Episode 24: Talia Markowitz, MPH, Human Rights Clinic at HealthRight International
Talia Markowitz, MPH, from the Human Rights Clinic at HealthRight International speaks about her organization's mission to empower marginalized communities to live healthy lives and the services it provides.
Talia Markowitz, MPH Bio
Talia Markowitz is the Program Manager for the Human Rights Clinic (HRC) at HealthRight International. Talia cemented her passion for serving vulnerable migrant populations while working as an immigration paralegal, where she assisted hundreds of asylum seekers and other survivors of trauma in their immigration applications. She has conducted research in multiple Latin American countries, including with a psychosocial program for internally displaced women in Colombia and with a nationwide child protection initiative in El Salvador. Most recently, Talia served as the HRC Program Associate, coordinating operations in the New York metro area. Talia obtained her Bachelor of Arts in Government from Skidmore College and her Master’s in Public Health in Forced Migration and Health from Columbia University. She is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese.
Intro Voices [00:00:05] Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me?
Intro Voices [00:00:31] This is “You Matter”, a podcast for the NYU community developed by the Department of Public Safety.
Karen Ortman [00:00:36] Hi, everyone, and welcome back to “You Matter”, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I am your co-host, Karen Ortman, Assistant Vice President of Field Operations at the Department of Public Safety and a retired law enforcement professional.
Karen Wang [00:00:59] And I'm Karen Wang, a senior undergraduate student here at NYU College of Arts and Sciences and a presidential scholar. If any information presented today is triggering or disturbing, please feel free to contact the Wellness Exchange at 212-443-9999.
Karen Ortman [00:01:18] Today we introduce Talia Markowitz, program manager of the Human Rights Clinic at HealthRight International. Talia, thank you so much for joining us today on “You Matter”. And Karen, thank you for joining us today as well, as our guest co-host.
Karen Wang [00:01:33] Thank you so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Karen Ortman [00:01:36] So, Talia, what is the Human Rights Clinic? What is its purpose and mission?
Talia Markowitz [00:01:43] Yeah. So the Human Rights Clinic is a program within an organization called HealthRight International, just to give a little bit of background of sort of where we sit. And HealthRight International is a global health and human rights nonprofit organization with the mission to empower marginalized communities to live healthy lives. And the organization has been around since 1990, so we'll be celebrating our 30th year next year. It is very exciting, though about five years ago, HealthRight became affiliated with NYU, specifically now through the College of Global Public Health. So we're right here on campus. I just hopped and skipped right over here. And our headquarters are here in New York City. And we have operations in five different countries, including the United States. So that's a little bit of context about HealthRight International. Now, to tell you a little bit about our program, our human rights clinic, or HRC, as you might hear me refer to it, is HealthRight’s U.S. based program. And we're also HealthRight’s longest running program. So we were established back in 1993 here in New York City with the mission to assist immigrant survivors of torture and abuse, to secure freedom from persecution and pursue healthy, productive lives.
Karen Ortman [00:03:21] Wow. Really important work. So who are the clients that you serve?
Talia Markowitz [00:03:27] So we serve immigrant survivors of abuse and torture, as I mentioned before. Primarily, overwhelmingly, our clients are individuals who are seeking asylum or different forms of protection here in the United States. They have often fled situations of harm in their home countries or they've experienced a crime here in the United States and they're seeking legal protection on that basis. So we serve a number of different kind of communities within that broader umbrella heading of immigrant survivors of abuse and torture. So we serve, for example, individuals who have fled political persecution, religious persecution. They fled because they were targeted because of their nationality or ethnic group. But then alongside those individuals, we also serve individuals who have fled gang violence, who have fled domestic violence or intimate partner violence, children who have experienced abuse or neglect, individuals who have experienced trafficking. You know, there are so many, unfortunately, so many individuals fleeing situations of maltreatment.
Karen Ortman [00:04:51] Absolutely. Wow. So how do, particularly, we're talking about undocumented people here in this country, so if they're suffering some sort of or have suffered some sort of crime committed against them, how do they know how to find you in the first place?
