Social Work and the Law

Social Work and the Law

Two years ago, the Columbia office of SCLS welcomed the firm’s first Masters of Social Work (MSW) student from the University of South Carolina. His name was Patrick. Of all the great things I learned and observed in Patrick, I was particularly taken by his ability to identify and meet our clients’ immediate needs. For example, Patrick and I both noticed a certain client’s boots were wrapped in duct tape, and that his shirt had a hole in the elbow. Patrick inquired further, and discovered that this was his only pair of shoes, and he only owned one change of clothes. Patrick was able to get our client some more shoes and clothes. He was also able to help the client sign up for the food bank and showed him how to navigate there on the bus.

Because of our success with Patrick, this year the Columbia office welcomed two MSW students: Mackin and Emily. We now have an MSW student in the office 4 days a week. I am always astounded by the things they can accomplish for our clients. They have assisted our clients with everything from food, clothing, diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products to wheelchairs, utility payments and even money. For example, we had a disabled client who entered into a rent-to-own agreement, and the SCLS attorney was able to secure clear title to the property. However, in order to clear the title, the client had to pay $3,500. To a client on a fixed income, it might as well have been one million dollars. Mackin and Emily worked with the attorney and managed to raise the $3,500 that the client needed through multiple charities and churches. This client now owns her home free and clear and has new connections to her community thanks to the efforts of our MSW students.

Through my experience with these amazing students, I’ve discovered that social workers are like legal aid attorneys in many ways. They are professionals trained to help the poor, the less fortunate, and humanity, generally. They are able to provide compassion and empathy without judging the client. Finally, like legal aid lawyers, social workers do a wide variety of jobs in a multitude of practice areas.

There is, however, one sticky issue related to ethical standards that can be a potential problem for social workers in legal settings. Lawyers have a duty of loyalty and confidentiality to their clients. We are not mandated reporters. In other words, if we discover there is abuse or neglect happening in a client’s home, we do not have an obligation to report that to officials. In fact, depending on the circumstances, we could be subject to discipline for making such a report. However, social workers and social work students are mandated reporters. This means that caution should be used when having a social worker help on a case. They should not be used in cases where this could potentially become an issue, and clients should be advised of this distinction when you involve a social worker in their case. (If a student does see something that they believe they would be mandated to report, they must first discuss it with the attorney supervisor and their supervising professor.)

If you are interested in how to get MSW students integrated into your legal aid office, or you are a funder who would love to see this program expanded at South Carolina Legal Services as much as I would, please reach out to me at and have your checkbook ready.

Cultural Humility Unit

New Cultural Humility Unit and the Racial Justice Institute

South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) is thrilled to announce the creation of the Cultural Humility Unit.  South Carolina is home to a diverse variety of cultures.  The vision of SCLS is that all low income South Carolinians will have full and fair access to justice.  However, biases and systemic inequity perpetuate barriers.  Cultural Humility is the process of identifying how each individual’s unique cultural identity affects the needs and challenges faced by that individual.

The Cultural Humility Unit is a team of SCLS staff dedicated to aiding and empowering communities impacted by systemic inequity.  Work of this unit includes but is not limited to: race equity issues; access and equity for individuals with disabilities; the needs of individuals with limited English proficiency (those with visual/hearing impairments, individuals who cannot read and/or write, and individuals who primarily speak or write a language other than English); and the needs of LGBTQ+ community members.  In addition to work in the community, this unit will also examine the internal policies, procedures, and practices within our organization to ensure that our statewide law firm is operating with a sense of cultural humility and to better the quality of our services through improved cultural competency and training.

Four members of the SCLS team, Tiffney Love, Amber Johnson, Whitney Stout, and Susan Ingles, have been accepted into the Racial Justice Institute, hosted by the Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.  This competitive program will train our staff in understanding and addressing issues of race and implicit bias.  The team will use this training to implement a race equity project within SCLS.

The Cultural Humility Unit looks forward to forming new community partnerships and deepening relationships within our communities.

Coming in May: Elder Law Month


South Carolina Legal Services is celebrating Elder Law Month the entire month of May

May is National Elder Law Month. In 1963, President Kennedy declared May to be Senior Citizens Month. Since then, May has become the month to show support for older Americans. Today, approximately 40 million Americans are over the age of 65. That number is projected to more than double over the next 40 years. With baby boomers growing older, it is more important than ever to plan for the legal needs of aging Americans.

