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Community Legal Aid: Fighting Poverty and Working for Justice for Over 50 Years

By John Carroll

When she sought help from Community Legal Aid (CLA), Brittany was a single, working mother from Central Massachusetts who put her children to bed each night on the floors of the homes of her family and friends. With no stable living arrangements and very little money, she had lost her sense of safety and security.

Prior to becoming homeless, Brittany (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) and her two young sons had been living in a mold-infested apartment with heat that didn’t go above 52 degrees. After she was hospitalized with pneumonia, she fell behind on the rent because she was unable to work. Her landlord took her to court and the family was forced to pack up and leave. Unable to find suitable housing, Brittany applied for emergency shelter but was denied.

CLA helped put Brittany and her children back on the road to stability and independence. Because she had fallen behind on her rent for legitimate medical reasons, her CLA attorney successfully argued that the state had wrongfully denied the emergency shelter for which she was eligible. Soon she and her children were safely placed in shelter and began the search for a permanent home without worrying where they’d wind up sleeping every night. Meanwhile, Brittany’s son was worried that he would have to change schools because their shelter was in a different school district. A CLA education attorney stepped in and worked with both towns to ensure Brittany’s son could continue to attend the school that he loved.

Helping low-income families and individuals escape homelessness is just one way CLA serves as a lifeline for thousands of clients each year. CLA provides legal assistance to eligible people in the most basic areas of need: homelessness prevention, employment, education, elder law, immigration, and family law, mostly for domestic violence survivors. CLA’s work is augmented by a panel of approximately 175 private attorneys who annually donate more than 2,700 hours of legal services to the organization.

With a service area that stretches from Worcester to Massachusetts’ western border, CLA serves all of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire and Worcester counties. It has full-service offices in Worcester, Northampton, Pittsfield and Springfield, along with satellite offices in Fitchburg, Greenfield, Holyoke, North Adams, Southbridge and Milford. No other legal services program in Massachusetts serves such a broad swath of the state.

In addition to covering the largest geographical area of Massachusetts’ regional legal aid programs, CLA’s roots are among the oldest in the state. Most civil legal aid programs trace their birth to President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in 1964, which led to the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity and other anti-poverty programs. Having been established in 1951 as the Legal Aid Society of Worcester by a group of attorneys from the Worcester County Bar Association, CLA’s origins precede even those programs.

As it has over the last six-plus decades, CLA will continue to grow and adapt to meet the needs of the most vulnerable residents of Central and Western Massachusetts, ensuring they have access to justice and the dignity that all people deserve, regardless of their ability to pay for legal help.

When her case was resolved, Brittany declared her attorney “a miracle worker.”

“You work so hard,” she said, “and you have gotten my family so far with your kindness alone.”

At CLA, it’s all in a day’s work.

***

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.

Civil Legal Aid Holds the Key to Preventing Evictions

By Sarah Blair

Matthew Desmond is a very smart man. An associate professor and former Junior Fellow at Harvard, Desmond holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and has published four books, the most recent of which, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City was released on March 1. In September, Desmond was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Genius Grant to pursue research on evictions around the world.

After spending over a year living amidst Milwaukee’s poor, Desmond is something of an expert on eviction. He is well aware of the disproportionate impact it has on women and communities of color. He knows that past eviction correlates strongly with material hardship and depression, and that housing instability can harm a child’s ability to succeed in school. He also understands that having access to an attorney is perhaps the most powerful tool available to keep families faced with evictions in their homes.

But the sad reality is that if these families had the money to hire an attorney, they would probably not be facing eviction in the first place. Perhaps the family fell behind on rent because of an unexpected illness or layoff. Perhaps it is facing discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, or physical ability, or retaliation after reporting unsafe living conditions. Regardless of the legitimacy of their claims, these unrepresented families often stand little chance when facing their landlords’ trained attorneys in court.

While indigent defendants in serious criminal cases have a constitutional right to an attorney, individuals facing life-altering civil legal problems—such as the threat of homelessness—do not. Civil legal aid programs in Massachusetts and throughout the country do their best to provide low-income litigants, including tenants facing eviction, with the critical advice and representation they need to achieve justice.  A 2012 eviction study conducted by the Boston Bar Association in Quincy, Massachusetts, found that two-thirds of tenants who received full representation were able to avoid eviction; meanwhile, only one-third of tenants who were offered limited assistance were able to remain in their homes.

