Drawn to humanitarian legal work, Libby Magee Coles ’08 found a pressing need close to home
Over two-and-a-half years as a litigation associate at Parker Poe in Raleigh, Libby Coles spent her days working with corporate clients, drafting pleadings and taking depositions in complex construction and surety bond disputes. Today, she spends much of her time helping survivors of sex and labor trafficking resolve their legal matters, an important step toward rebuilding their lives shattered by unimaginable traumas.
Coles, a Christian, first felt the call to pursue humanitarian legal work during law school, and she envisioned going abroad to join the fight against human trafficking. But as she launched her career in private practice and put down roots in Durham, she had to seek out ways to use her legal training in service closer to home. She soon learned of a tremendous need for civil legal services among Triangle residents who cannot afford an attorney — many of whom, such as undocumented immigrants, might not qualify for legal aid. In 2009, she founded the nonprofit JusticeMatters based on a belief that offering high-quality representation to materially poor, vulnerable, and marginalized members of the community constitutes “loving our neighbors in word and deed.”
“I believe our professional resources — our education, networks, expertise, skills, and influence — are ‘ours for others,’” she says, quoting theologian Os Guiness.
In the beginning, JusticeMatters organized legal clinics at shelters and service organizations where volunteer attorneys and supervised law students — many from Duke — offered consultations on such matters as housing, child custody, and immigration law. Rather than simply give advice on the law, Coles and her colleagues sought to provide holistic services by identifying the social, economic, cultural, spiritual, or physical challenges that often intertwined with clients’ legal issues.
Five years later, that approach has developed into an expansive intake screening that helps determine clients’ non-legal challenges and ensures they are offered options for appropriate referrals along with legal services.
“Our holistic model of client service is rooted in one of our core values — the dignity of the individual,” says Coles. “We’ve provided referrals for a broad range of needs, from job-training classes to mental-health services, and we do this in a culturally sensitive manner.”
One client, from West Africa, survived abuse and exploitation in her home country as well as in the U.S.
“During her intake interview, she requested information about churches, counseling, and job-placement services, but expressed concern about how she had been treated, as a West African woman, by service providers previously,” Coles says. The client ultimately declined legal help, but after extensive research by an intern with expertise in social work and public health, JusticeMatters was able to connect her to a counseling agency with knowledge of her culture.
“That’s a success to us, to know that she is moving forward on her path to healing and restoration,” says Coles. “That is our hope, our prayer, and our goal for all of our clients, whether it’s through us or another agency.”
Our holistic model of client service is rooted in one of our core values — the dignity of the individual.— Libby Magee Coles ’08
Coles left Parker Poe to become JusticeMatters’ executive director and managing attorney in 2011. In a suite of offices above a busy Latino community center in East Durham, she and three staff lawyers specialize in what she calls “restorative legal services” for survivors of human trafficking and other forms of abuse or exploitation. North Carolina, she notes, is believed to be among the top-10 states with the highest numbers of individuals trafficked for sex and labor. A steady stream of clients has found JusticeMatters through the North Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking and the Triangle Rapid Response Team, of which it is a member, referrals from Legal Aid of North Carolina (LA NC), as well as case managers at social service agencies like The Salvation Army of Wake County. JusticeMatters also has received referrals directly from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other public and private agencies.
Helping immigrant victims of crime and abuse secure humanitarian visas is a key component of Coles’ practice. Many come from traditional, rural, and highly religious communities in Central or South America, lured into the U.S. on promises of employment and then forced to engage in commercial sex through physical abuse and psychological coercion. A crucial step in recovering from these traumas is obtaining legal status in the United States and work authorization to help them gain independence, access to medical and mental-health services, and hope for eventual reunion with their families.
Jennifer Stuart, a staff attorney with LA NC’s Battered Immigrant Project, has referred clients to JusticeMatters when LA NC cannot assist due to capacity or funding restrictions, and conferred with its lawyers on trafficking cases that have spiked in volume as the state has increased its identification of victims. “It’s been encouraging to have more legal service providers like JusticeMatters delving into humanitarian immigration law and playing an active role in statewide anti-trafficking efforts,” she says.
Coles believes JusticeMatters is on the cutting edge in providing “trauma-informed services” to trafficking survivors and others; the organization’s approach conforms to best practices in caring for victims of trauma in the behavioral-health field, and reflects input from experts in that area. Because trauma-related stress is often long-lasting, those experts emphasized the need for patience as clients struggle through their stories of displacement, abuse, and escape.
“We are careful to shepherd each client through the legal process in a way that doesn’t re-trigger their trauma,” says Coles. “Even little things, like where we sit in a room or the pictures we hang on our walls matter.”
When JusticeMatters attorneys enlist volunteer lawyers to assist with secondary legal issues faced by clients, they serve as the primary point of contact for both. They also liaise with their clients’ case managers and work closely with local and federal law enforcement agencies to help clients report and aid in the prosecution of their traffickers.
“By providing trauma-informed services, JusticeMatters attorneys give clients the empowering opportunity to advocate for themselves, exercise choice, and have their voices heard after they were silenced by abuse and exploitation,” says Karla Siu Daugherty, a therapist and the clinical director at El Futuro, a behavioral-health provider for the Latino community. A JusticeMatters board member, Siu Daugherty helped Coles and her colleagues incorporate best practices from the behavioral-health field into their legal practice. “This helps trauma survivors regain their autonomy and reengage as active members in our society,” she says.
Although JusticeMatters accepts clients regardless of and without religious identification, if clients indicate, during intake, that they would like to pray during their appointments, Coles and her team are happy to oblige, often building trust with trauma survivors that would otherwise be difficult.
“I see many clients visibly relax when they hear we are a faith-motivated organization,” she says. “Especially for some of our immigrant clients who have been interacting primarily with governmental agencies and law enforcement, which are often corrupt in their home countries, it helps them understand they are in a safe place.”
Coles’ expertise in representing trafficking survivors and advocacy for systemic solutions to the problem has garnered notice. In 2013 she was appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory to chair the new North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission. The commission recently won approval for mandatory training in human trafficking for all law-enforcement officers in the state that will take place in 2016.
Now, Coles and her team are expanding their services to include family law, often helping caregivers get legal custody of children in their care so they can obtain medical services or enroll the children in school. “Referrals from Durham Public Schools and self-referrals have created a stream of clients, both immigrant and citizen, in need of these services,” says Coles. “By helping children gain a legal connection to a family, we hope to reduce the risk of them entering the foster-care system or becoming trafficking victims.” The organization also now represents undocumented minors who are eligible for a special immigration status for juveniles after surviving parental abuse, neglect, or abandonment.
“My heart is fully engaged in this work,” says Coles, who welcomed her second child in November. “Walking with each client” through the legal process, establishing trust, and ultimately seeing the stability and hope a visa confers fulfills the calling she felt early in her career.
“These are resilient, courageous individuals who have suffered immensely,” she says. “It’s a gift to know them and to be part of their healing process as a lawyer.”