Tag Archive for: Community Legal Aid

CLA op-ed: The difference an advocate makes in schools (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

Community Legal Aid Education Staff Attorney Jaz Williams (pictured above) penned a guest column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette about her experience working in schools first as a former special education teacher, and now in the role of an advocate. An excerpt is below.

“As much as I love my job, I remain aware that it should not take a legal advocate coming into the school to ensure that it provides adequate educational services to students. Unfortunately, the education arena remains one of the most glaring examples of wealth inequity and disparities families face in this country. By making education law a priority for our organization, Community Legal Aid leads the effort in our region to help families and students vindicate their educational rights.

Community Legal Aid’s core mission is ensuring equal justice for all, including, at the school level, for children as young as three, and there is always more work to be done. Every time I leave a successful meeting, or close a case with a good outcome for a child, I think of the hundreds of other families who are not getting the help and support that Community Legal Aid offers. Where children live and what school they attend can shape their entire future. This is especially true if a family is not receiving the proper tools and supports a child needs to be successful in school. To that end, if you or someone you know is facing educational barriers, contact our education team at Community Legal Aid.”

Read more in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Massachusetts triple-deckers can be full of fire hazards. Here’s why.

Blair Komar Bates, a housing attorney at Community Legal Aid, was quoted in an Aug. 15 WGBH article about the hazards of old three-decker buildings in Massachusetts.

When Lorraine Adams sees a triple-decker in Worcester, she remembers the fires.

Adams was 15 when old electric wiring in a three-decker she and her family rented ignited a blaze that completely burned the building. Nobody was injured, but the family lost all of their belongings and had to immediately find somewhere new to live.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Massachusetts has a housing shortage of about 163,000 affordable rental homes. Komar Bates, a housing attorney with Community Legal Aid, said that means many lower-income people have little choice but to live in unsafe three-deckers. If a fire burns through the building, they’re vulnerable to homelessness if they can’t immediately find somewhere else to live.

“Landlords have disproportionate power right now to make tenants live in dangerous conditions,” Komar Bates said. “They can’t afford to move and they’re stuck in substandard housing.”

Read more at WGBH.

CLA pilot program aims to prevent child welfare removals

Commonwealth Magazine in a December 27 article reported on a new Community Legal Aid pilot program to prevent child welfare removals, which is the first of its kind in Massachusetts.

The goal is to provide families in Hampden County with legal support at the start of their involvement with the Department of Children and Families, so the agency never gets to the point of removing a child. If the year-long pilot is successful, attorneys hope money will become available to expand it statewide. 

“The vast majority of the cases with DCF are neglect cases, and many of those are just manifestations of poverty,” CLA child welfare attorney Madeline Weaver Blanchette said. “The wonderful thing about this pilot is we can basically harness the existing units that are already within Community Legal Aid…and work with clients to fix those substantive areas, and then hopefully have the result of being able to close their case with DCF.” 

Dorothy Storrow, a child welfare attorney and board member of Community Legal Aid, said the idea for the program came out of a series of meetings that attorneys, social workers, former judges, and professors had in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year considering how to address the longstanding problem of racial disparities in child welfare.  

Read more in Commonwealth Magazine.

Eviction filings down from pre-pandemic years in region, but need for services still great

Eviction services are the largest area of practice for Community Legal Aid in Worcester’s casework and the organization’s eviction team said the additional funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will help them carry out eviction protection services when funding from a state program ends at the start of the new year.

Housing and Urban Development announced last week that Community Legal Aid in Worcester would be one of five state legal aids to receive $2.4 million for eviction protection services. The funding will be given out over two years starting in 2022.

Faye B. Rachlin, deputy director of Community Legal Aid said the pandemic has made housing situations more difficult for the organizations’ clients.

“While evictions are always a terrible reality for many in our client communities, the pandemic has made people’s ability to sustain their tenancies even harder, and it is more important than ever that tenants get the help they need to prevent the devastating impact of housing insecurity and homelessness,” Rachlin said. “During the pandemic a lot of our eviction defense work has involved helping tenants access rental assistance programs so that landlords can get paid and tenants can remain housed – a win-win for everyone.”

Read more at CLA.

Beyond ‘Thank you for your service’

Daniel Bahls, a staff attorney at Community Legal Aid, wrote a recent op-ed in The Greenfield Recorder about the challenges veterans face, including legal needs.