Unfortunately, over half of eligible clients who seek civil legal aid for housing cases in Massachusetts are turned away due to lack of funding. This “justice gap” is unacceptable—particularly considering that investing in civil legal aid actually saves the state money in the long run. In Massachusetts, it is estimated that legal aid eviction assistance saved the Commonwealth over seven million dollars in averted shelter costs in FY15 alone.

Housing instability is one of the most pervasive problems facing the urban poor, and civil legal aid is a proactive, cost-effective solution to the social and economic problems that it causes. As Desmond eloquently puts it, “There are moral costs we incur as a society when our citizens are denied equal protection under the law and wrongfully thrown from their homes by court order.” With all the evidence in place, it shouldn’t take a genius to support increased funding for civil legal aid.

Sarah Blair is Executive Assistant at the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and Legislative Campaign Assistant at the Equal Justice Coalition.

Employing Civil Legal Aid in Closing the Wage Gap

By Lonnie Powers

Here’s an economic statistic that holds true in almost every part of the world: women are significantly more likely to be poor than men. In the United States, 16 percent of women live below the federal poverty line, compared with 12 percent of men.

Why is this? When we think about gender inequality in the workplace, it’s often in the context of the “wage gap,” the well-documented phenomenon of women making less than their male colleagues for the same amount of work. Though more American women are finishing college these days than men, a woman with a bachelor’s degree can still expect to take home a lower salary than a man with the same degree. Averaging incomes across the nation, women make about 78.3 cents for every dollar earned by men. President Obama, who signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law at the very beginning of his first term, has often called for measures to close the wage gap; however, income averages have moved very little over the past seven years, even at the White House.

But comprehensive data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that closing the wage gap will not, of itself, solve the problem of female poverty. The likelihood of a woman being poor is closely tied to racial and socioeconomic factors that also affect men of the same background. The special economic pressures and social expectations that women live under, however, make them uniquely vulnerable to sliding deeper into poverty over time. Out of all the household types in the U.S., single mothers with children are the most impoverished by a large margin, bringing in lower incomes than single fathers with children, or childless single individuals of either gender. Women with limited support networks, who are attempting to allocate limited time and limited funds among the demands of employment, childcare, and household and medical needs, are often one misfortune from economic disaster.

So it’s not at all surprising that civil legal aid organizations, which assist low-income individuals and families who are facing non-criminal legal issues like eviction, unfair employment practices, and barriers to critical social safety nets, report that a whopping 70 percent of their clients are women.

Typical among these women is Carmelita, a healthcare worker and single mother from Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood. After Carmelita’s 7-year-old daughter was diagnosed with mental and psychological disorders, Carmelita asked that her full-time hours be reduced so that she could spend more time caring for her daughter–a job that too often fell to Carmelita’s 17-year-old son, at the expense of his educational needs. With no part-time work available at the health center where she was employed, Carmelita was forced to choose between her job and her daughter’s health and well-being. She resigned her position to seek a part-time job.

Carmelita believed she’d be eligible for unemployment benefits while she sought part-time work because she had left for a good reason. However, under a Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance regulation, anyone looking for part-time work after a recent history of full-time employment was automatically denied benefits. Carmelita was told she could appeal, but her chances of prevailing seemed slim―until she contacted Greater Boston Legal Services. A legal aid attorney represented Carmelita at the appeal, and successfully argued that the unemployment regulation had exceptions for people with disabilities and it should be the same for the caretaker of a child with disabilities. The case set a precedent for other working parents to receive the same protection. Civil legal aid spared Carmelita and her family from financial ruin. More important, her daughter’s condition improved significantly.

Poverty has more than one cause. Naturally, fighting poverty requires more than one simple solution. In addition to closing the gender wage gap, the enactment of employment reforms that would give the most vulnerable women–low-income mothers who are the primary caregivers of their children–true stability is critical to fighting poverty among women. Onsite childcare options, or pay increases sufficient to cover the cost of childcare, would allow women to securely hold down a job instead of relying on ad hoc childcare arrangements, or being forced into poorly compensated part-time work. Paid maternity leave, a mandatory employment policy in every other developed country, would also give women the ability to care for newborn infants without risking their financial livelihoods. In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh recently instituted a paid parental leave policy for all City of Boston employees, while Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Healey has done the same for her employees. Other employers should follow their lead and look for creative ways to address pervasive economic injustices.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.

