Holistic Support in Action: Our Social Work Interns’ Journey

In honor of Social Work Month, we’re shining a spotlight on our social work interns, Abigail Epstein and Rhianna Solida, here at South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS). These two have been doing incredible work, helping our clients in ways that go beyond just legal assistance. Their efforts highlight how social work and legal work can come together to make a real difference in people’s lives. By collaborating with our attorneys and staff, Abigail and Rhianna show us the power of teamwork and how different perspectives can lead to better solutions for our clients. As we celebrate Social Work Month, we’re grateful for their dedication and the important role they play in helping us serve our community better.

Abigail Epstein, Social Work Intern

During my time at South Carolina Legal Services, I have been given the opportunity to connect with clients and assist them in accessing resources that would otherwise be unknown to them. The skills I have learned from other staff at SCLS have enabled me to tailor to the unique and individualized needs our clients face. Our Fall project consisted of a Thanksgiving Food drive, in which we communicated with community organizations and businesses to collect the necessary supplies to provide full Thanksgiving dinners for more than fifteen families. Our Spring project consists of us reorganizing and confirming the services of resources available in our community, to comprise a resource list that may be utilized by attorneys and future social work interns at SCLS. Throughout our time at SCLS, we have attended various outreach events in surrounding counties in South Carolina, developed meaningful relationships with agencies and organizations in our community, assisted in housing court, conducted client intakes, written client referral forms, assisted clients with applying for housing and public benefits, and much more.

I will utilize the experiences and skillsets I have gained during my time at SCLS in my future career in various ways. Through working with the clients we serve at SCLS, I have mastered empathetic language and developed an understanding of how to address the unspoken challenges our clients face. Speaking with clients who are experiencing a crisis has afforded me with the ability to intervene in these situations carefully and effectively. Connecting with community partners, organizations, and agencies has allowed me to build constructive relationships with empowering and meaningful insights, preparing me for how to provide clients with resources best fit for them.

Working in synchrony with attorneys has exposed me to the many legal injustices South Carolinians face. Being granted with the opportunity to work with the attorneys at our office has provided me with a unique experience that has revealed the impactful collaboration between social workers and those within the public justice system. The studies that social work students engage in provide us with knowledge aligning with social change, empowerment, human behavior, and crisis intervention. All of which offer a unique perspective to engaging with the vulnerable clients our attorneys serve.

Rhianna Solida, Social Work Intern

Being a social work intern at South Carolina Legal Services has been an experience that is quite different from the settings that most of our peers are interning in. While many of them are in schools, government organizations like DSS, or working with different kinds of social workers at local agencies, Abigail and I get to work in tandem with the attorneys and support staff in the Columbia office, which has shown me how important it is within this field to be involved in interprofessional collaboration. Throughout our time here, we have gotten to work with over forty of the clients that the attorneys are serving and provide them with support in areas of their lives that do not fall under the legal umbrella. I am thankful to be in this unconventional social work setting because we get to bounce our ideas off the attorneys, work on brokering resources in respect to their current legal problems and provide a holistic approach to helping the clients that receive services at SCLS.

We have gotten to participate in so many meaningful opportunities while at SCLS that will shape our future practice and have long lasting impacts in our careers, while making so many great memories. During the months of September, October, and November, we worked diligently to gather donations to feed the families of SCLS clients for Thanksgiving dinner. This was a long process, but in the end, we were able to put together complete dinners (including turkeys!) for over 15 families ranging anywhere from one to ten people. One thing that I found to stick with me through this process is the power choice can hold for clients who are experiencing hardships. Even though we had limited resources, we did our best to personalize these boxes to meet their preferences and requests, which made them so much more meaningful when they don’t always get to make these choices and sometimes only take what they can get.

