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Legal aid working on pandemic, racial equality issues

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Offices around the state are running several programs

Scales of justice-city scapeOnline intake, putting brochures in baskets from food banks, and direct mail to low-income Floridians are ways legal aid offices are reaching out to residents facing the triple threat of a pandemic, an economic meltdown, and widespread social unrest.

Those offices also report they are bracing for an expected tidal wave of eviction cases and seeing a rise in domestic violence as more low-income residents are apparently seeking help for a variety of legal problems.

Directors from legal aid programs around the state recently recounted how they are responding to the various unprecedented demands, including helping staff be more sensitive to racial issues. Many had similar programs, but most also had unique efforts that they shared.

The occasion was the June 17 meeting of the Florida Civil Legal Aid Association, made up of executive directors of legal aid offices across the state. The FCLAA met as part of the Bar’s Virtual Annual Convention.

Monica Vigues-Pitan, executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami and president of FCLAA, said demands for legal aid are spiking.

While offices have reduced or limited their in-person intake because of the COVID-19 pandemic, online response has dramatically increased. She noted six offices participate in a state-wide intake program, which typically account for a small percentage of their overall caseload. In February, before the COVID-19 pandemic caused widespread shutdowns, the program had 3,487 people begin the intake process and around 1,200 completed it (many were seeking help for cases outside legal aid purview, including criminal matters). In May, with unemployment spiking amid the shutdown, 7,563 people began an intake process and 2,207 actually completed an application that was evaluated.

Through that system, only four people sought assistance for unemployment compensation cases in April 2019; 110 did in April 2020, Vigues-Pitan said. Likewise, in April 2019, the LSGM’s website had 954 clicks, a year later that was 6,000, mostly to a new COVID-19 resources page.

Like many other directors, she said her agency is bracing for a wave of eviction cases when restrictions on handling those types of cases in the courts expires in July. She said her office is developing online webinars for pro bono attorneys handling those cases and also working to get pro bono help with unemployment cases.

“I don’t think there’s any way we can meet the needs without the assistance of pro bono,” Vigues-Pitan said.

She said Social Security disability cases are continuing unabated via telephone hearings.

As far as racial justice issues, LSGM is looking at “what sort of programming we could have for conversations internally that we might not have had, giving them [attorneys] the tools to have difficult conversations,” Vigues-Pitan said.

Richard Woltmann, executive director of Bay Area Legal Services, said his agency has turned to weekly Facebook Live presentations to replace the legal clinics it would otherwise be holding. The sessions average around 900 viewers, he said, including 10 to 15 community organizations that in turn pass on information. The seminars have covered racial equity, COVID-19, evictions, durable powers of attorney, and other subjects.

“It has really changed the way we’ll do community education in the future,” Woltmann said.

On racial matters, the office has begun a voluntary program for its board of directors and staffers to discuss those issues, with the recommendation that participants read the book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, currently the best-selling book on Amazon.

“They’re going to be uncomfortable and difficult conversations, but we have all our board officers and many of our staff involved,” Woltmann said.

Bob Bertisch, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, said his agency is preparing for a spike in possible child abuse reports, which have actually been on the decline.

“We’re concerned because our biggest reporters of that are teachers,” he said. “We’re concerned that as soon a school starts up, we’re going to be involved in that.”

His agency is also gearing up for an expected increase in evictions and is participating in a county program — funded by the federal government — to expedite mediation between landlords and tenants who have been unable to pay rent.

Bertisch said there has also been a spike in domestic violence cases and local judges prefer to handle those in court rather than remotely, he said.

Here’s what some other legal aid agencies reported:

• Jodi Siegel, executive director of Southern Legal Counsel, said her agency is preparing for issues assuming that public schools reopen in the fall.

“We’re using this time to prepare for all of the regression that’s occurred and the widening inequality and the failure to have any mental-health services while kids are in the home,” she said.

Her agency’s ability to serve homeless clients has been hurt: “There is no way to go into the community and they won’t come to us, so we have to go out and find their issues,” Siegel said.

