirds down.
They do so knowing they are the port of last resort for anyone who has fallen on hard times, whose family has fractured, who has no money and no playbook to maneuver in a civil court with its own rules, its own lingo, its exaggerated courtesies, and trained adversaries who always play to win.
Every week, they cast their votes on who will get their help. Abstaining is frowned upon. They are expected to take a stand.
“You want people to buy in with their votes,” Felfoldi said of the cases the lawyers accept. Sometimes, “there is some horse-trading that happens. Sometimes, your case gets voted down. The cases you walk in with you don’t always walk out with.”
“It’s not personal,” she said - even though, sometimes, that’s exactly how it feels.
To fortify themselves through the inevitable debates — they are lawyers, after all — certain snacks have also become a ritual. There is a favorite brand of trail mix so full of chocolate that “it stops pretending to be healthy,” Felfoldi said with a smile.
If there is fresh bread, as there often is, there must be salty butter. Felfoldi is unwavering.
“It’s a very key thing,” Felfoldi said. “It’s the energy to keep fighting.”
The food also represents a kind of communion they share as they sift through cases involving domestic violence, battered and abandoned children, people struggling with slumlords or beleaguered by bullies, bureaucrats, the cruel, and the careless.
“There is so much need,” Felfoldi added. “We have a responsibility to care for our brothers and sisters. Because if you don’t have a lawyer, the whole process is so intimidating. It’s so confusing. … And when you pile on top of that the emotional angst of someone experiencing some loss of some kind, some hardship, some injustice, having someone to speak for them in a language the court can understand, present their case in a way that they might get some just outcome, it’s huge. It’s huge.
“I like to think I am able to live that out. “
Winnell Shaw was 99 when her landlord evicted her. That was when Mrs. Shaw and her daughter, Frankie Millens, turned to Legal Aid for help.
Now 100 years old, Mrs. Shaw muses in wonderment that a century has fled.
“It don’t feel like 100 years,” she said. “It don’t feel like I’ve been here that long. ... But I know I have because I’m still here. It feels good to be 100. I just don’t know how I got here so quick.”
Mrs. Shaw occasionally needs her eldest daughter’s familiar voice to restore her memories.
“How do I know all the stories? You told me all the stories,” Millens reminded her.
“You were always my smart baby,” Mrs. Shaw said.
“You’re my baby, now,” Millen said.
Mrs. Shaw’s eviction notice stemmed from a simple complaint with what should have been a simple solution. The restrooms in the common area of her apartment complex were always locked.
Millens said when she asked the residential manager to unlock the bathrooms, he bluntly informed her, “We lock the doors because people mess the bathrooms up.”
Indignant, Millens complained to first the manager’s supervisor, and then the subsidized housing program’s area director. Locking the restroom doors was “just not right” in a complex populated with seniors.
“I was really mad, but I was determined to do things the right way,” she said.
Millens confronted the management hierarchy, but it was unmoved. The restrooms remained locked. And the resident manager told Millens, “You’ve got one more time to ask me about anything around here, and I’ll put your mother out.”
“That,” said Millens, “is exactly what happened.”
In stepped Legal Aid.
“It was a retaliatory eviction,” Felfoldi said. “They didn’t like that Frankie was speaking out for her mama and all the other seniors who needed these accommodations. ... It was purely to get her out of the way.”
Felfoldi said the lawyer hired by the complex never articulated a valid legal reason for Shaw’s eviction, but insisted on taking the matter to court. After a six-hour hearing, Felfoldi won.
“It was surprising that we had to fight that hard,” she said, “because it was just so clear to us they were not doing the right thing.”
At 85, Mary Truitt is 6 feet tall and still straight as a rail. A great-grandmother, her face is as stern as a tintype until a sudden smile flashes across her face, bright as a beacon on a sepia sea.
For decades, she has been a lighthouse for lost children.
“I’ve been Mother Hubbard,” she said. “I always have been sympathetic to other kids who have been mistreated and need love. Other people take in stray dogs and cats. I take in kids.”
For eight years, she harbored four great-grandchildren after her granddaughter abandoned them.
When Mrs. Truitt took them in, the youngest was barely a month old. Her granddaughter “didn’t want them,” Mrs. Truitt confided. “She didn’t have time for them. She had things to do.”
This summer, Mrs. Truitt’s granddaughter changed her mind. She also needed a place to stay. Once under Mrs. Truitt’s roof, she made threats.
In and out of court and in and out of jail, her granddaughter “has been violent all her life,” the elderly woman said. “She wants everything her way. Her whole life is threats. She thrives on that.”
Alarmed, Mrs. Truitt tried to evict her granddaughter. Failing that, she turned to Atlanta Legal Aid for help.