Since January, we have been working to compile a list of resources in the Midlands area to make a user-friendly guide for the attorneys, staff, and future social work interns to use when we are gone. We have spent hours upon hours on this project, reaching out to countless organizations and agencies, building relationships with service providers, and learning how other professionals in the area work tirelessly to serve South Carolinians. During this process, I have been pleasantly surprised to see that there are so many more resources to assist clients than I could have ever imagined. We have also been able to identify some areas of need in the community and work with some of our peers in other internship settings to see what kinds of service gaps they might fill. We have already been utilizing this list to provide referrals to clients and help them to become involved with other services that can help them with their legal problems, financial problems, and other areas of need.

Ultimately, this internship at SCLS has taught me that social work and other helping professions are not so limited in the settings and approaches that they might be able to serve. Working in a legal setting has not only been extremely interesting but has shown me in real life how environmental factors impact client systems and how serving these clients requires looking in from many different angles. With the help of the attorneys and the staff at the Columbia office, we have become

creative future social workers, which will allow us to go out into the field and provide so many different perspectives on the practice.

Social Security Eliminates Overpayment Burden for Social Security Beneficiaries – Automatic Overpayment Recovery Rate Reduced to 10 Percent

The organization is dedicated to ensuring accurate disbursement of funds to beneficiaries in a timely manner, with Social Security striving to issue correct payments in the majority of cases. Nonetheless, there remains room for improvement to prevent and manage instances of overpayment more effectively, as individuals rely on the agency for financial stability.

When an overpayment occurs, it is mandated by law for the agency to recover the excess amount, potentially creating financial strain for recipients. Effective March 25, 2024, a new policy has been implemented wherein the agency will collect ten percent of the total monthly Social Security benefit, or $10, whichever is greater, to recoup overpayments, as opposed to the previous practice of collecting the entire amount. Exceptions to this policy change will be limited, such as in cases involving fraud.

During a brief transition period, individuals may still encounter the previous policy. Those subjected to 100 percent withholding during this transition phase are advised to contact Social Security’s National 800 Number at 1-800-772-1213 to request a reduction in their withholding rate.

The revised policy applies to newly identified overpayments. Beneficiaries with existing overpayments subject to a withholding rate exceeding ten percent can also contact Social Security to discuss lowering the repayment rate. Requests for rates below ten percent will be evaluated by representatives, with approval granted if the proposed rate allows for full repayment within 60 months—a recent extension from the previous 36-month limit. If the proposed rate extends repayment beyond 60 months, additional financial information will be requested from the beneficiary to make a determination.

In October 2023, Social Security initiated a comprehensive review of overpayment policies and procedures to enhance payment accuracy systematically. This procedural adjustment is a direct outcome of the ongoing review process and is one of four recent key updates aimed at addressing improper payments. Efforts are also underway to minimize wage-related improper payments through enhanced information exchanges with payroll data providers. The organization remains committed to evaluating programmatic policies and implementing regulatory changes to streamline the overpayment process.

Recipients have the right to appeal overpayment decisions or amounts and can request a waiver for overpayment collection if they believe it was not their fault and they cannot afford repayment. The agency refrains from pursuing recoveries while initial appeals or waiver requests are pending. Even if individuals opt not to appeal or seek a waiver, they are encouraged to contact the agency if planned withholdings would cause hardship. Social Security offers flexible repayment options, including monthly repayments as low as $10, and each case is handled on an individual basis, considering the unique circumstances of the beneficiary.

This article is based on a blog post from the Social Security Administration. Read their full blog here: https://blog.ssa.gov/social-security-eliminates-overpayment-burden-for-social-security-beneficiaries-automatic-overpayment-recovery-rate-reduced-to-10-percent/

Responding to a Social Security Administration (SSA) Overpayment

The Social Security Administration (SSA) defines an overpayment as anytime someone receives more benefits than they are supposed to receive. It is a debt to a government agency. SSA is required to try and collect any money that was overpaid.

