Legal Aid Lawyers Move Near Clients

Lawyer Jameela Donaldson provides services to poor residents at Legal Aid's third satellite operation, in Southeast.
Lawyer Jameela Donaldson provides services to poor residents at Legal Aid's third satellite operation, in Southeast. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006

The D.C. Legal Aid Society has set up shop in Anacostia one day a week as part of a widening effort to bring legal services closer to the city's poorest communities.

Legal Aid, which helps people with housing cases, child-support claims and other civil matters, is based downtown, near Metro Center. But the organization has found that for the indigent people who are its clients, the cost -- in time and money -- of traveling to downtown Washington can be a barrier to getting legal assistance.

So the society has been putting some of its lawyers in the neighborhoods where their potential clients live, joining forces with community organizations that can provide not only a place to work but a pipeline to the people who need help.

With offices up and running at the Town Hall Education Arts & