Fielding Difficult Questions about Clients’ Human Rights

By Casie Iwata, MA, MSW, LGSW, is a social worker and case manager, CVT St. Paul Healing Center.

“My employer hasn’t paid me for work I’ve done, what should I do?”

Clinical staff at the Healing Center in St. Paul have long fielded questions from clients about rights in the United States. In those moments, clinicians often juggle the complexities of these issues. We attend to the distress a client may feel when thinking about falling victim to exploitation or abuses of power in the United States. Working with the person to plan for ways they can address problems in their environments, we connect clients to supports in the community to provide legal help or resources to learn more about life in the U.S. However, more and more, clients are bringing these questions about their rights to CVT. While clients often seek coping skills and concrete resources, they also want to know if there is recourse when someone is being taken advantage of at work or when they encounter challenges with law enforcement.

“If immigration comes to my house, I have to let them in, right?”

CVT clients fled to the United States because their very rights to live free from torture and to be recognized before the law without discrimination have been jettisoned by those in power. When clients come to my office in the beginning of treatment- particularly if they have been in the country for a short time - they voice expectations about the safety and the protected rights they will enjoy. As they adjust to life in the United States, begin talking to community members and are exposed to current events and news, they often experience confusion about the dissonance between their initial expectations and what they are seeing and hearing.  Clients then come to my office with worries that the safety and freedom they sought in America, the Land of the Free, may continue to elude them. As providers, we wrestle to balance providing an accurate picture of power and privilege in the U.S. with not overwhelming clients with pictures of injustice as they seek stability in the U.S.

“Will I be shot by police if I get pulled over?”

In the last year, I’ve witnessed dissonance and distress grow in many clients. They are seeing news of people of color who are shot by police, with particular impact resulting from the Philando Castille shooting in Minnesota. The contentious election cycle and change of presidential administrations has created a climate where people seem more empowered to enact discrimination and harassment. Clients tell me about experiencing or witnessing targeted discrimination because of their race or religion.

 “What should I do when someone shouts ‘Go back to where you came from’ or ‘You’re going to be deported’ at me when I’m shopping?”

In all honesty, I’ve felt at a loss many times in these conversations. I feel the weight of what clients are asking. They are wondering if, after all they have gone through to seek sanctuary, will they be safe and enjoy basic rights here? As I thought about how to address these concerns one-on-one with clients, I consulted with other clinicians on my team who were grappling with the same questions. How could we leverage CVT’s resources to impact these concerns on a broader level?

“My family back home keeps asking if I’m going to go to jail and be deported because I’m an immigrant. What can I tell them?”

To respond to these questions, we turned our New Tactics in Human Rights program for help. New Tactics is a program of CVT that specializes in inspiring and equipping activists to change the world. Since 1999, New Tactics has been identifying and collecting stratagems that help individuals and organizations become more effective in advancing human rights. The collaboration seemed a natural fit to help us better understand and use the human rights methodology as we struggled to attend to the complexities of client needs. The clinicians at our St. Pauling Healing Center engaged in conversation with Nancy Pearson, CVT’s New Tactics training manager. We strategized about how to infuse the clinical space with reinforcements of clients’ human rights.

The culmination of this effort, thus far, has been a client “Know Your Rights” group featuring a local immigration attorney. The group was well-attended by clients, and information about basic rights in the US was provided as well as some concrete tools for clients to use in immigration interactions, such as personalized “Know Your Rights” cards. The group also addressed the complexities of immigration actions faced by survivors of torture and encouraged the use of coping skills when feeling too overwhelmed or disempowered to use one’s voice with an immigration or law enforcement official.

At CVT, we continue to look for ways to accompany and empower clients as they struggle with the immense questions about safety, their rights and how to feel secure in an uncertain environment. As clinical staff, we want clients to feel valued and dignified, even as they live their lives in exile. We want clients to have informed choices. I feel more equipped now to use the New Tactics Framework and some of the training modules to engage clients in discussions about everything from their rights to live free from torture to their right to be paid for their labor. Clients now have a better understanding of current resources and relationships in their environments that are available to address rights-based violations.

Empowering clients to know and exercise their human rights is one piece in this healing puzzle, and in this current political climate it is a crucial piece to understand.

*Reblogged from the Center for Victims of Torture. The original article can be found here.