Staff Spotlight: Dre Cetra, Senior Staff Attorney

What was your introduction to the world of guardianship and how did it lead you to PG?  

I had not worked specifically in guardianship before joining Project Guardianship, although I realized once I started engaging with the work that I had already begun the practice of trying to assist people in managing their affairs and navigating complex systems, just not in the context of guardianship.  

For instance, my very first case as a law student in a clinical setting involved an individual who was constantly appearing before the criminal court. He was a young person who had experienced a great deal of trauma in his short lifetime, was living with mental health challenges and using substances to self-medicate. Although my work was limited to the criminal matter, I had an opportunity to speak with him about some of his aspirations beyond survival. He expressed an interest in becoming a writer and pursuing a degree in physical therapy. Unfortunately, in the time that I knew him, this individual was not able to stabilize even to the point of being able to find a place to live in the community, contributing to several more incarcerations. He was never referred to guardianship but was deemed incompetent to stand trial in the criminal matter for quite some time until he was eventually “restored” to competency. I think about this individual often and wonder whether guardianship could have made a positive difference in his life or at least brought him, even slightly closer, to reaching his goals or maybe finding a stable source of housing and treatment.

After graduating law school, I practiced in several different areas of law, including anti-discrimination litigation, sexual harassment, and whistleblowing at a Plaintiff’s firm. I went on to represent trauma and domestic violence survivors with Legal Aid in a rural area of Western New York State. I had the opportunity to learn a lot about the clients I represented in these practice areas, and the barriers they faced to navigating the systems that dictated much of their lives. The difficulties ranged from litigating an emotionally wrought and complex divorce or custody case to being unable to make it to Court because of bus cancelations or lack of access to transportation. I always had an interest in the intersection of mental health and the legal system as well and felt that guardianship was a space in which I would be able to provide services beyond just a single legal matter, but in almost all areas of a person’s life. 

Since joining PG, what is a memorable challenge that you faced? How did you overcome it?  

One of the more memorable challenges I recall being able to overcome with the support of my team was work we did on behalf of an individual whose case I’ve been involved with since I started at Project Guardianship. This person was in need of housing and was not receiving income because he hadn’t yet been able to apply for benefits. He was also at risk of eviction from his apartment in the community due to nonpayment of rent. This individual was very reluctant to consider a supportive community setting and at times, refused to speak with the guardian about his care due to his initial distrust of guardianship and the complex mental health diagnoses he had been trying his best to handle.  

With the support of Project Guardianship, we were able to find this relatively young person a place to live in a supportive, group community setting where he had an opportunity to socialize with other individuals of his same age group and with overlapping interests. He was finally able to access regular mental health treatment and to stabilize from one day to the next. We also secured him benefits so that he was able to move to this new setting. Finally, we worked closely with Legal Aid to bring the pending eviction matter to a resolution without any monetary penalty. As a result, this individual was able to move from being someone who was relatively isolated and suffering daily, to experiencing a much higher quality of life that aligned much more closely with his needs and has allowed him to start building a greater support system around him to help tackle life’s challenges.  

Can you share a particularly inspiring story?

As with the individual described above, this individual is also relatively young and had very limited to no contact with Project Guardianship at the inception of our appointment. She too was very distrustful of the purpose of guardianship services and uncertain about whether we would be a positive addition to her life. She had been hospitalized several times for mental health treatment as well as unmanaged physical health conditions and was unable to maintain a residence in the community for any long period of time. 

Today, this same person is enrolled in regular community-based mental health treatment through Assistive Outpatient Treatment and engages in routine outpatient check-ins with a mental health team that visits her in the comfort of her own home. She has enrolled in college courses to pursue her passion of studying political science and is able to interact much more effectively with Project Guardianship where we play a role in helping her to maintain her lifestyle in the community and pursue her educational aspirations. Although we still have our ups and downs, like in any working relationship, this case I think exemplifies what guardianship can offer to a young person who may be struggling. I believe it also demonstrates how the supports of guardianship can actually foster greater autonomy in an individual and allow them to set goals that are truly attainable rather than being reduced to or defined by a diagnosis.

As someone deeply involved in legal services, what changes would you like to see in guardianship?

There are so many individuals with a wide variety of important thoughts on this question, including many who have been working in the guardianship space much longer than I have, so I am incorporating some reflections from conversations with these individuals, colleagues, and friends, etc.  

First, greater funding for guardianship services in New York State, including but not limited to financial help for individuals who have a guardian to pay for legal service costs, attorneys’ fees, and other costs that arise in the course of providing legal and non-legal services and managing a life. Often, individuals are already living on a fixed income and really struggle to pay these additional expenses. I imagine this also makes it harder for attorneys to be drawn toward the work of guardianship or to devote their time to this area of public service although the need is immense and growing. 

Second, I would advocate for greater and more accessible guardianship resources throughout New York State, not only in New York City, but in rural counties or guardianship “deserts”, where folks have very limited access to support or even information about guardianship.  

Finally, there is a need for more organizations such as Project Guardianship who can take on complex cases where individuals may have multifaceted needs. It is crucial for organizations to be able to address these interwoven issues in an interdisciplinary setting (for instance, by having a finance, case management, benefits team, etc.). There is always room for improvement within any model, but coordination between the various areas of a person’s life helps with more effectively managing their affairs across the board and maintaining a person’s overall wellbeing.

What advice would you give to someone looking to get into a similar line of work?

I’m sure there are many other people more qualified than I to give this sort of advice, but I would suggest keeping an open mind, continuing to learn with humility, and always leading with compassion. I think compassion coupled with a keen attention to detail usually makes for a solid course of advocacy in any context, but especially in guardianship where we are called upon to make some of the most difficult decisions a person may ever have to make in their lifetime. You won’t be able to please all parties involved, but as long as you have pursued and questioned the issues with vigor; as long as you have interrogated every detail of what it means to be human--even if that means questioning your own beliefs, biases, or understandings--you should be on a positive path in the right direction.