“As we celebrate our veterans on Veterans Day, we must also acknowledge what we, as their country and their community, can do better to honor their sacrifices.

While our region’s veteran population is diverse, it includes many particularly vulnerable veterans who receive care at the Edward P. Boland VA Medical Center in Leeds or who have been attracted to the area for the deep support and benefits available to veterans. Unfortunately, sometimes benefits are only “available” on paper. While the VA provides compensation and financial for service-connected mental health injuries, it does not provide the legal support that is often necessary to access this critical support.”

Read more in The Greenfield Recorder.

Pro bono legal service integral to Worcester lawyers’ work

…Recent recognition of Worcester-area lawyers spotlights an often-overlooked contribution these professionals make: taking time away from their billable hours for clients who may pay them handsomely, to donate pro bono, or uncompensated, legal services to persons of limited means or to nonprofit charitable organizations…Bowditch & Dewey LLP was nationally recognized by the ABA at a summit outside Washington, D.C. last month, with its ABA Outstanding Medical-Legal Partnership Pro Bono Advocacy Award.  The award celebrates Bowditch’s years of pro bono commitment to “meeting the health-harming needs of low-income families in Central Massachusetts, including through the Community Legal Aid Medical-Legal Partnership with UMass Memorial Medical Center”…Kate Gannon, a staff attorney for the CLA medical-legal partnership, said Bowditch & Dewey was particularly dedicated to “providing holistic upstream advocacy,” in other words addressing issues before they became big legal problems for clients, and to recruiting other attorneys and participating in training on the different challenges CLA clients face. Read more in the Telegram & Gazette.

Nina Harrison awarded MLAC’s Racial Justice Fellowship

Fellow will help formerly incarcerated individuals in Central, Western Mass., reenter society

The Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation has awarded its prestigious Racial Justice Fellowship to Nina Harrison. The two-year fellowship will support Harrison’s work assisting people in Central and Western Massachusetts who have been released from incarceration and are working to become reintegrated into society.

Harrison will be based at Community Legal Aid in Worcester starting in August. A 2013 graduate of Boston College Law School, she has worked as a staff attorney at the Responsible Parent Project of Rhode Island Legal Services and a legislative assistant to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. She was also an administrative law clerk for the Hon. O. Rogeriee Thompson on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. She will focus her work at Community Legal Aid on helping ex-offenders seal their criminal records and overcome barriers to housing, employment, and family stability.

“Nina’s work exemplifies the spirit of the Racial Justice Fellowship, which seeks to reduce obstacles to justice for the most marginalized people,” said Lynne M. Parker, executive director of MLAC. “Helping formerly incarcerated people reenter society and attain steady work and safe housing is an essential first step in their ability to live lawfully and with dignity. I admire Nina’s commitment to working with this underserved population, and I’m gratified that MLAC can fund this important work through the Racial Justice Fellowship.”

Jonathan Mannina, Executive Director of Community Legal Aid, said, “This Fellowship will enable us to help formerly incarcerated residents of Central and Western Massachusetts lead safe, stable, and productive lives. Re-entering society after being away for years is daunting. Recently released ex-offenders face a number of civil legal problems, many of which are linked directly to their criminal records. Our ability to effectively address these problems goes to the very core of the American belief in offering second chances. We are thrilled that Nina is joining us to do this critically important work.”

MLAC created the Racial Justice Fellowship in 2006 to expand the reach of legal aid to communities that have difficulty gaining equal access to the justice system due to linguistic or cultural barriers. The goal of the fellowship is to use systemic advocacy and other strategies to address pervasive problems of racial injustice, given the disproportionately high rate of poverty among communities of color and the unmet legal needs of these communities. The Racial Justice Fellowship is a two-year position and is available to MLAC-funded and Legal Services Corporation-funded legal aid programs in Massachusetts.

MLAC is the largest funding source for civil legal aid in Massachusetts. It was established by the state legislature in 1983 to ensure that people with critical, non-criminal legal problems would have access to legal information, advice, and representation.

One on One: Dianne Sandman, senior paralegal at Community Legal Aid

Dianne Sandman is a fan of fairness.
As a child, she said “that’s not fair” often and always spoke up for herself and others. Her tendency to demand fairness and justice has always been there, and now she uses it to help others. Ms. Sandman is a senior paralegal at Community Legal Aid in Worcester where she works in the elder unit. She recently spoke the Telegram & Gazette about her decades of work in elder law and legal aid.
Read more in the Telegram & Gazette

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.