Our Stories

Retreat Yourself

Retreat Yourself

by Haley B. Brown (Center for Justice Legal Intern/Women Leading With Purpose Retreat Attendee ‘16)

As I drove up to Coeur D’Alene with two of my classmates for a weekend away from law school, I started to panic. We all started to panic.

“Did you get all of your reading done for next week?”

“I already feel behind not spending my weekend at the library”

“How will I be able to get ahead of my reading schedule now?”

“I’m too busy to be here.”

But, as we forced ourselves to chat about things outside the realm of law school over sour gummy candy, with the view of CDA Lake fast approaching, that panic began to melt away.

The Women Leading with Purpose Retreat is an annual event run through the Center for Justice for female law students at Gonzaga University School of Law. The Retreat provides those that decide to attend a weekend away from law school on the beautiful CDA lake, little to no cell service, time for personal reflection, relationship building, and much more.

I had just completed my first semester of law school at Gonzaga when I attended the retreat, and had already convinced myself that it was going to be a lonely, miserable three years. All of my free-time that I once filled with hobbies that enriched my life seemed to vanish. I rarely saw my husband and all of my girlfriends were now states away. (Not to mention, on top of figuring out my first semester of law school I was in the midst of trying to learn how to drive my husband’s car, a manual 5-speed, after we sold my vehicle to save money for school. This was like the least amount of fun I have ever had in my entire life. . . but, I digress.) Law school was all consuming; it consumed all of my time, all of my thoughts and all of my conversations. I didn’t feel like myself and was experiencing more self-doubt that I ever had before. To top it all off, I was convinced I was the only one of my classmates who was experiencing this. Most people seemed like they had it all figured out.

The Retreat taught me that law school doesn’t have to be lonely or miserable. In fact, I learned that I was surrounded by strong, supportive female classmates who had experiences just like mine that will enrich my law school experience and provide me a shoulder to lean on, cry on, or stand on if necessary. But, had it not been for the retreat, I am not sure I would have had the chance (or the courage), to get to know the 11 classmates I spent my weekend with on the deep personal level that I did. Until that time, most conversations I had with these women and all of my other classmates were school related and surface level. I left that weekend more committed to developing deep, personal relationships in school, work and in my personal life.

Additionally, being at the retreat afforded me the time to look inward, reflect and morph back into the person that I was before coming to law school. I left feeling more like myself with a renewed sense of purpose, a louder voice, and a reminder of why I chose to come to law school in the first place. I also left committed to learning how to bake bread, something I had been continually putting off with criminal law reading.

Like all good things, the retreat had to come to an end. As my two classmates and I headed back to the reading, outlines, flashcards, and significant others that awaited our return, not one of us felt panicked. Instead, we felt and continue to feel empowered and driven to be women leading with purpose.

Hurt lingers 10 years after Zehm’s death

By Jeffry Finer / Special to The Spokesman-Review

I remember Otto Zehm.

Working downtown, I would see him from time to time walking, loping really – he walked fast and bounced from step to step – but I never so much as said hello. I did not know he was a musician, or that he had mental illness, that he sometimes heard things the rest of us didn’t. I knew he had the longest golden hair of anyone on the Spokane street scene. And he sang quietly to himself. He smiled but did not seem to want attention. He moved along in his own world. He’d be surprised what his name has come to mean. And how often city leaders and media cite his life and death.

For Spokane, his name evokes strong reactions.

Some see Otto’s death on a personal level. He was beloved by his family (mother, sister and cousins were closest). He was respected and liked at work (at the nonprofit Skils’kin, where he was a janitor). Friends said he was careless with generosity and would give you his only coat if he saw you were cold. Everyone knew him to be gentle.

Most of Spokane, of course, knows about his death in 2006 after two days on life support. We watched local media play and replay his videotaped beating and restraint by a half-dozen local police officers. We know about the City Hall cover-up, the federal criminal case and Officer Karl Thompson’s conviction.

For some of us, the “system worked.” For others, the aftermath of Otto’s death was a system failure that ruined a good cop.