With coaching from Legal Aid lawyers, Mrs. Truitt secured a temporary protective order, and county marshals removed the granddaughter from Mrs. Truitt’s home. But the great-grandmother needed more permanent security from her granddaughter’s threats and fury.
Early on an August morning, Felfoldi — a heavy black bag laden with case files slung over one shoulder — appeared with Mrs. Truitt in DeKalb County Magistrate Court to extend that temporary protective order for another 12 months.
Accompanied by her daughter and another granddaughter, Mrs. Truitt was one of dozens of people patiently awaiting judicial action on whether their protective orders should be dismissed or remain in place.
Felfoldi arrived long before the courtroom doors were unlocked, standing in a corridor lit by sunlight from a scorning Georgia summer, to wait for Mrs. Truitt. Dozens of people soon joined her, lining pews outside the still-locked courtroom. The court instructed everyone to appear at 9 a.m. Waiting for their cases to be called, some remained there for hours. This is how it works.
Mrs. Truitt’s was the 21st case called. But Felfoldi’s presence, and the absence of Mrs. Truitt’s granddaughter — who didn’t show up — allowed the presiding judge leeway to dispatch her case quickly.
In reply to gentle questions from Felfoldi, Mrs. Truitt told the judge her granddaughter had threatened to “make me have a heart attack.”
“Did you feel safe in your own home?” Felfoldi asked.
“No, ma’am,” Mrs. Truitt answered.
Efficient and amenable, the judge put a 12-month protective order in place, telling Mrs. Truitt that if her granddaughter contacts her, she should “call the police right away.”
With the protective order in hand, Felfoldi faced another legal hurdle — to end Mrs. Truitt’s guardianship of her great-grandchildren since their mother has reclaimed them.
Mrs. Truitt won’t speak ill of the children.
“It was their mom’s fault,” Mrs. Truitt said. “They were dying for her love. They wanted her attention.” Leaving, she added, “was the only way they could get it.”
Angela Goodman’s Legal Aid lawyers said she was “exactly the kind of tenant” the county housing authority should have wanted in its subsidized housing program.
But in November 2016, the housing authority terminated her housing voucher and forced her and her eight children out of their home after she repeatedly complained about needed repairs her landlord almost never got around to making.
Twenty-one months later, Goodman walked into Atlanta Legal Aid, where Felfoldi greeted her with a federal court order rebuking the DeKalb County Housing Authority for stripping Goodman of her voucher.
In restoring Goodman’s voucher, U.S. District Chief Judge Thomas Thrash wrote: “The housing authority’s case falls apart under its own weight.”
“You won, Mrs. Goodman," Felfoldi said to Goodman, who began to weep. "You won. No one is more deserving than you.”
For four months last year, until Legal Aid lawyers secured a restraining order directing the housing authority to restore Goodman’s voucher temporarily, she and her children were forced from their five-bedroom rental. They had no option but to share a single room in a succession of marginal motels.
Goodman had complained about needed repairs in the Lithonia rental where the family had lived since 2012. Sliding doors didn’t lock; the oven malfunctioned chronically; the refrigerator failed to keep food cold; rats clawed through walls and floorboards to raid their meager pantry; the ceiling had partially collapsed.
Most of the time, the building’s managers ignored Goodman. When they made the requested repairs, they were poorly done — temporary fixes, at best.
Goodman eventually took her complaints about the landlord’s indifference to the DeKalb Housing Authority, Felfoldi said. But instead of addressing her landlord, the authority pushed the responsibility onto Goodman. A housing authority contractor, who inspected Goodman’s home after she complained, gave her a list of repairs he insisted were her fault and told her she had to fix them. He designated a missing electrical outlet cover and two smoke detectors that required new batteries as emergency repairs.
When he returned a week later, no one was home. The contractor then told the housing authority to void Goodman’s housing voucher. At a termination hearing where Goodman said she had tried to make the few repairs she could afford for things her family hadn’t broken, he didn’t show up.
It didn’t matter anyway, because Goodman still lost her voucher. The housing authority ended its contract with Goodman’s landlord, and he evicted her.
Subsidized housing vouchers “are very hard to come by and very easy to lose,” Felfoldi said. “When the housing authority chose to kick her off the program, they really had no basis. Mrs. Goodman hadn’t violated any rules; she hadn’t caused any damage. It’s very troubling they appeared to take the process so lightly and double down on what were very minor kinds of repairs.”
“We’ve seen them make a lot of troubling decisions without a lot of thought,” added Legal Aid lawyer Lindsey Siegel, who joined Felfoldi in the successful fight to get Goodman’s voucher restored. “There was a lack of understanding of the rules they were supposed to follow, a lack of understanding about the impact on families.”
