Personal Reflection: Memoriam of Former Client Gives Pause, New Energy

About two weeks ago was the memorial service for one of my former clients, Ms. Shirley Riley. I met Ms. Riley through some pro bono work I was doing for her in March 2009 for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. At that time I was nearly a year into doing pro bono work for the Clinic; but it was through Ms. Riley’s set of circumstances that I became intimate with the functions of the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) and its failings with regard to serving those with disabilities in the DC shelter system. It was also through Ms. Riley’s situation that I became even more intimate with the good pro bono legal work can do for individuals and society-at-large.

pro bono imageMs. Riley had impairments that required she have an accessible room and a location with no communal setting. She was placed at one of the city’s main shelters, DC General, which provided neither of these accommodations at the time. Taking the typical course of action, I began using the administrative process to have Ms. Riley moved to a better environment. Unfortunately, my efforts were not initially being responded to by DHS. I even had to go so far as to testify before DHS on Ms. Riley’s behalf to bring its shortcomings to the attention of DHS leadership. Ms. Riley was eventually moved from the shelter to an apartment-style residence and provided a more accommodating environment. In the end, litigation was initiated by Ms. Riley and my colleague at the Legal Clinic, Amber Harding.

As Amber recently recalled, Ms. Riley’s entire effort had positive impact not only for just her situation, but for others:

There are accessible rooms and bathrooms at D.C. General now, so no one has to ask for a stranger’s help to use the toilet or shower. Families are asked at intake whether they have any special dietary needs and those needs are promptly met—no one has to risk their health by not following their doctor’s dietary guidelines while they live in shelter . . . Even though Ms. Riley and DHS were on different sides of the issue, her commitment to ensuring that others in similar circumstances received the benefit of her experience was impressive across “sides.”

But Ms. Riley’s ripple effect went beyond the DC shelter system–it affected attorneys like me. When I learned of Ms. Riley’s passing several days ago, I went back through her file and saw how it was her case that truly opened my eyes as to how government can sometimes forget those in our society who need the most help. It was her case that instilled in me the notion that attorneys must always be vigilant in making sure the poor and less fortunate have justice done in their interests.

There is a plaque in a DHS facility now that recognizes Ms. Shirley’s contributions. Yet this plaque is stationary, it hangs on a wall. While the plaque is a great memento for Ms. Riley’s caring spirit and selfless efforts, I would like to think her impact is more important in how it has inspired and moved attorneys like Amber Harding and me to do the public good.