If you voted in February 2013 for Proposition 1, and 70 percent of Spokane voters did, you remember Otto as the poster child for passage of a strongly worded demand for an independent police ombudsman. And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the office of the ombudsman is in tatters.

Spokane tries to move on.

Officer Thompson has served his time and just this month has been released. The Use of Force Commission met for a year, issued two dozen specific recommendations and dissolved. Some recommendations have taken hold; others, such as changes to Spokane’s “police culture,” have not.

Local civil rights advocates press on – working hard to see that we get the independent ombudsman we overwhelmingly voted for, moving “smart justice” reforms ahead to fix our broken criminal justice system, and pushing the city to hire a new chief of police who is committed to implement the changes our community needs. Other law enforcement issues have come under scrutiny, such as the understaffed jail, its lack of nurses and timely medical services. Just more budget-driven problems facing us and every city and county in America.

Overall? We have yet to heal our relationship with our own peace officers. They have yet to heal their relationship with us.

On the day Officer Thompson was taken into custody, the Friday after the verdict finding him guilty of excessive force and lying in a federal investigation, I sat in the gallery behind Assistant Chief Craig Meidl. He and some four dozen men and women – off-duty police officers sworn to uphold the law – snapped to salute as federal marshals led Officer Thompson away. Otto’s middle-age cousins seated with me were stunned into silence. We looked for help but the court had left and its staff seemed powerless.

In 30 years, I’ve never felt such repressed tension in a courtroom. The marshals, wisely I think, took Thompson away uncuffed and the officers gradually left the courtroom. My apology to the Zehm cousins for the salute brought a cold stare from two officers. At the elevator, another officer blamed the sole reporter present for causing Thompson’s conviction.

It is said that no one should be judged solely by their worst day; and in that sense Officer Thompson’s supporters may have been feeling a conflicted affinity for him. But it remains troubling that the department has failed to account to the public for the embrace by 50 of its officers of a convicted felon. Troubling that there has been no apology and no consequences.

A lot needs doing to restore our faith and trust in our police. Their work requires such trust as surely as we require faithful police. The Center for Justice, where I work with a team of lawyers and community activists, coordinates with citizens, police and local officials to make our city safer and fairer for everyone.

Sometimes the struggle goes on quietly in meetings, or noisily in the media. But a certain spirit of gentleness inspires us at times to keep a memory of Otto Zehm alive. Not only as saber-rattling social change warriors but as neighbors, colleagues, friends and people who remember Otto Zehm.

Center for Justice joins forces with ACLU to Increase Voting Registration Opportunities

Individuals now have a much improved opportunity to register to vote when they sign up for public benefits, thanks to efforts made by the Center for Justice along with the ACLU-WA and the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to improve compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

“Changes made by DSHS have strengthened democracy by enhancing access to voting for thousands of people in Washington state,” said Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of Spokane’s Center for Justice.

“Access to voting is a cornerstone of democracy,” said Nancy Talner, staff attorney for the ACLU-WA. “We are pleased DSHS took swift action to uphold the NVRA, avoiding costly litigation that has occurred in other states.”

Although best known as the “motor voter law,” the NVRA was designed to reduce demographic gaps in voting by making voter registration more accessible in a variety of ways. Among them: requiring states to offer an opportunity to register to vote whenever someone applies for public benefits, renews benefits or submits a change of address to an agency that provides public assistance.

Until recently, DSHS’s Community Services Division had not offered the opportunity to register to vote as often as the law required, and had not consistently recorded and/or reported when the opportunity was offered, despite the fact that the recession prompted more people to seek benefits from the agency.

After the Center for Justice and ACLU-WA raised the issue with DSHS in 2014, the agency agreed to improve its compliance with the NVRA. In fact, DSHS was already in the process of making improvements as the result of an internal audit it had performed earlier that year. Since then, DSHS has ensured 100 percent of staff in its Community Services Division received training on the requirements of the law, and changed its computer system and paper forms so that workers are always reminded to offer a voter registration opportunity, regardless of whether the contact with the client is online, over the phone or in person.

