ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: 

“For my clients, it’s a lot of work, especially when their disability is a mental one.”

Attorney fights for aid after the government has said no

Ellen Piris Perez

Ellen Piris Pérez at a graduation ceremony of the Latin American Law Students Association of the New York metro area.


BY CHRISTINE BEDELL
Alumni Engagement Specialist
cbedell1@csub.edu

The 40-something man had grown up in group homes and foster care due to his mother’s mental illness and started developing symptoms of schizophrenia himself while in college. His condition deteriorated to the point he was suffering audio and visual hallucinations every single day – even while on his meds.

Unable to stay in school and hold down a job, the man slept in shelters at night and walked the streets during the day, acting out on the train and committing petty crimes to get by.

And yet when it came time to apply for Social Security disability benefits – aid specifically set aside for people like him who can’t work due to mental or physical limitations – he was denied.

It took the work of a dogged attorney, CSUB alumna Ellen Piris Pérez, to get him his $750 a month.

“I’m extremely happy for him because all he had was the capacity and the energy and the wherewithal to go to his appointments and to go home,” she said.

Denials of Social Security disability benefits – especially for people who have been in jail -- are such a big problem that appealing them is the focus of Pérez’s young legal career in New York City.

At any given time, she’s helping some 80 clients – a growing number of whom are formerly incarcerated -- with their disability appeals as a staff attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group. She calls the formerly incarcerated “the most overlooked population.”

“A lot of the rhetoric surrounding people returning from prison is about education and getting a job, which is super valid,” Pérez said. “But the vast majority of incarcerated individuals in this country have mental illnesses. So it’s extremely likely they cannot work.”

For the man with schizophrenia, getting his aid wasn’t just about collecting cash. It helped him qualify for supportive housing for people with mental health conditions.

He was relieved to no longer be on the streets and dismissed as a “bum” by passersby.

“He just wants to mind his own business, talk to his therapist once a week, take his meds and be calm and out of the way,” she said.

'WHAT'S THE JUSTICE HERE?'

Pérez’s passion for helping people who’ve been incarcerated dates to her days growing up in Bakersfield, the daughter of two medical techs.

After graduating from West High School and briefly attending Cal Poly Pomona and Bakersfield College, she enrolled at CSUB. There she studied political science, motivated in part by the then-impending execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the founder of the Crips gang who became a Nobel Peace Prize nominee for his anti-gang work from California’s Death Row.

She was sickened by the prospect of Williams being put to death.

“I was like, ‘What’s the justice here if somebody is making such a difference even from prison that we’re going to decide he’s irredeemable for something he always maintained he never did, the thing he was convicted of doing?’

“Even if he had done it, he was making such a big difference in the neighborhoods he came from. At least if they had kept him alive, he could have continued doing that.”

Pérez fumed about it to her mom, who suggested she channel that passion into a college major. It was then Pérez realized maybe hotel management wasn’t really what she wanted to study.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in 2010, Pérez moved to New York City with no job and no connections. She worked at nonprofits and in restaurants, then got accepted to Brooklyn Law School.

While there, she and a friend started a pro bono empowerment program with the nonprofit Resilience Advocacy Project for high school girls incarcerated at Rikers Island.

The girls explored mental health issues and how to do related advocacy work. They created posters showing kids how to get mental health help and discussed ways to continue their efforts after being released.

“A lot of us were one bad decision or one wrong-place, wrong-time situation away from being one of these girls,” Pérez said. “So it was really meaningful to be able to be there with them.”

'I'M NOT GOING TO DO THAT'

During her third year of law school, Pérez accepted a fellowship at the New York Legal Assistance Group. When it was over she stayed there as a staff attorney, getting all the cases of formerly incarcerated people who’ve been denied Social Security disability benefits.

Formerly incarcerated people have a particularly difficult time showing medical evidence of their disability, Pérez said. They’ve often been treated at so many places they don’t know how to get all the records. Prison medical records can be sparse. Many of her clients didn’t seek mental health care in jail because of the stigma associated with doing so.

And many medical offices don’t know they can’t charge people money for the documents.

“A humongous part of my job is just getting medical records,” Pérez said. “It shouldn’t be that hard. You should get access to your medical information. But it’s not that easy.

“For my clients, it’s a lot of work, especially when their disability is a mental one.”

The wait time for an appeal hearing is 18 to 24 months because there aren’t enough judges to hear all the appeals, Pérez said. Growing numbers of cases in New York City are being handled by video with judges in other states, she said.

And many clients end up back behind bars while they’re waiting for their appeal hearing, fueling a vicious cycle, Pérez said.

Pérez has now been doing this work for 2 ½ years. She plans to stick with it but would like to find ways to connect with clients right as they’re being released from custody to address their needs more quickly.

Every client Pérez encounters tries to apologize for his or her criminal past, she said. They want her to know they aren’t angels, but they aren’t monsters, either.

Their past doesn’t matter to Pérez. They’ve done their time, she said. What matters to her is the future.

“If the rest of society wants to keep punishing people for the rest of their lives off the worst day they’ve ever had, I would say that’s a mistake,” she said. “I’m not going to do that.”



Disability claim denials

In fiscal year 2017, the rates of denial of initial Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income Disability claims was:

  • 65.8 percent nationwide
  • 61.8 in New York state, where Perez works
  • 66.2 percent in California

Source: Social Security Administration