Goodman said the loss of her voucher and the eviction notice left her “in shock and disbelief.”
“I was empty,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. ... My family was already struggling to make ends meet.”
While the Legal Aid lawyers fought with the housing authority to restore Goodman’s voucher, she and her brood — including a disabled 23-year-old son with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — put their belongings in storage and moved to a marginal motel.
Drug dealers and homeless people haunted the parking lot. Someone was killed there. Only the price was right.
For $25 a night, Goodman shoehorned two daughters ages 18 and 16, five sons ages 17, 14, and 12, and 11-year-old twin boys into a single room. They shared one bath, an air mattress, and two beds. They cooked meals with an electric skillet and a hot plate until motel management found out. Goodman then turned to a small microwave as the only way to feed her family.
When asked how many people were living with her, Goodman said, “I didn’t really specify.” Instead, they lived in shifts. “We tried not to get noticed,” she said.
But the motel staff eventually got wise. To stay there, Goodman would have to rent two rooms instead of one. Unable to afford it, the family migrated to a second and then a third motel.
Although a federal judge ordered the housing authority to restore her housing voucher temporarily in February 2017, four months would pass before Goodman could locate a subsidized rental — one that would pass inspection — big enough for a family of nine.
Felfoldi said she remains baffled by the housing authority’s decision to take away Goodman’s voucher and then to ferociously litigate the case through state and federal court and a court-ordered mediation that failed.
She said that at Goodman’s deposition, the housing inspector said “ugly, judge-y things.”
“They just seemed to refuse to understand the gravity of what a family is losing when you take them off these vouchers,” she said.
Said Siegel: “There was no reason to make a family homeless.”
But, she added, “I knew … the judge would see what the housing authority was doing was wrong.”
No one could tell Cindy and David Tan why their autistic son Adrian attacked a teacher when he was 12 or why six security guards pinned him down.
They only know it was a terrible turning point.
Until then, Adrian had not been violent. He learned slowly, but he could talk. He taught himself to use a computer and to weave cloth bracelets by watching online demonstrations. He was patient and docile. When they took him to Six Flags Over Georgia, Adrian would wait quietly in line for hours to board every single ride.
“He had lots of potential,” his mother said.
But after the incident, her boy became a beast.
He could no longer talk, only wail — unintelligibly and inconsolably for hours. He refused food and water. He went for days without sleeping. Riven with violent anger, he battered his parents with his fists, wrenched doors off hinges, shattered locks, punched holes in walls. The Tan home, his father said, became “a broken house.”
Said Cindy Tan: “He didn’t even recognize us as a parent. ... We were not able to sleep. We were watching him 24-7.”
“We had to hold him down for four, five hours at a time,” his father said. They hid the kitchen knives and anything else their son might turn into a weapon. “It got to the point our lives were in danger.”
Out of desperation, they called 911 for help. They then watched, helplessly, as their son was restrained and transported to emergency rooms and psychiatric facilities across the state — subdued with potent antipsychotic drugs — and later released to their custody before he could erupt again.
Help should have been available. The federal Medicaid waiver program pays for home-based assistance and community services for the developmentally disabled and mentally ill who would otherwise face more costly institutionalization. Adrian already had been approved as a recipient of those funds.
But the program in Georgia — administered by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities — also has a waiting list of more than 8,000 people.
“Every day, I would call in. Every day, I would get the same message,” David Tan recalled. A recording with a list of numerical options. The same instructions repeated in Spanish. And, in the end, an electronic mailbox that was full and would not accept new messages.
“We were living in a prison in our home,” said Cindy Tan. “It got to the point I do not want to live.”
Just before Thanksgiving in 2015, the Tans sought help from Legal Aid.
It became Felfoldi’s job to navigate the state bureaucracy. Before the state would release the funds that would allow the Tans to get in-home help, a behavioral health team had to meet to recommend, review, and approve the services Adrian needed. Slots for those monthly meetings are scarce, Felfoldi said.
“There is a waiting list with so many thousands of people on it … but funding is only approved in this little trickle,” she said. “When there is the implied threat that we may consider legal action, sometimes they may take a closer look.”
It took Felfoldi four months to break loose the money for trained aides to help the Tans supervise their son and implement a plan to curtail his severe behaviors.
Felfoldi then accompanied the Tans to Adrian’s school to persuade administrators to implement a specialized education plan for Adrian. The plan was already in place but had been largely ignored.
“There are amazing things that happen if you are someone with a bar card and all of the sudden you start sitting in on a meeting,” Felfoldi said. “Suddenly, everyone starts taking their responsibilities seriously.”