The percentage of DSHS Community Services Division clients who were offered voter registration assistance increased from 29 percent in January 2014 to 92 percent in August 2015. As the newly adopted technology and reporting systems are implemented, officials expect that number to continue to rise.

“The changes made will help increase the number of historically disenfranchised people who are registered to vote,” said Nancy Talner. “Citizens have a right to make their voices heard by registering to vote and voting. We appreciate the state’s efforts to make this right a reality for those who too often have not had a voice in elections.”

“Ensuring that our clients have the opportunity to register to vote lets us assist people with exercising that fundamental right,” said DSHS Assistant Secretary David Stillman. “It’s also an integral part of our agency’s mission to transform lives.”

My Landlord, the Pirate

Veronica* came to the Center in June, 2013, feeling ambushed by her former landlord. Months earlier she had to be hospitalized for treatment of a skin disorder and depression. She was behind on her rent at the time, and no sooner had she gone into the hospital than her landlord initiated eviction proceedings. The eviction included the removal, by the landlord, of all the belongings in Veronica’s apartment.  Unable to pay the rent or contest the eviction, she also agreed to pay $85 for the initial monthly storage fee at the commercial storage warehouse where her belongings were taken.  After being released from the hospital, Veronica visited the storage facility only to find that none of her belongings were there. They had been taken by the landlord and either sold or given away. The Center investigated and concluded that the landlord had violated state law in its handling of Veronica’s possessions. The Center’s intervention resulted in the return of several costly items, including Veronica’s computer and printer. The landlord also agreed to a $1,000 payment to Veronica for the value of the items that could not be recovered.

*Not her real name.

Putting Teeth in a Court’s Judgment

Putting Teeth in a Court’s Judgment

Alice* came to us in July 2013 with half a solution to a very personal and most unusual problem. A year earlier she had been admitted to the emergency room at a local hospital with an infection in her heel. The infection required  emergency surgery. As she was about to be wheeled from her hospital room to surgery, her dentures were routinely taken from. Afterwards, while recovering from her operation, she asked to have her teeth returned. Her request was in vain. Not only had the hospital lost her dentures, but hospital personnel responded to her request with the harsh news that the hospital is not responsible for lost or stolen items. Having gone to the hospital with one health problem, Alice found herself leaving with another health problem, one caused by the hospital. She was without her dentures, and—as certified by a local health clinic—Alice was thus forced to make unhealthy changes to her diet to avoid choking on food that she could no longer properly chew. She finally decided she would take her cause to Small Claims Court.  In March 2013, a judge awarded her payment of an amount of money sufficient to buy a new pair of dentures. But that didn’t solve the problem either because she was unable to collect payment on the judgment from the hospital. She contacted a collection agency, but the fee the agency demanded would have been half the value of the judgment, and still leave Alice unable to purchase new dentures. The Center’s Community Advocacy staff took up the challenge from there and contacted the hospital’s risk management department, alerting them to the court judgment. Within days the hospital agreed to make the payment in the full amount, which enabled Alice to buy a new set of dentures and return to a healthy diet where she can enjoy real food again.

*Not her real name.

The Great Scooter Odyssey

Dan* came to the Center because he was poor, in pain, and had lost his Medicare-funded, motorized scooter while on a trip to see his mother in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His plan was to get to Tulsa by bus, leaving Spokane on the Greyhound line and then switching, in Montana, to the Jefferson line that serves the central United States.

His journey got off to a bad start even before he boarded the bus in Spokane. After setting aside his scooter so it could be stowed on the bus, he tripped over luggage and fell hard, injuring his knee. He got on the bus anyway but many hours later, in Wyoming, he was in so much pain from the fall that he had to be taken off the bus and

The elusive scooter

hospitalized. He never did make it to Tulsa. And neither did his scooter. Because it wasn’t a luggage item, the scooter had not been tagged. It had simply vanished and after trying, unsuccessfully, to locate it and get it returned to him, Dan sought help from the Center for Justice.

