Ombudsperson Due Care: United Way 211 Services

In as much as I keep promising myself that I won’t do pro bono work anymore, I’ve done, once again, a fair amount of it this year.  An email or phone call comes in, I open the intake document and before I know it my “little voice” is telling me to take the case anyway regardless of payment.  In any case though I believe “we”, as professionals, are obligated and have a duty to follow through and provide additional due care that often extends outside our ADR procedures.

The definition of “due care” has legal, moral and personal safety terms in it, check your local dictionary.  During intake we are alert to personal safety issues at all times and so even after our diligence is complete, the obligation may not be over.  In such circumstances I recommend United Way 211 Information and Referral search engine to assist you, the ombudsperson, in the role of personal coach, advocate and facilitator to assist “impacted” clients.  This is a very effective role, as a third party in an advocate role because the gate keepers for services and resources will cooperate more fully than if the distressed client is representing themselves.  The UW 211 Service has been very effective and helpful to me as a “one stop” resource for any community in the USA where community services are now needed to help stabilize the “aftermath” of failed negotiations or life threatening event.

In my most recent case where I used United Way 211 my client had no computer, but had contacted me to assist her and her 3 children regarding eviction.  My decision to help was sealed when I was able to confirm her story with the FBI field agent in charge of her case where Citibank and Chase Bank employees are charged with mortgage fraud.  She gave me his number and he returned the call in minutes confirming she’s a material witness in his case.  After she lost her home she found expensive housing near her sons local high school and took it to try and keep his life stable too.  The results over the last year is that the stress of everything crumbling, like for millions now in the world, is she ended up losing her job as a Certified Physician Assistant and went on Social Security Disability.  To make a long story short we faxed “permission” to be an advocate for her with the property management company.  Negotiations lasted 3 days, which is all I was willing to spend, as they took the tactic of participating in conference calls to negotiate freezing her rent and avoiding any increases till June of 2011 when her son graduates high school and they can move.  No answers were ever given, though we could tell they were sending the request through channels.  In the end the property management took the position that “the going market rate” for her 3 bedroom apartment was actually higher than the increase.  I couldn’t leave the conversation without pointing out that the only reason they could do that was that they were ignoring “extended family” and “multi-tenant” rules of the property where more than one bread-winner occupies the unit.  Negotiations failed, eviction notice pending in 3 days.

What followed was half a day of consoling the client who was now extremely distraught.  As soon as I verbally and firmly assured her I would not “leave her behind” she settled down and began to focus with me; we got to work.  I told her I needed some time to put some things together.  In some cases I simply refer people to United Way 211, but in this case, she had no Internet, only a phone and was so emotionally impacted I had to lead and support her for a while.  Within one week we had her a new apartment under a state subsidized program and by her son’s high school.  We had move in funds from a local charity listed in UW 211 saying they specifically provide that in emergencies.  We also secured her a refurbished used computer from a Christian Ministry in the area.  She’s also applied for food stamps and disability is now approved through 2011 given “letters” we obtained to prove her case.

In closing, the “due care” process in my experience often extends beyond handling a case and in many cases the political and corporate “wranglings” that go on to delay critical decisions for the client go on into perpetuity.  Time is most often on the side of the larger more powerful entity in such situations.  You therefore should develop contingencies, make it part of your “best practice”, in your own practice to assist clients who are often emotional and severely “impacted” by slow bureaucracy that may just be benign about assisting or employees are “bound” by policy and procedure that takes years, if ever, to process.  Additionally, if UW 211 has gaps in resources needed, simply Google a list of non-profits by zip code for the case at hand and see what pops up.

Happy Holidays too to all…

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2 Responses to Ombudsperson Due Care: United Way 211 Services

  1. John Zinsser says:

    This is a powerful and moving tale.
    Thank you for looking out for others and lending your skills, knowledge and abilities to them not for profit, but because there is a need.

    I do think it is important here to be clear – the important work you are doing here is not that of an organizational ombudsman. While certain activities are similar, this story is about a kind of advocacy and support. You were not empowered by an organization to function as a designated neutral. To the best of my knowledge you also were not functioning as a classic ombudsman either.

    What you were doing was being more than decent and helping someone in need.
    For that, you deserve far more than the thanks I can offer.

  2. This is a great reminder that Organizational Ombuds need to have a way to refer individuals to external resources when they cannot be assisted within the organization itself.

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