SSA uses the term “recover/recovery” when it talks about repayment of an overpayment. A notice is supposed to be mailed to you telling you the amount of the overpayment and why it happened. You have the right to file an appeal denying that there is an overpayment or that is not as much as they say it is. An appeal must be filed within 60 days of receiving an overpayment notice.

You also have the right to request that SSA waive the overpayment. This usually means that you agree that you were overpaid, but you are asking SSA to let you avoid paying the debt. A waiver should be granted if you can prove that you did nothing wrong and that you cannot afford to repay it. It is difficult to prove that you did everything right which is why you need to keep proof of anything you send to SSA.

There are other options besides filing an appeal or waiver request. You can ask for a reasonable repayment agreement; one that allows you to make monthly payments that you can afford. Another option for anyone who is on Medicare and receives help paying for their Part B or Part D benefits is to ask for a $10/month repayment. This request can be made by submitting a simple request in writing. A form for this can be found here: Request for $10 Withholding

If you do not do anything, SSA has default collection policies. It will not collect more than 10% of the current federal benefit rate for anyone receiving SSI. Federal law allows SSA to take the entire monthly benefit for anyone receiving retirement, disability, or survivor’s benefits. This has created a lot of hardship for seniors and persons with disabilities because it can take months for SSA to decide on an appeal or waiver request.

On March 26, 2024, Martin O’Malley, the new commissioner of SSA, announced a new default policy that limits the default payment to 10% for anyone receiving cash benefits from one of their programs. This is a new policy, and it will take SSA a few months to fully implement it. If your entire monthly benefits are taken to repay an overpayment after April 15, 2024, you will need to call SSA to request the lower amount.

Anyone who needs help with an overpayment should contact SCLS for more information.

National Consumer Protection Week: “March”ing Toward Consumer Justice at S.C. Legal Services

National Consumer Protection Week: “March”ing Toward Consumer Justice at S.C. Legal Services

Every year, the second week of March marks an important occasion: National Consumer Protection Week (NCPW). It’s a time dedicated to raising awareness about consumer rights, safety, and empowerment. But why do we celebrate it? And what are the laws in place to protect consumers, both federally and here in South Carolina? Those are the questions we provide answers to each March and throughout the years as we strive to educate and enforce the rights of consumers in S.C.

Why National Consumer Protection Week?

Consumer protection is fundamental to maintaining trust in the marketplace. It ensures that consumers are treated fairly, provided accurate information, and shielded from fraud and scams. National Consumer Protection Week serves as a reminder of the importance of these rights and encourages individuals to educate themselves about their protections.

This annual event aims to empower consumers to make informed decisions, navigate the complexities of the marketplace, and seek recourse if they encounter unfair or deceptive practices. It’s a collaborative effort involving government agencies, consumer advocacy organizations, and businesses to promote transparency and accountability.

S.C. Legal Services (SCLS) observed NCPW throughout the month of March with activities, presentations and the sharing of our consumer protection educational materials and resources. Our weekly Level Up Law program held a series of episodes outlining four types of scams and frauds from our “Hall of Shame”. We shared information and resources in Consumer Bingo games held throughout the state.

Although at SCLS we focus on this particular consumer protection week, our attorneys and staff participate in these and other activities throughout the month of March as well as throughout the entire year. Holiday Scam information in December, and how to avoid Romance Scams in February are just a couple of examples of other programs we’ve shared with our South Carolina communities.

Federal Consumer Protection Laws

The United States has several federal laws in place to safeguard consumer interests across various sectors. So, we shared information in social media posts and in person presentations about the laws that protect S.C. consumers. Some of the key ones include:

1. The Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCA): Enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), this law prohibits unfair or deceptive acts or practices in commerce. It serves as the primary basis for consumer protection enforcement at the federal level.

2. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA): This law regulates the collection, dissemination, and use of consumer credit information. It grants consumers certain rights regarding their credit reports and ensures accuracy and privacy.

3. The Truth in Lending Act (TILA): TILA requires lenders to disclose key terms and costs of credit, enabling consumers to make informed decisions when borrowing money.