Civil Legal Assistance is a Potent Anti-poverty Tool

By Lonnie Powers

Sargent Shriver, President Johnson’s personal choice to lead the War on Poverty, was once asked which of the anti-poverty programs he thought was the most important. “My favorite is Head Start because it was my idea,” he answered. “But I am proudest of Legal Services because I recognized that it had the greatest potential for changing the system under which people’s lives were being exploited.”

Legal services, also known as civil legal aid, has indeed been a potent anti-poverty tool in two ways. First, through individual case work that enables poor people to gain access to the rights and benefits from state and federal service agencies, health care providers and schools to which they are entitled. Second, through large, class-action lawsuits and advocacy efforts that change laws and governmental policies that adversely — and overwhelmingly — affect poor people.

With the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty in 2014, we have been treated to numerous assessments of the effectiveness of Johnson’s (and Shriver’s) program these past 12 months. It is indisputable both that tremendous progress has been made, but also that much work remains.

To continue progress, civil legal aid must be deployed more broadly in future efforts to combat poverty, and public resources for legal assistance must be increased greatly.

A look at how civil legal aid assists those struggling with homelessness and/or unstable housing, as well as those who are victims of intimate partner violence is instructive.

Numerous programs around the country demonstrate that civil legal services can help poor people keep their housing, or negotiate exits from housing that allow them to have more control over the process, and ensure a smooth transition to safe, affordable housing. A pilot program launched in 2009 by the Boston Bar Association showed conclusively that poor people in housing court in Quincy, Mass. to fight eviction notices fared much better when they were represented by attorneys. Two-thirds of those with full representation kept their housing; only one-third of those who went through housing court without an attorney were able to do the same. Similar results have been found in New York City, San Francisco and San Mateo County in California.

Meanwhile, a landmark 2003 study published in Contemporary Economic Policy showed that legal services is one of the most effective ways to help women living in poverty escape intimate partner violence. Amy Farmer and Jill Tiefenthaler, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon Census Research Data Center, were intrigued by a U.S. Department of Justice report noting that rates of domestic violence had significantly declined during the 1990s. They analyzed data from the National Crime Victimization Survey and the U.S. Census to tease out the reasons for the decline. Their conclusion? Access to civil legal services ensured delivery of protective orders; assistance with child custody and support; and divorce and property distribution that victims needed to begin rebuilding their lives. Civil legal assistance was also critical for resolution of domestic violence-related legal disputes around immigration, housing and public benefits.

While services provided by emergency shelters, counselors, and hotlines are vital in the short-term, Farmer and Tiefenthaler wrote, services provided by civil legal aid “appear to actually present women with real, long-term alternatives to their relationships.” (It is also interesting to note that between 1994 and 2000, the period during which incidents of domestic violence declined, the availability of civil legal services for victims of domestic violence increased 245 percent (from 336 such programs to 1,441).

Despite these clear successes, many people do not understand what civil legal aid is, and surveys regularly find that most Americans erroneously believe that poor people have a right to free counsel in civil cases. Meanwhile, state and federal funding for legal assistance is well below what it needs to be.

This fall, the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts released Investing in Justice, a report showing that over 60 percent of those eligible for civil legal aid in Massachusetts who seek services are turned away due to lack of resources. The Task Force proposed that the Commonwealth’s investment in civil legal aid be increased by $30 million over the next three years to begin to address the unmet need. Currently, the state invests $15 million annually in civil legal aid.

The irony, of course, is that the civil legal aid yields a measurable — and significant — return on investment. Looking at work solely related to housing, public benefits and domestic violence, three independent economic consulting firms which did analyses for the Task Force found that every dollar spent on civil legal aid in eviction and foreclosure cases saved the state $2.69 on state services associated with housing needs such as “emergency shelter, health care, foster care, and law enforcement.” Every dollar spent assisting qualified people to receive federal benefits brings in $5 to the state. Every dollar spent on civil legal aid related to domestic violence is offset by a dollar in medical costs averted due to fewer incidents of assault.