But what is elder law? And how can attorneys assist older Americans? Below is a brief list of issues that many aging Americans may be facing:

  • Incapacity planning that would include a discussion regarding financial and medical powers of attorney
  • Estate planning, including a discussion surrounding the management of assets during incapacity and upon death
  • Medicaid
  • Medicare
  • Long-term care
  • Social Security (SSDI and SSI)
  • Special needs planning (e.g., special/supplemental needs trusts)
  • Conservatorship and guardianship
  • Elder abuse and exploitation
  • Retirement planning, including beneficiary designations, death benefits and spousal benefits
  • Mental health law
  • Estate and trust administration

During the month of May, South Carolina Legal Services will join other attorneys across the country in educating seniors and individuals with disabilities about legal issues they may face. We will be hosting legal clinics throughout the state to inform seniors and individuals with disabilities about the legal options available to them in an effort to enhance their lives.

If you are interested in hosting an event or you would like to partner with us to hold a workshop or event focusing on senior issues, please contact Stephanie van der Horst at

Missed the Tax Deadline. Now What?

Tax season is over, and now taxpayers get to relax and kick back. Well, that is only true at least until the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) “randomly” starts auditing tax returns. For South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) Low Income Taxpayer Clinic, tax season is never over. We assist low-income South Carolinians in resolving federal tax controversies that often seem to be endless. Our goal is to ensure the fairness and integrity of the federal tax system for our low income taxpayers, and to educate them about their rights and responsibilities as taxpayers.

According to a recent article from ProPublica titled, Where in the U.S. Are You Most Likely to Be Audited by the IRS?[1], the national average of IRS audits is 7.7 per 1,000 people.  IRS audits are disproportionately higher in low-income areas, especially in those where taxpayers claim the earned income credit, which is designed to help boost low-income workers out of poverty.  The IRS audits Earned Income Credit recipients at a higher rate than all but the richest Americans.   Of the 46 counties in our great state, only 8 counties are at or below the national audit average, with Lexington County having the lowest audit rate at 7.4 per 1,000 people.   The remaining 38 counties of South Carolina are above the national average.   Of the 38 counties above the national average for audits, 12 are at or above 9.0 per 1,000 people, with Allendale County leading the way at 10.3 per 1,000 people.  Of those 12 counties, ALL of them are rural counties.

Our tax system relies on taxpayers to report their income “freely and voluntarily”, calculate tax liability correctly, and file tax returns on time. Filing a tax return on time is our number one responsibility as taxpayers. It can be quite of a responsibility, especially for those taxpayers that do not understand how our tax system works.

There are circumstances that are beyond a taxpayer’s control that can cause them to miss the deadline to file their tax returns. These circumstances can be death, illness, divorce, and even the lack of knowledge or the inability to understand the complicated IRS tax rules that are constantly changing. Of course, there are also taxpayers that purposely miss the filing deadline simply because they believe that taxes are unconstitutional.  Unfortunately, the IRS does not care much about the reason or circumstances that caused a taxpayer to file a late return or to not file at all.

What happens when a taxpayer does not file tax returns before the due date or when the taxpayer doesn’t file at all? Well, just like everything that is tax related, the answer is, it all depends. It depends on whether there is a refund due, or if there is any balance due, or if an extension was requested. Before I start explaining all the “magnificent” details of what could or will happen when a taxpayer files late or does not file at all, I would like to point out that the IRS offers the option to request an extension to file your tax return. This can be done by completing and filing IRS form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. The extension gives the taxpayers an additional six months (until October 15 of that year) to prepare and file taxes.  An Extension DOES NOT give you more time to pay any balance due. Taxpayers should pay all or part of the estimated income tax due when requesting the extension.  Otherwise, the IRS will assess penalties and interest on them.

In the May edition of The Legal Chatter, we will look at some of these specific situations.

[1] Kiel, Paul & Fresques, Hannah “Where in The U.S. Are You Most Likely to Be Audited by the IRS?” April 2019: Web. April 2019