4. The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act: It governs warranties on consumer products, ensuring that consumers receive clear and detailed information about warranty coverage and terms.

Consumer Protection in South Carolina

In addition to federal laws, each state has its own regulations to protect consumers. In South Carolina, a number of statutes offer safeguards and remedies for consumers. To name a few:

1. South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act: This law prohibits unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of trade or commerce. It provides consumers with avenues for legal recourse against deceptive business practices.

2. South Carolina Consumer Protection Code: Encompassing various regulations, this code addresses issues such as credit transactions, retail installment sales, and unfair trade practices. It outlines consumer rights and establishes standards for fair dealing in consumer transactions.

3. South Carolina Identity Theft Protection Act: This legislation aims to combat identity theft by requiring businesses to implement security measures to protect consumers’ personal information. It also outlines procedures for victims of identity theft to report and recover from the crime.

4. South Carolina Dealers and Distributors Act: Focusing on car dealerships, this Act deals with unfair and deceptive acts and practices that car dealers engage in.

As we observe National Consumer Protection Week in March and beyond, it’s crucial to recognize the significance of consumer rights and the role of laws in upholding them. Whether at the federal or state level, these regulations serve to promote fairness, transparency, and accountability in the marketplace. By staying informed and advocating for consumer protections, we contribute to a safer and more equitable environment for all.

For National Women of Color in Tech Day, we asked Pat Muller, our IT Manager to tell us more about herself and her journey into the world of tech.

My name is Pat Muller. I am the Information Technology Manager for South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS), a non-profit law firm. I have been employed with SCLS for 45+ years.

I was fascinated and intrigued with technology early in my career. My IT journey began in the 1980s at Palmetto Legal Services as the go-to person in the office when a computer stopped working. Without formal training, I could resolve the tech issue(s). For quite a while, I was self-taught. It was very fulfilling when I could tinker and figure out the computer problem(s), enabling my co-workers to continue working.

My fascination grew as I began to understand the programming of early computer systems. After years of shadowing IT and being turned down for IT positions because of no ‘formal training,’ with a degree, I obtained an associate in computer technology with an emphasis on programming. I later returned to college and received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in information systems.

Under my leadership, teamwork, and collaboration, SCLS achieved the highest rating for security during a recent security audit compared to any other legal aid program by implementing complex and innovative technology tools. Technology requires adaptation, flexibility, and the willingness to evolve to maintain industry standards. In the same report, SCLS was recognized as the ‘most secure’ legal aid program tested to date.

Technology is my passion, i.e., what it does and can do to take a process developed years ago and innovate it into a much more collaborative, efficient, and effective tool. No day is the same, and new challenges are presented daily. I enjoy interacting with users in many capacities and collaborating with my peers, team, partners, and other technologists on innovative ideas and projects. I have also had the fantastic opportunity to be a presenter at a Legal Services Corporation technology conference.

I am a lifelong learner and continue to love and be fascinated with the evolution and transformation of technology and its ability to drive everything from mundane tasks to innovative technology projects.

I love technology and my career. I give all the glory to God for where I am and where I have been and for those who took the time to mentor, encourage, and support me wherever my journey takes me.

I am the mother of two wonderful adult children and four grandchildren. I LIVE FOR ALL SPORTS! GO BLUE DEVILS!! 😊

International Day of Women’s Judges: A Conversation with Judge Nichols-Graham

As we mark the International Day of Women Judges, it’s crucial to recognize the profound impact of women’s representation in the judiciary. Despite increased engagement in public life, women remain significantly underrepresented in decision-making roles, particularly within the judiciary’s senior leadership. The presence of women judges is essential for ensuring that courts represent their citizens, address their concerns, and deliver sound judgments. By breaking into historically exclusionary spaces, women judges contribute to a more transparent, inclusive, and representative judiciary.