This summer, Philadelphia resident Tianna Gaines-Turner became the first person actually living in poverty to testify before Congressman Paul Ryan’s Congressional hearings on the War on Poverty. In a strong and moving testament to the need for increased state and federal funding to end poverty, Gaines-Turner said, “People living in poverty―those who were born into it, and those who are down on their luck — want to get out of poverty. We want to create our own safety nets, so we never have to depend on government assistance again.”

Civil legal aid is a powerful tool that helps people living in poverty build a foundation of stability from which they can create a better future for themselves, their families and our communities.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.

Communication Matters: Getting Your Message Out

By Lonnie Powers

When it comes to creating social change, strategic communications brings great value. The Communications Network, a nonprofit that supports foundations and nonprofits in finding ways to communicate more effectively, puts it this way: “Communication matters. Organizations that do it well are stronger, smarter and vastly more effective.”

The civil legal aid community here in Massachusetts is taking that message to heart, using three approaches to communications in order to broaden its impact. These approaches apply to foundations and nonprofits alike.

The first is to communicate proactively with the media to educate the public. We have partnered with Voices for Civil Justice, a new national, non-partisan, Washington D.C.-based communications hub funded by the Public Welfare Foundation and the Kresge Foundation to raise public awareness of the vital role of civil legal aid in helping people protect their livelihoods, their health and their families. We strive to show how important civil legal aid is on a wide range of critical issues that affect lower and middle class Americans, such as increasing educational opportunities, ensuring access to safe, affordable housing, and preventing domestic violence to name just a few.

Those of us who work in civil legal aid already know its value in helping people with basic necessities such as housing, employment, classroom accommodations for our children with disabilities and family conflicts related to child support and custody, divorce and domestic violence. Yet opinion research shows that the public is largely unaware of what civil legal aid is, and many of the daily victories that come about thanks to civil legal aid are not reported as such. Instead, media stories about poor people who have successfully fought illegal home foreclosures, obtained court protection from a domestic abuser, or appealed for federal benefits that were improperly denied, are told as stand-alone battles without revealing the critical role of legal advocates and unconnected to the broader civil legal aid movement.

With Voices for Civil Justice, we are teaching civil legal aid organizations how to change this by engaging proactively in media outreach in order to tell their stories to a wider audience. We encourage organizations to employ tactics as simple as asking reporters to define their organization as a “civil legal aid organization.” We also encourage them to submit letters to the editor and opinion pieces about the impact of civil legal aid on a wide range of issues in the news every day.

Another communications tool that can be employed to influence policymakers and elected officials who direct public spending on social justice issues, is the issuance of a nonpartisan, data-filled report. This past October, the Boston Bar Association Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts released a groundbreaking report that quantified the unmet need for civil legal aid, and estimated the savings to taxpayers if those needs were met. The report found that 64 percent of eligible clients in Massachusetts are turned away by civil legal aid organizations due to lack of resources. The three independent economic consulting firms that did analyses for the Task Force also found that every dollar spent on civil legal aid in eviction and foreclosure cases saved the state $2.69 on state services associated with housing needs, and every dollar spent on assisting qualified people to receive federal benefits brought in $5 to the state.

While these reports generate media coverage, they can also influence elected officials to direct more resources to important social issues. Look no further than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to see the importance of communicating effectively with the public sector to achieve policy goals. The Gates Foundation is endowed with approximately $30 billion, which sounds like a lot of money until you compare it with the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is approximately $30 billion annually. That’s why when the Gates Foundation launched its Grand Challenges for Globe Health (GCGH) initiative, it engaged in a strategic campaign to influence decision-makers at NIH to direct more resources to global health challenges. The campaign, which included the issuance of policy and research papers directed at NIH decision-makers, was successful. A 2008 article in the scholarly journal EMBO Reports reported that “NIH supplemented the GCGH with increased funding of approximately US$1 billion for global health issues at a time when the overall NIH budget experienced little growth.”

The final communication strategy that every funder should embrace, and which we employ in the civil legal aid community, is to make it clear to grantees that it’s okay to spend resources on communications. By sharing stories of success, grantees are doing much more than assuring funders that the work is getting done. They are educating the public about existing need, and inspiring others to create change as well.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.