The find-the-scooter challenge was handed to senior CFJ volunteer Bob Rosen who quickly realized that he should consult with another CFJ volunteer, Randy Heinnaman because, Rosen knew, Heinnaman worked at Greyhound and might have some expertise on how to find missing items, including large items like a missing 250 pound motorized scooter.

In fact, Heinnaman remembered seeing the scooter and even remembered the circumstances under which he’d been asked to stow the maroon and grey vehicle in the storage compartment of the bus that Dan boarded that day. With help from Greyhound’s local manager, Randy began to hunt the system for the scooter, a task complicated because Greyhound’s huge lost & found collection in Dallas was then being moved from one warehouse to another. There was not even a phone number for the new warehouse. Randy then began calling bus stations along the way between Spokane and Tulsa, to see if anyone remembered unloading the scooter. No luck.

Finally, as a last resort, and just days before the Center was planning to abandon the case, Randy entered information about the scooter into an antiquated computerized message system used by the bus company. This was on a Monday. On Wednesday he arrived to work at Greyhound to behold a small miracle. There was the scooter, freshly arrived from Denver.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Randy said. “I was so excited I had to call Bob at home to tell him what had happened.”

Although the hardest part of reuniting Dan with his scooter was over, there were other complications. For starters, now that Bob and Randy had found the scooter, they’d lost track of the client. Because Dan was poor, he didn’t have a permanent residence. Instead, he’d been staying with a succession of friends and it took a while to track him down. The other complication is that the batteries in the scooter were dead and an attempt to charge them failed. Moreover, under the strict Medicare rules, the technicians authorized to work on the scooter to bring it back to life were prohibited from working on the scooter at the bus station. The scooter was only authorized for household use, so it could only be repaired at Medicare expense if it were at a residence.

The story had a happy ending this summer when, a year after the dreadful bus trip, Dan found his own, permanent residence and was reunited with his repaired scooter.

Getting it Straight, with the State

The story of Celia’s* failing health is not for the faint of heart. By the time she turned fifty she was blind and afflicted with numerous other major health problems, everything from osteoporosis, to arthritis, to hypertension and anxiety disorder. She was on nearly 20 prescription medications. Despite being bound to a wheelchair, Celia’s life is still enjoyable and she remains bright, engaged, and well-organized.

For years she has qualified for and taken advantage of COPES, which is a program, managed by the state Department of Social and Health Services, that pays for personal care and other services for people in their own homes. The program’s main purpose is to help people who, without it, would require placement in nursing homes.

Celia came to the Center for Justice in 2003 when the state notified her that it would no longer fully fund the home care hours she was receiving from a full-time caregiver. After three years of case work and on the eve of a hearing to contest the state’s announced decision, the Center for Justice reached a settlement negotiated with a state assistant attorney general that restored, at a minimum, the 240 hours per month that the state had been funding to provide for her care. The 2006 agreement and its conditions were very clear. On its face, it offered a final answer to the problem.

But it didn’t. In 2010, Celia was again notified that her home care hours would be cut due to the state’s budget cuts. She once again had to come to the Center to seek recourse. A Center for Justice volunteer reviewed the case. When the senior volunteer, a former top DSHS official, called his former agency, a state worker explained to him that because the Governor’s budget cuts were the “law” of the state, the reduction in hours is what the “law” required. This was a startling interpretation and, in a larger sense, raised many larger questions about how many other state service receivers were being arbitrarily cut or denied services.

In the case at hand, however, it also raised the very specific question of how the state agency could effectively override an explicit agreement it has signed in Celia’s case.  The CFJ volunteer kept investigating and learned that the Assistant Attorney General involved in the 2006 settlement was still with the state. Our volunteer called the Assistant AG who, in short order, not only disclosed that he remembered the case but warmly asked how Celia was doing. When told of the state’s new decision to cut her ours, the AAG quickly concluded that the irrevocable agreement from 2006 was still intact and that unless certain specified conditions in the agreement applied (none did) the state was barred from reducing her care hours.

The threatened cutback in care hours was then swiftly revoked, and Celia’s care hours and her access to the full-time care giver continue in place.

*Not her real name.