Today, on International Day of Women Judges, we’re thrilled to share the inspiring story of one of our own— Judge Kimaka Nichols-Graham—formerly a Managing Attorney at SCLS, now a Family Court Judge. Elected in 2020, her journey to the bench is filled with challenges, successes, and a deep commitment to justice. In this interview, she generously shares insights into her path to becoming a judge, the impact of her time at SCLS, challenges faced as a female judge, mentorship in the legal field, and her ongoing support for initiatives beyond courtrooms.

Q: Tell us about your journey to becoming a judge.

I began applying for a judgeship in 2012 and was elected to serve as a family court judge in a joint session of the SC General Assembly on February 3, 2020.

My journey to becoming a judge on a trial court in the state’s judicial system was active and complicated. I was found qualified to serve on each level of the screening process every time I applied. Until 2016 or so there was a written test and I did well on the test each time. The journey affirmed my belief that I was qualified to serve.

Q: What impact did your time at SCLS have on your eventual judicial career?

Legal services gave me the opportunity to become a well-rounded children’s law attorney, to consistently practice family law, to participate in developing the practice of education law by representing students and parents and training other attorneys, to focus on access to justice and the administration of justice for over twenty years, to develop leadership skills, to develop skills that allowed me to successfully represent clients with limited financial resources facing stressful legal problems, to assist staff attorneys with identifying successful legal strategies with limited financial resources, and to communicate directly with applicants denied full representation to inform them of my efforts to fairly and consistently review every new application each week and decide which applicants would be offered full representation.

The experience I received while serving the public at SCLS positively impacted my ability to serve the public as a judge. My career path was purpose driven and intentional since I was in middle school but, I did not contemplate receiving an opportunity to serve on the bench until much later in my legal career.

Q: As a female judge, are there any unique challenges that you have faced in your career, and how have you overcome them?

I have been a judge for a short portion of my legal career. My legal career began in 1998.

I am fortunate to have parents with phenomenal positive moral traits. Also I have a stable family background without multiple adverse childhood experiences. I grew up in a neighborhood where some of my ancestors have consistently resided since before 1840. I am not aware of any of my direct ancestors having a bachelor’s degree but my family is stable, dependable and well educated without formal bachelor degrees.

I believe that I have something that I did not earn that assists me with being persistent, having a positive attitude, and maintaining or quickly reclaiming a positive perspective when addressing challenges.

Q: Mentorship and support networks can be crucial for the advancement of women in law. Have you had mentors who guided you in your career, and how do you pay it forward to support the next generation of female judges?

I receive guidance and support from women and men who have more experience in the legal profession and in life, in general. I seek guidance and support from time to time.

Nevertheless, I avoid allowing other people to define me or the parameters of my career. I avoid creating a lot of conflicts of interest or situations that cause me to believe that I should recuse myself from presiding over cases.

I provide support to lawyers whenever it is appropriate to assume that role. There are limits. I can’t preside over your cases and be your mentor or best friend. As I implied earlier, you do not have to go to college, law school or become a judge to know the difference between right and wrong. If you routinely appear before me then you should select another judge to be your mentor or to ask about professional guidance. The judicial cannons require judges to avoid creating potential conflicts of interest.

Q: As a former Managing Attorney at SCLS, you understand the importance of holistic approaches to addressing legal issues beyond courtroom proceedings. How do you support initiatives that promote legal education, community outreach, and alternative dispute resolution methods to empower individuals with the knowledge and resources to navigate the legal system effectively?

I speak at legal seminars, at community programs, and with groups to provide assistance or feedback on issues related to the administration of and access to justice.

This International Day of Women Judges let’s celebrate individuals like Judge Nichols-Graham, whose journey from SCLS to the Family Court bench showcases dedication and resilience. Her commitment to mentorship, community outreach, and holistic legal approaches inspires us all. As we honor her contributions, let’s continue supporting women judges worldwide, knowing they’re shaping a fairer and more equitable future.