Investing in Legal Aid Is Good Business

By Lonnie Powers

In law as in medicine, an emergency room is neither the most cost effective nor beneficial way to deliver justice or provide health care. Seeing your doctor regularly makes it easier and less expensive for individuals and for the health care system overall to stay healthy. Having a lawyer to advise and assist you when you confront a legal problem brings similar benefits to the system of justice.

Unfortunately, because lawyers are not available for those who cannot afford them in civil matters, the courts have become “the emergency rooms of society” as New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman put it in an article for The Judge’s Journal earlier this year. Courtrooms are where we turn when we need help resolving conflicts over basic necessities such as housing, employment, classroom accommodations for our children with disabilities, and family conflicts related to child support and custody, divorce, and domestic violence.

Just as operating rooms need trained doctors, the courts only work when all parties have access to legal advice and assistance. If, as often happens, only one side has a lawyer, the playing field is anything but level for the person without help and advice. While people facing serious criminal charges have a right to a lawyer, that is not the case in even very serious civil matters. In civil matters, if you cannot afford an attorney, you can apply for legal aid services, which are approved on the basis of financial need. But there are not nearly enough resources to meet the need. A staggering 64 percent of eligible clients in Massachusetts are turned away by civil legal aid organizations due to lack of resources according to a recent report by the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts.

What this means for our courts, in practical terms, is that court staff have to spend more time assisting litigants who are trying to represent themselves; civil court proceedings are markedly slowed down; evidence is not properly presented; and litigants make repeat court appearances. Most alarming, however, is that 60 percent of the Massachusetts judges surveyed for the report stated unequivocally that lack of legal representation was hindering the courts’ ability to ensure equal justice for litigants attempting to represent themselves.

This isn’t just a matter of concern for the usual suspects, such as civil legal aid attorneys, case workers, social justice advocates, and those in need of legal services who cannot afford them. It’s a matter of grave concern for the state’s business leaders. Susan Alexander, Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary for Biogen Idec, Inc., which employs more than 3,000 Massachusetts residents, notes in her statement to the task force report that Biogen, like all businesses in the Commonwealth, can only thrive in a healthy state. “Legal aid has the power to maintain safe and vibrant communities during difficult economic times by keeping families from homelessness and poverty,” Alexander writes.

Lon Povich, Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary of BJ’s Wholesale Club, notes simply that the inefficiencies generated in the courts by pro se, or self-represented, litigants damages the entire system. “Saying that these individual, civil cases ‘clog’ court dockets makes it sound like they are unimportant, which they are not, but they take more time of our overworked judges and staff than do similar matters involving represented parties,” Povich says. “As a result, the current deluge of pro se litigants limits the effectiveness of the courts for all individuals and businesses in our state.”

Left unsaid by these business leaders is another salient point: the return on investment in civil legal aid services. Three independent economic consulting firms which did analyses for the Task Force found that every dollar spent on civil legal aid in eviction and foreclosure cases saved the state $2.69 on state services associated with housing needs such as “emergency shelter, health care, foster care, and law enforcement.” Every dollar spent on assisting qualified people to receive federal benefits brings in $5 to the state. Lastly, every dollar spent on civil legal aid related to domestic violence is offset by a dollar in medical costs averted due to fewer incidents of assault.

The solution proposed by the Task Force is to increase the Commonwealth’s investment in civil legal aid by $30 million over the next three years. Currently, the state invests $15 million annually in civil legal aid.

Such a move would likely save the state between $34 million and $51 million in economic benefits. While that alone should be enough to convince policymakers to make the investment, there is one more compelling reason to do so. The benefits of a fairer and more effective justice system for all of us, especially for those in need, are simply incalculable.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.

Our Kids in Mass. Are Alright, But We Can Do Better

By Lonnie Powers

Here in Massachusetts, we have more than 200,000 children living in poverty, and more than one-third of them live in families extremely vulnerable to homelessness. Despite this, our state leads the nation in rankings for overall child well-being, according to the 2014 KIDS COUNT Data Book, an annual report from The Annie E. Casey Foundation that tracks the economic, educational, health and family/community well-being of America’s children.

One of the primary reasons Massachusetts does so well, relatively speaking, can be attributed to the state’s robust network of nonprofits that advocate on behalf of low income children and families. While legal services may not immediately come to mind as a significant factor when it comes to fighting poverty, hunger and homelessness, the state’s civil legal aid organizations are a vital part of this safety net.

