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Community Legal Services and Counseling Center: A Hub for Justice and Healing

By John Carroll

In the words of Executive Director Mojdeh Rohani, the aim of Community Legal Services and Counseling Center (CLSACC) is simply “to respect and uphold human dignity.” It does this by providing free civil legal aid and affordable psychological counseling to low-income people so that they may meet their most basic needs for employment, housing, health and safety.

CLSACC’s unique interdisciplinary service model addresses clients’ legal issues and mental health needs because they often go hand in hand. A woman escaping intimate partner violence, for instance, may need legal assistance to obtain a protective order against her abuser. She may also need counseling to help her recover from the trauma she has suffered, so that she can find or maintain employment and a safe place to live, and generally stabilize her life. CLSACC’s legal program staff, when needed, utilize in-house and volunteer mental health professionals for case management, supportive counseling, forensic evaluations, and/or for consultation to work effectively with their clients and to achieve the best legal outcome for them.

Since its founding nearly 50 years ago, CLSACC has helped tens of thousands of low-income individuals and families facing non-criminal legal matters. Last year, the organization served 1,500 individuals and families.

CLSACC has grown significantly in recent years, doubling its staff from nine to 21 in 2017. The biggest growth has been to programs assisting refugees and immigrants, which prompted the addition of immigration attorneys and clinicians with expertise in treating clients who have experienced torture and/or trauma.

The Immigration Program, begun in 1985, was expanded in 2008 and again in 2014. In 2015 CLSACC established the Center for Global Human Rights and Resilience to more accurately reflect the nature of the agency’s work with refugees and immigrants. In addition to helping the hundreds of local residents who walk through the door, CLSACC assists asylum seekers statewide (with most living in greater Boston). Nearly 50 percent of asylum seekers are torture survivors from more than 40 countries in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America, including those escaping Syria’s civil war, the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and state-sanctioned extreme homophobia in Uganda.

Recently, one of the Counseling Program’s doctoral students, Twyla Wolfe, established a pilot micro-lending project aimed at helping these newcomers reestablish their lives in the U.S. Now directed by Clinical Volunteer Jordan Shaughnessy, the project provides material financial support and case management services to refugee and immigrant clients for up to 12 months. Clients receive a loan of $50 per month, empowering them to make private and independent purchasing decisions regarding their basic needs and to access community resources. They are expected to repay the loan once they have legal status and can work legally in the U.S. As one client says, “You’re helping me now and I promise to help you and this program one day.”

Who, exactly, does the helping at CLSACC? Aside from paid staff, pro-bono lawyers, counseling professionals and other volunteers (students, paralegals, translators) generously donated more than 14,000 hours of services last year, valued at well over a half-million dollars.

CLSACC’s annual budget includes funding from the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, which provides approximately 12 percent ($125,000) of its annual operating expenses, with the remaining 88 percent coming from grants, contracts, foundations and individual donors.

Established in 1968 by Dr. Joseph Brenner, a psychiatrist at M.I.T., to provide free medical care to people unable to access existing medical services, the organization was originally known as Cambridgeport Medical Clinic. In June 1970, recognizing the additional unmet needs of their patients, Dr. Brenner and his colleagues launched the Cambridgeport Problem Center (CPC), which saw teams comprised of volunteer legal and mental health professionals and laypeople assist patients in finding ways to solve problems and make better life choices. Medical services were suspended in 1973 and CPC eventually grew into Community Legal Services and Counseling Center, following the clinic’s model of using volunteer professionals to provide services to the community’s most vulnerable residents.

CLSACC’s leadership reflects the interdisciplinary nature of its work. Rohani earned a master’s in social work from Boston University and has worked with survivors of trauma, torture, gender-based violence and human trafficking for 17 years. Deputy Director John Froio previously worked as CLSACC’s Assistant Legal Director and Housing and Disability Attorney.

CLSACC’s has been headquartered in Central Square since the late 1970s, in tightly packed space donated by the City of Cambridge with additional space rented from the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee. Recently, the Board of Directors approved the lease of a larger professional office space, located within blocks of the Lechmere T stop and the Middlesex Probate and Family Court, beginning July 1. The new location will allow the organization to better accommodate the organization’s expanding staff and volunteer corps. Most importantly, it will provide a more comfortable setting for CLSACC’s clients and their families.

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John Carroll is a a partner at Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, and the immediate past chair of the Equal Justice Coalition. He is a 2016-2017 fellow with the Access to Justice Fellows Program, a project of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission and the Lawyers Clearinghouse that enables senior lawyers and retired judges to partner with nonprofit organizations, courts, and other public interest entities to increase equal justice for all.