“When we have an attorney to advocate for us, I see the difference,” Cindy Tan said. Felfoldi, she said, is “Superwoman just because she is appearing. She is not mean. She’s nice. She smiles. And we get everything we want.”
And Adrian, Felfoldi said, “has gotten to a safer place.”
When Lasteña Shahid’s son was eight weeks old, his biological father shook him.
Arriving home from a visit with a friend, Lasteña found her baby — whom she had left in his father’s care — was limp and unresponsive.
Hospital physicians would soon inform the bewildered mother that Zak — her first-born and only child — was a victim of “shaken baby syndrome,” which had stricken him with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and left him legally blind.
During those first terrible weeks as hospital personnel struggled unsuccessfully to stabilize him, baby Zak was wracked with repeated convulsions and unable to breathe on his own. One physician finally suggested gently to the young mother that maybe it was too little, too late, and that she needed to let the baby go.
“So I went to the chapel, and I got down on my knees,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to be selfish, so I didn’t beg for him to stay with me. But I did ask if there was any chance of a good life that I could give him, don’t take my baby. But if he’s better off with you, then take him, so he doesn’t suffer. And the next day, he started breathing over the machine.
“A lot has happened to me in my life, so I knew that miracles existed, but I had yet to see one,” she recalled. “That was it.”
With no job, no money, and a profoundly disabled child, Lasteña moved out of the home she had shared with the man she would no longer refer to as her husband — and who would eventually go to prison for the brutal abuse of her son.
Legal Aid lawyers helped Lasteña secure a divorce.
“I had already made up my mind that I was going to be single for the rest of my life. And I was okay with that,” she said. “I just didn’t have the time or the desire to engage with anyone about anything that was not about Zak.”
That is until she met Khadir Shahid. Friends at their mosque orchestrated the introduction even though she told them, “Does he know what my life is like?”
They told her he was warm and funny. But when she met him, he stuttered and blushed. Then, one night he called her. They talked until 3 a.m. “I felt like a kid.”
Still, she tried to cancel their first date when she couldn’t find anyone to take care of Zak. Instead, they took in a movie at the Starlight Drive-In, and when Zak began to fret, Khadir gently took the baby and cradled him on his knee.
From that moment on, Lasteña recalled, Khadir’s left leg became her baby’s own throne. As the child grew older, if anyone else usurped him, “he would start fussing,” she said.
And the man she would marry seven months after she first met him began treating Zak as if he were his own.
“Just watching Khadir interact with Zak was beautiful,” she said. “He would pick up on Zak’s mood changes — ‘I think he needs to take a little walk; I think he needs a diaper change.’ He was right there. He was obviously in tune.
Two years ago, Lasteña said her new husband told her “it would be his honor to have Zak share his last name.”
“I was totally taken aback,” she said. “I already wanted to change Zak’s last name, but I was going to give him my maiden name.”
“There were a lot of things I had thought about even before I said yes to Khadir,” she added. “If you ask him, I still didn’t say yes. I was too busy crying.”
To arrange Zak’s adoption, Shahid again turned to Atlanta Legal Aid for help. Her ex-husband refused to relinquish his parental rights. He wanted to bargain, proposing that his thousands of dollars in unpaid child support be forgiven.
Felfoldi handled the adoption with another Legal Aid lawyer. The lawyers went to court to terminate rights the biological father had to the child he had brutally abused.
At the hearing, Lasteña’s ex-husband’s lawyer showed up without his client to announce he had quit the case. Forty minutes later, as Lasteña recounted the litany of her child’s injuries for the judge, her ex-husband strolled into court. He had changed his mind, he said. He would give up any right to Zak.
Felfoldi made him repeat it — to preserve it for the record.
The following week, she said, “We returned … and had the happy hearing.” Khadir legally became Zak’s father and gave the boy his name.
Now, Lasteña reflected, “I see a son loving his father, and a father loving his son. … This is his son.”
For the people who turned to them for help, Legal Aid lawyers became their saving grace.
“There is always work to be done,” Felfoldi said. “You keep slogging through and doing what you can for each one that you can get to. … The inability to finish the work doesn’t lessen your obligation to do the work.”
“It makes a difference for each one.”
And on those days when she feels overwhelmed, there is a poem By novelist and poet Marge Piercy to which she turns for solace. It’s called, “To Be of Use.”
The people I love best
Jump into work head first
Without dallying in the shallows
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.”
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags alone,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or
the fire be put out.
“I like to imagine that I am the kind of person the poem was talking about,” Felfoldi said. “I look around, and I think about all of us bound together under that pressing tide and pushing forward. It sort of encapsulates for me why I love my colleagues, and who I aspire to be. I don’t know if I am that person. But that’s what I aspire for.
“I love my clients. I love my work,” she concluded. “We hold each other up.”