To give one example: legal aid organizations routinely secure vital educational services for children. Take the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts (CLCM), which provided full litigation representation involving education issues to 208 students and their families in FY13. In most of these cases, CLCM won appropriate school services, including placements and reinstatements. CLCM also provided advice and brief services to another 796 students. Among their clients are youth excluded from school or segregated in inadequate alternative school settings, children who are homeless, and children who are in foster care.

The state’s federal reimbursement for the cost of intensive behavioral services provided by Massachusetts to low-income children with autism increased thanks to advocacy by Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC). Beginning in FY08, MAC’s advocacy for the Children’s Autism Medicaid Waiver resulted in the Commonwealth receiving 50 percent federal reimbursement. The waiver was originally capped at $2.5 million but expanded to $3 million in FY11 with MAC’s advocacy. In FY13 MAC again advocated for expansion, resulting in the cap being raised to $4 million. This will result in the state receiving an additional $500,000 in federal reimbursement each year. The program, which served 182 students in December 2013, now has the capacity to serve 220 children. Not only are these children receiving the intensive services they need and deserve, resulting in a higher quality of life, but over the long term, many can be expected to avoid costly institutionalization, saving as much as $195,000 per year per child.

Additionally, the Center for Law and Education combines statewide advocacy with technical support and collaborative policy work to identify the systemic patterns underlying student exclusion from effective education and to advocate for changes in school policies and practices to improve student outcomes. Their work benefits all low-income students, including those with disabilities.

This is the kind of work it takes to keep children, especially those facing exceptional obstacles, in school. As Noah Berger, president of MassBudget, the Massachusetts KIDS Count group, noted in announcing the report earlier this summer, “Dismantling the barriers to success that are holding back too many of our children will not be easy. It requires improving our schools and the array of supports our kids need to be ready to thrive in school.”

Our children need more stability if they’re to succeed as adults. All of our safety net organizations need support to continue their vital work. And civil legal aid must continue to be a part of that safety net to ensure that all of the Commonwealth’s children reach their full potential as students and productive members of our communities.

While we may hold the top spot in the country for child well-being, it’s clearly not good enough. Our kids may be doing better than most, but we want them to be excellent.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.

Make a Difference by Reaching Out

By Lonnie Powers

Fifty years ago this summer, thousands of college students from around the country — and from all backgrounds — volunteered to travel to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, a campaign that sought to register African Americans to vote. Three of those student volunteers were murdered (the 1988 film Mississippi Burning is loosely based on their story) for their advocacy on behalf of disenfranchised African Americans. Those three — and the thousands who survived Freedom Summer — changed the world because they chose to “reach down and touch the pain,” as folk singer Iris Dement puts it in her 2004 classic “He Reached Down.”

Every year, South Coastal Counties Legal Services in Massachusetts helps to place approximately 25 AmeriCorps Legal Fellows in civil legal aid programs across the state. Some are recent college graduates, but a considerable number, especially in recent years, are law school graduates and licensed attorneys. The latest class of AmericCorps Legal Fellows just completed their service.

Like the Freedom Summer volunteers, each of these AmericCorps fellows chose to “touch the pain” in the lives of those who need legal assistance. That choice and that experience has changed their lives — and will continue to do so — in myriad ways. The fellows now know something of what it is like to be poor in the richest country in the world. They know something about what it’s like to have a son or daughter who is denied a decent education because others made assumptions about the child’s abilities based on the color of the child’s skin or the first language of the parents. They know that some families seek shelter in their cars on freezing nights in February because it is their best option to stay safe. Though many Fellows were deeply moved and saddened by these injustices, there is no question that their lives have been changed because they have “touched the pain.”

Increasingly, fewer and fewer people “touch the pain” of those who are different from themselves, and our society is the worse for it. The opposition to sheltering unaccompanied children fleeing to the US from violence-plagued Central American countries is one recent example. A recent Boston Globe poll about a proposed plan to house migrant children in Massachusetts found that while 50 percent of voters support housing the children on a short term basis, 43 percent believed that the children should be deported following judicial hearings. Just 39 percent said that the children should be allowed to stay when the legal process concluded.