• Michelle Ortiz, deputy director of Americans for Immigrant Justice, said her agency has had trouble reaching clients across seven counties because of the pandemic shutdown, and it is working to help immigrants who are affected by the pandemic and resulting recession but don’t qualify for the federal relief programs.

Americans for Immigrant Justice is also involved with other parties in lawsuits to improve conditions in three South Florida immigrant detention centers.

Ortiz also said there was an assumption that agency employees were informed about racial justice issues.

“We were wrong,” she said. “We’re engaging in several facilitation discussions that are going to be mandatory for staff on racial injustice and how it affects our work.”

• Silvia McLain, executive director of the Seminole County Bar Association Legal Aid Society, said they helped get a local administrative order from the 18th Circuit chief judge to help on eviction cases based on an order from Palm Beach County (which Bertisch said was based on an order he got from LSGM).

Her agency is also encouraging staff to read White Fragility or watch the 90-minute video the author, Robin DiAngelo, posted on YouTube.

• Leslie Powell-Boudreax, executive director of North Florida Legal Services, said her agency has programs similar to those given by others. An education program has been mounted to counter a common misperception that because rent payments have been delayed in many cases that they are not owed. It also covers other aspects of housing.

“We hope this is going to be really fruitful and that there are not widespread evictions for nonpayment of rent in those communities not only because of COVID but because they’ve got no place to go,” she said.

Another effort is trying to help homeless people who qualify for assistance under the federal CARES Act but have no address or bank accounts necessary to receive those funds.

• “Legal aid is seeing a huge increase in family law, domestic violence, and guardian ad litem cases,” said Karen Ladis, executive director of Dade Legal Aid — Put Something Back. The agency is working with the Dade County Bar Association on a helpline and setting up online resources.

• Carrie Litherland, executive director of the Tallahassee Legal Aid Foundation, said her agency also has made several efforts that mirror other legal aid offices. Because of the smaller community it serves, her agency was able to do a direct mailing to around 4,000 people advising their rights — which has helped maintain the same level of clients as before the pandemic.

The foundation is also working with a Bar Real Property, Probate, and Trust Law Section project to help find and train pro bono lawyers for eviction cases.

• Among its many programs, Christopher Jones, executive director of Florida Legal Services, is working to help people who lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs because of the pandemic find alternatives, including Medicaid.

His agency has also been placing brochures on grocery and big box stores to reach people and working to address an increase in domestic violence cases, which he attributed to more reported now that stay-at-home orders are easing.

Florida Legal Services is also addressing COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails though success has been mixed.

“Once it explodes in a prison or jail, it will affect the staff, and the staff will carry it into the community,” Jones said. “We could see a real problem with that for all of our client communities.”

Another problem, he said, has been immigrants who work in non-health, infrastructure jobs being pressured to work, even if they have tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Realistically, they’re not a population that’s positioned…in any way to be able to speak out against their employers,” Jones said. “They’re really ripe for exploitation.”

• Bethanie Barber, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association, said among other programs her office has a partnership with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which provides information to potential clients in eviction and foreclosure cases. The agency is also doing direct mail and putting information in “goody bags” being distributed to low-income communities.

The society is also doing a weekly program on racial and social issues with the University of Central Florida, she said.

• Alana Greer, executive director of the Community Justice Project in Miami, said they have been giving advice to protesters, including on First Amendment rights and what to do if arrested for curfew violations.

“We’re working with some of the groups that are leading the conversation on what’s happened in the streets,” she said. “There’s a really big interest in [government] budgets and where the dollars are going.”

The project also has programs, including using volunteer lawyers, on housing and unemployment assistance.

• Chris Larson, executive director of Three Rivers Legal Services, said her office has set up a program that enables clients and lawyers to talk individually online.

“People found that comforting, that they could see their lawyers,” she said.

Three Rivers has also found creative ways to do outreach, including placing brochures in food boxes distributed by Catholic Charities and is reaching out to veterans who are in danger of becoming homeless, Larson said.

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