Michelle Barclay, Judicial Council/AOC Division Director for Communications, Children, Families, and the Courts recently spoke with Mike Horner, Executive Director at Middle Georgia Justice.
Condensed and edited for clarity.
Barclay: Let’s talk a little about the Middle Georgia Justice which got started in late 2017 and for which you’ve served as its first Executive Director since May 2019. Tell us your best story over the past twelve months.
Horner: I have two stories. One story belongs to Margie Barnes. When we met her, she was homeless. She had not seen her husband in years and he was not an easy person. She had a new love and she wanted a divorce so she could move on with her life. Her children were grown and gone. That story is meaningful to me because she is so sweet and I learned a lot.
My second story is about DG, a man who learned that his son had been removed from his mother by DFCS. Mr. G wanted to take in his son and was given temporary custody. But, he wanted to make that official and permanent so Mr. G became my first legitimation case. We got the child’s last name and birth certificate changed. Within the last two weeks, the Superior Court granted Mr. G full and permanent custody of his son who has been doing very, very well in school since being in his father’s care. That case touched my heart.
Barclay: What was workload like? Did the work really get going once it got a full-time executive director? Or, was it providing services before then?
Horner: Middle Georgia Justice was incorporated in late 2017, obtained office space and 501(c)(3) approval in the Spring of 2018. Debbie, our office manager, has been here since day 1. The office opened with an incubator program in June 2018, started a lawyer referral program in September 2018. Then I was hired as the Attorney Executive Director in May 2019. The Self-Help Center was in the works by fall of 2019 and just getting really active in early 2020 when the virus hit. We exist to help the courts deal with self-represented litigants which is why we have expanded our services to include video conferencing.
Barclay: Your Board of Directors looks like strong support.
Horner: Yes, we are so blessed.
Barclay: Let’s talk about the legal services that you provide, including services to self-represented litigants. How were those services provided in January 2020 (pre-COVID-19)?
Horner: We start with intake interviews, where folks come in and we screen them financially and geographically (because we only provide services in certain geographical areas). Then we sit down and hear them out to find out their legal issue. It often turns out that someone thinks they have a legal issue, but it turns out not to be so. Others have a legal issue they didn’t know that they had.
Once we determine what we have, we make some decisions about the best path to take. Initially our model was to try to get them paired up with one of our volunteer attorneys, which we call the ‘Justice Brigad’. These are attorneys who have signed on and agreed to take referrals of cases from us for a small fee or, for the truly desperate cases, for no fee.
When I started my job, we were able to double the number of people that we saw per week. We were seeing 12 people a day, every half hour before COVID. We also had just opened our Self-Help Center. Judge Adams had always wanted to have a Self-Help Center inside the Bibb Courthouse, but we had space so we decided to try it here in a little space outside my office. We got a couple of computers and then we got a grant early this year to add two more computers. So we have a total of four computers in the Self Help Center. We had been beta testing the Self Help Center at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. We had just gone fully live when COVID hit.
Barclay: Then after COVID?
Horner: At first, like everyone, we had to close our office. The Self Help Center is where people sit down and fill out the court-approved forms on our computers. They get assistance from us, but not legal advice from us. However, the assistance can require some close contact, e.g. reading together over an extended period of time, which put too many people at risk. So COVID really put a crimp in our plans for the Self Help Center.
Barclay: So how have you pivoted to providing services post COVID?
Horner: I live close by, so I still came in alone and I was returning people’s calls just to get contact info and tell them we’ll call them back. But in mid-June, we decided to open up with some procedures and protocols in place. We decided we have to space people out more, no more having people every half hour because they stack up in our waiting room. We now do four intakes on Tuesdays and four on Thursdays. We tell people not to bring children or anyone else unless they are essential to their case–which is a delicate way of saying some of our clients are poor historians (if so, it really helps to have an additional person in the room).
We can space people properly in our boardroom to always have me and Mr. Adams, or another attorney, so no more than four people-maximum. We can all maintain a six foot distance or more. We tell people to wear masks, but we also provide masks if they come without one. From the moment visitors come in, they are masked until they leave. Debbie also takes their temperature and logs their temperature just in case any contract tracing is necessary. We now lock the door so we can control access which is a change because we used to allow walk-ins. We also ask some screening questions about whether they have any COVID symptoms. I personally clean surfaces, chairs and tables, thoroughly between each person, too. Mr. Adams has a long history with ministering to the homeless so they know him and would come by, but we have to control access a bit more now.
The Self-Help Center is now open again, too. We’ve dropped back to just 2 computers to space people out at the computers and to limit our contact with too many people because assistance can require a lot of conversation and time together. As long as we stay on task and we are not too long-winded (we are lawyers after all), we think we can still keep helping people.
Barclay: I know you’re serving a lot of people who need it. Do you think your experience of working through this pandemic has helped you rethink how to deliver services in the future, or do you see it as just something burdensome to get through?
Horner: COVID caused us to rethink the security of our office a little bit as we are controlling more of the flow of folks than we were before. We will continue thinking about how we can continue to keep some security in our office, even post COVID.