The decision to make the effort to reach out to those with different backgrounds and life experiences, while difficult at times, brings great benefits. Writing in the Washington Post earlier in July, Gregory Rodriguez, the founder and publisher of Zócalo Public Square, observed that “diversity makes us smarter:”

Diversity, however, requires second thoughts. When the consensus is challenged in a homogenous place by the presence of new people, things get interesting. The familiar signs and symbols that undergird our implicit understanding of the world can change in meaning. The presence of conflicting worldviews causes confusion, uncertainty, and alienation for holdovers and newcomers alike. These feelings can either cause people to draw back into themselves–or force them to articulate and justify themselves to those who don’t share their view of the world. Or both.

I have no doubt the AmeriCorps Legal Fellows will continue to engage with those who share a different worldview and, most important, will continue to “reach out and touch the pain.” In doing so, they are slowly chipping away at inequality and expanding justice for all.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.

Closing the ‘Justice Gap’

By Lonnie Powers

Demand for civil legal aid continues to outstrip supply. Among attorneys and others in the field, this is known as the “justice gap.”

It’s clear that we will never close this gap unless our federal and state funders dramatically increase their support. In the meantime, we must also find ways to expand access to information that can help those in need. While there is no one way to do this, self-help legal centers and smarter use of technology are surely part of the solution.

In 1996, the Legal Services Corporation, an independent entity created by Congress in 1974 to support civil legal aid organizations around the country, issued a report touting the benefits of technology to increase the capacity of civil legal aid organizations. With its enthusiastic descriptions of self-help kiosks (“The Minnesota Twins sell tickets via kiosks which allow the potential buyer to ‘see’ what seats are available on a given date, and what the view is like from those seats, reportedly prompting many ticket upgrades”), the 18-year old report is quite dated. But its basic message still holds true today: by using technology and self-help centers, the civil legal aid profession can “reshape delivery of legal services” and “assist millions of additional clients at very low cost.”

Today, self-help centers and technology have radically reshaped the delivery of civil legal aid. There are now online sources of legal assistance in each of the 50 states that provide information on civil legal cases related to basic human needs. In Alaska, that state’s court system has set up an online Family Law Self-Help Center with videos and articles providing information about child support and custody, divorce, and domestic violence. The Texas Legal Services Center runs TexasLawHelp.org, which provides free online information related to housing and employment discrimination, domestic violence, and other critically important civil legal matters.

In some instances, such as Massachusetts’ MassLegalServices.org, these online self-help centers assist civil legal aid advocates and attorneys in “more easily, accurately, and efficiently [creating] legal documents for their clients,” as Vincent Morris, director of the pioneering Arkansas Legal Services Partnership, wrote last year for the Mississippi Law Journal. (For a comprehensive overview of this aspect of the legal landscape, Morris’s “Navigating Justice: Self-Help Resources, Access To Justice, and Whose Job Is It Anyway?” is a must read, and it argues convincingly for the inclusion and expansion of “innovative self-help resources” to “ensure that unrepresented civil litigants have meaningful access to justice.”)

A number of states including Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, and others have combined the self-help aspect of online research with live help in the form of instant messaging from legal experts, who are known as “navigators.” (This model has been employed by the health care industry in the form of “patient navigators“―people who are not health care providers, but who are nonetheless familiar with the health care system and assist new patients in navigating among specialists and primary care providers.)

Yet another method of expanding access to civil legal aid information is through self-help centers located in court houses and staffed by attorneys. A district judge had nothing but praise for the Civil Law-Self-Help Center set up on the bottom floor of Las Vegas Justice Court: When litigants are better prepared, “the judge can make intelligent decisions,” District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez told the Las Vegas Sun. “The traffic through the center is much better than I anticipated, and I’m impressed with how the staff has handled it.”

In Massachusetts, “Lawyer of the Day” programs in housing courts around the state provide advice and assistance — but not representation — to income eligible tenants and landlords. Courts in Massachusetts are also in the process of opening two pilot self-help centers, one in the western part of the state in Greenfield, and a second in Boston.

Nothing can replace the value brought by a skilled attorney or advocate to civil legal issues affecting basic human needs such as housing, shelter, and family safety. But expanding access to information through the use of technology and self-help centers to meet rising demand must be a part of the solution to closing the gap.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.