Talia Markowitz [00:05:14] So let me actually begin to respond to this question by, I realized I didn't explain sort of what it is that we do when I say that we assist immigrant survivors of abuse and torture. So we actually provide a very kind of specific or niche service, but it has a tremendous impact on the lives of the individuals that we serve. So what we do is we train and deploy a network of medical and mental health professionals who provide forensic evaluations documenting psychological or physical signs of persecution. And those evaluations are then submitted in support of the applications of asylum or other immigration relief for these individuals. And they serve as kind of, you know, pivotal evidence in support of our clients’ cases and can really make the difference between being granted protection to to stay in the U.S. or being deported back to situations of harm. So to answer your original question, as far as how our clients learn about us or get connected to our services, our clients are referred to us through immigration attorneys. So immigration attorneys recognize that a forensic evaluation would be a critical piece of evidence in support of their client's case. And then they reach out to us and submit an intake packet. And, you know, they seek our forensic evaluation services. And over the years, since we've been active for, you know, now 26 years, we've established relationships with hundreds of legal service providers here in the New York metro area who have come to really rely upon the evaluations that our clinicians provide to their clients.
Karen Ortman [00:07:21] Can you explain what is entailed in a forensic examination?
Talia Markowitz [00:07:27] Yes. So to answer that question, I want to first provide a little bit of legal background, just because our work is very kind of ensconced within the specifics of the U.S. immigration system. So our immigrant survivor clients, by and large, which I had mentioned before, are seeking protection in the United States through asylum. Now, in order to successfully obtain asylum in the United States, applicants have to prove to the U.S. government that they would be at risk of persecution if they were returned to their home countries. However, asylum seekers often have very little evidence of their past lives that could corroborate the risk that they face. So, for example, documents like medical records or hospital records, police reports, you know, these kinds of documents that one would rely upon to corroborate past harm, often times the quality of these documents would be poor, they might be inaccessible or they might just not exist at all for many of our clients who are fleeing, you know, urgent situations. So often that means that the only evidence that remains are these individual stories of what happened to them and the scars on their bodies or their psyches. So in so many cases, it means that these cases can hinge on medical and mental health professionals who can translate those scars and symptoms into evidence through forensic evaluations. So in this context, you know, what's included, what's involved in a forensic evaluation here, is a physician or mental health professional interviews the client about their account of what happened to them. They conduct an exam. It could be a physical exam, a psychological exam, you know, among other types of exams. And then that clinician would prepare an affidavit which is a sworn statement summarizing their findings when the physical or psychological evidence substantiates the client's claim of maltreatment. And these evaluations are then submitted to immigration authorities in support of the client's application.
Karen Ortman [00:10:05] OK. So do you have eligibility criteria that must be met before you take on a client?
Talia Markowitz [00:10:14] Yes. So generally we have three eligibility criteria. So first of all, individuals that we serve must be a foreign national seeking relief in the United States. Two, they they must have experienced some form of torture, human rights abuse or be alleging that that's what they experienced. And then finally, they must exhibit physical or psychological scars or symptoms of abuse.
Karen Wang [00:10:47] How has the human rights clinic impacted the immigrant community since its inception?
Talia Markowitz [00:10:53] Yeah. So we've been around now since 1993, and since that time, we have served over some 7,000 survivors of torture and abuse from over 140 countries around the globe. We've trained over 2,000 clinicians to do this work. And, you know, nationally right now, 35 percent of asylum seekers are granted in this country, whereas approximately 90 percent of the clients that we serve are granted relief. So it could be really a deal maker or breaker.
Karen Wang [00:11:42] So how do immigrant survivors get connected to the human rights clinic?
Talia Markowitz [00:11:50] So typically, you know, it's through the client’s legal representative. Every now and then I do get a call from an individual who's saying, just yesterday, for example, I received a call from somebody who was seeking a forensic evaluation for their case. We are kind of very strict that our clients are represented by an attorney or other legal representative just because our services, you know, immigration, what one submits in support of an immigration application is very strictly reviewed for consistency. Any sort of inconsistency on the record can break somebody’s chances. So we want to be very careful that the evidence that we are providing is ultimately helpful for that client and it's not going to be doing any harm. So when somebody reaches out to us, our first question is going to be, do you have an immigration attorney? And if they say yes, then we encourage them to have their immigration attorney reach out to us. And then we would go from there to guide the attorney on how to submit an intake.
Karen Ortman [00:13:18] Gotcha. Are those served by the human rights clinic protected by confidentiality?
