Angela Ratner, Client Advocate for Defender District 42
Chief Public Defender Beth Stang for Henderson, Polk, and Transylvania counties will tell you: Before they hired Angela Ratner to be the Client Advocate to serve the district… Before Angela was even “a twinkle in their eye,” it was coming away from a Gideon’s Promise conference where she heard a presentation by Partners for Justice, that sparked her pursuit to acquire a Client Advocate position for the office in Defender District 42.
After a successful grant application through the Dogwood Health Trust, the geographic draw of the North Carolina mountains combined with the opportunity to work in a public defender office and do the work itself, brought Angela Ratner right out of graduate school and all the way from New York to take on this important role.
Stang called the Partners for Justice an “amazing organization, dedicated to those who do public defense.” She said what impressed her most was that one of their founders is a former public defender. “And they get it,” she said. “For the people we serve, it’s not just their crime or their case. There are many surrounding issues that clients struggle with, that factor into each case.”
“There were so many times in my office when we said that we don’t have the bandwidth or the knowledge, really, or the time to get the client into treatment, to get them into the right treatment program for them, or help in other ways,” said Stang. “I only know of a few programs. Our attorneys are busy doing legal work, and it takes more leg work and follow-up to get someone into a program and to follow their progress.”
And now, with Ratner on staff, clients who may be incarcerated ore newly released have direct access to an extra person who can be their connection to the outside world—to assist not only with resources needed outside the case, but also with support, encouragement, and genuine care at every turn for those who are justice impacted in the three Western counties that make up Defender District 42.
Stang said, “If we [public defenders] recommend outpatient treatment or community service for a better position for sentencing until the next court date, Angela figures all of that out. She keeps up with it all and reminds the client of all the important next steps and helps them keep up with their court date. We hand all that off to Angela now, which frees us up to focus on legal matters.”
Offering holistic defense not only helps reduce recidivism, but it also provides for basic needs, so the client is less likely to repeat a particular crime. Ratner meets directly with clients and works behind the scenes to make sure they have their basic needs met. She asks: Do they have their medications? Do they have adequate housing? Are they going to have access to a substance abuse rehabilitation program? Will their mental health needs be met? Do they have a job so they can provide for themselves and/or the ones in their care? And while the work Ratner performs may be very similar to what a social worker might do in a public defender office, Stang said it is the word, “advocate,” in the position title that is so important.
“No offense to them (social workers), but people who work, for DSS for example, are called ‘social workers.’ And our clients have often had bad experiences with those organizations,” said Stang. “Whether it’s losing their kids, or being investigated by the DSS where they may have a case right now in court with a DSS worker… The terminology was important to me.”
Typically, client advocates do not assist clients beyond the resolution of the case.
“But I don’t just drop them,” said Ratner. “For example, if I am working with someone who I am trying to get into rehab, I will say, ‘You are going to be released. Here’s my number. Please call me.’ Many times, they don’t call, because they may have many other factors affecting their lives at the time. They may be thinking, ‘I need to make money; I need to support my kids.’ They are thinking of the now instead of the long term. To them at the time, it is more important for them to provide for themselves and for the people they care about… But if someone needs help, I don’t say, ‘I’m sorry. Your case is closed; I can’t help you—’ especially if it is going to make their life better.”
Assistant public defenders in the office refer clients to Ratner, explaining the unique situation and the client’s needs; then Ratner sets off to visit the client in jail to introduce as their own personal advocate. She is the liaison between the client and the attorney, the client and the outside world. Then, Ratner gets to know the client and together, they explore options that can improve the individual’s situation, and hopefully affect better outcomes in the courtroom.
“Many times, a person or the prosecution will think that a person is their crime,” said Ratner. “They focus on the snapshot of the crime. [The work I do is] to show and present their life and build the story to show who they are… They are human beings who have struggles, and I want to help them in any way that I can.”
“It’s a different relationship than that of the lawyer [and the client],” said Stang. “It is a different feeling they get from Angela… Her presence as someone who is not a lawyer is a great comfort to the clients and their families… She is accessible in a different way, and as a result, it can feel less intimidating and less threatening for the client.”
And even if the attorneys in 42 could provide the same services and assistance to clients as Ratner, it would take much longer, said Stang. “Angela has the time and the expertise, and this allows for APDs to work on legal issues … She fills all the gaps where we were just not able to,” said Stang.
Since her September 8 start date, Ratner has served approximately 50 clients. Stang will be the first to say that before the client advocate position was filled, the legal team in 42 was unable to do a fraction of what Ratner is able to accomplish for clients.
Having a client advocate on staff in the public defender office is a gamechanger for the defenders doing the work and especially for the clients and their families, who are on the other end.
“Clients’ cases become more well-rounded, and their needs are met more quickly,” said Stang. “And there is something really special about being embedded in a PD office; that she has access to attorneys is invaluable. Angela is learning how her work connects with the court cases… And who knows how many clients she will be able to help?”
Ratner said her work involves patience, listening, transparency, and building a good rapport. With a solid foundation built on mutual respect, solid relationships are forged, and the trust that is key between the client and the legal team is established.
“It takes empathy and sympathy,” said Ratner. “You just [try to] understand where they are coming from. You have to have thick skin and understand that if they are upset it’s not about you. And let them vent. Let them be vulnerable… If they are upset, it is not about you.”
Stang’s hope and belief is that, over time, the clients served in 29B might spend less time in jail as a direct result of the quality of services and additional support that Ratner brings to their public defender office.