Brooklyn Law School alumna Coco Culhane ’10 has received the coveted Equal Justice Works Fellowship. The fellowship will support her ongoing work at the Veteran Advocacy Project, New York City’s first comprehensive legal services program for low-income veterans with mental illness, an initiative Culhane created in January as part of the Urban Justice Center’s renowned Mental Health Project.
A former editor at The New Republic, Culhane was Symposium Editor for the Brooklyn Law Review and received numerous honors while at the Law School, including a BLPSI Public Interest Fellowship. In addition, she worked at the New York Legal Assistance Group, the New York State Attorney General’s Office, Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, Legal Aid’s Health Law Unit, and South Brooklyn Legal Services, where she was a 2010 Equal Justice America Fellow.
While her Law School resume is unquestionably impressive, Culhane’s proudest achievement was the creation of the Veteran’s Advocacy Project, which provides an unprecedented range of legal services to the city’s many low-income veterans battling mental illnesses and behavioral health difficulties including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and depression.
According to the VA and others who work closely with U.S. veterans, 18 veterans commit suicide every day. Shocked by the tragedy of this number, Culhane was inspired to create the Veteran’s Advocacy Project, and developed the framework for a veteran’s legal services entity that would offer soldiers a better sense of stability after returning from combat. She started work with her first client in January and now has a growing roster of a few dozen cases.
“As the number of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq grows, so does the need for legal services,” said Culhane. “Disabilities and trauma exacerbate the difficult transition from combat to productive civilian life. Many veterans suffer joblessness, and lack benefits or needed medical treatment, and, as a result, face homelessness and continuing despair.”
“There is a common misconception that veterans are automatically taken care of by the VA and other agencies, but that is simply not the case,” said Eve Stotland, Director of the Mental Health Project at the Urban Justice Center. “Even for qualified veterans, obtaining the care they need and deserve can be a complicated, lengthy process. The Mental Health Project has worked for years to advocate for clients with mental illness, and we are thrilled to be able to extend our services to this community of veterans.”
The Equal Justice Works Fellowship allows Culhane, who has been running the Veteran’s Advocacy Project with the support of several soon-to-expire grants, to continue assisting clients in obtaining the basic necessities of life. For example, she helps them with needs such as preventing eviction and homelessness, finding supportive housing, ensuring access to health care and mental health treatment, and appealing denials of benefits such as food stamps and Social Security.
“New York City has over 250,000 veterans, and many are living with mental illness,” said Culhane. “When these veterans face legal challenges, such as eviction or an improper termination of food stamps, it drastically increases the risk that they will spiral further into illness, become homeless, or even commit suicide. I am deeply honored and grateful to receive this award, which will allow me to continue helping veterans to rebuild their lives.”
Culhane remarked that she would never have received the Fellowship without the guidance and encouragement of Betsy Kane, the Director of the Law School’s Public Service Office. Kane has offered invaluable assistance to BLS students interested in securing post-graduate fellowships, and with her help, this is the second consecutive year that a Brooklyn Law School student received an Equal Justice Works Fellowship and the second time this year. Earlier this year, Michael Mastrangelo ’11 was awarded a Fellowship to securing educational entitlements for disabled children embroiled in contested family court litigation. Last year, Michael Pope '10 was awarded a Fellowship to create the Community Youth Reentry Project, which provides civil legal representation to New York youth reentering society after a criminal or juvenile delinquency conviction. Kane herself was recognized recently for her outstanding commitment to the development and expansion of pro bono legal services for poor and low-income residents of Brooklyn, from the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project.
Read more about Coco Culhane in the New York Law Journal.
Read more about Equal Justice Works Fellow Michael Pope.
Read more about Betsy Kane.