Talia Markowitz [00:13:22] Yeah, that's a great question. And so we are, you know, through how we train our staff, through how we store our records, we’re extremely careful about confidentiality and protecting our clients’ confidentiality. All of our clinicians who engage with our program as volunteers sign a volunteer agreement saying that they will be, you know, complying with HIPAA rules in the context of this work. However, there are limits to confidentiality. So, you know, any time a clinician provides an affidavit or the sworn statements summarizing their findings, that affidavit is going to be shared with our program. It's going to be shared with the client's legal representative. And then ultimately, it may well be shared with immigration authorities who are adjudicating the client's case. So, you know, there are limits.
Karen Ortman [00:14:24] So it's private in that it's shared with those who need to see it, but it's not strictly confidential.
Talia Markowitz [00:14:31] Right. There are limitations.
Karen Ortman [00:14:33] Can you describe for our listeners, for those who might be seeking the services of the human rights clinic and perhaps they've already been determined eligible. What will they see when they go to your organization? What kind of building is it? How many people are employed there?
Talia Markowitz [00:15:00] So I don't, maybe I didn't mention this before. But we train and engage clinicians through our program as volunteers. So that means that many of our volunteer clinicians are doing the work outside of our office, maybe within their own private offices, or we engage a few institutions through partnerships. And so maybe the evaluation could occur in that institution. So these evaluations tend to occur kind of all over the New York metro area where our volunteers are based.
Karen Ortman [00:15:36] Oh, so it's not, you don't operate out of one facility.
Talia Markowitz [00:15:40] Right. You know, our program is here and in New York City and within HealthRights’ headquarters. And we're a small program. We're just two full time staff. And then we engage a network of roughly 150 to 200 clinicians who are operating kind of on their own time, on their own schedule.
Karen Ortman [00:16:01] Understood. Do you have facilities in other parts of this country?
Talia Markowitz [00:16:07] In the past we have, but currently we are active in the New York metro area, so that includes New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Karen Ortman [00:16:16] So if a listener in California could potentially meet the criteria for your organization, could services be provided to that person?
Talia Markowitz [00:16:31] Just because of geographic obstacles, maybe not through our program. But let's say somebody reached out to us and it turns out that they were living in California. You know, we would direct them to different providers that provide a similar service in California or closest to where they are.
Karen Ortman [00:16:49] Okay.
Karen Wang [00:16:51] Thank you for sharing that information. Is there anything else you would like to share with our listeners about the Human Rights Clinic?
Talia Markowitz [00:17:00] You know, I would say that for listeners, if you're foreign born, if you're undocumented or, you know, if you may be going out of status and you experienced harm in your home country or here in the U.S., seek legal advice from an immigration attorney. There are various forms of protection that the U.S. government avails to non-citizens on the basis of having survived torture or abuse or other kinds of harm. So it's super important to know your options. There are so many low or no cost legal service providers, especially here in the New York area. And there are also really great private attorneys who can also review your circumstances and explain what, if any, relief you may be eligible to pursue. And then, if you are eligible, ask the immigration attorney, is a forensic evaluation applicable to make changes. And then, you know, the last thing that I would say is that if you are a licensed clinician and you have interests engaging in this work as a volunteer, we definitely encourage you to reach out. We conduct periodic trainings every year. And if you reach out to us, we can add you to our mailing list. So you learn about different training opportunities in the area. And I can't speak for our volunteers, but so many times, you know, we hear from our volunteers, “This is the most impactful, important work that I've ever done. It's so meaningful to me on both a professional and a personal level.” And unlike providing ongoing care, which our clinicians are also doing, you know, sort of separately from this, this work is an opportunity to take on a delimited sort of beginning, middle and end project with the potential to make an enormous impact on a survivor's life. So definitely reach out to us and we'll be excited to work with you in the future, if you're interested.
Karen Ortman [00:19:22] Great information and really important work.
Talia Markowitz [00:19:25] Thank you.
Karen Wang [00:19:28] Thank you to our guest, Talia Markowitz, and to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of “You Matter”.
Karen Ortman [00:19:35] If any information presented today was triggering or disturbing, please feel free to contact the wellness exchange at 212-443-9999. You can also get in touch with NYU’s Department of Public Safety and their Victim Services Unit by calling 212-998-2222.
Karen Wang [00:19:58] For more podcasts like this, you can find us by searching for “You Matter” on Apple podcasts, Spotify or Google Play.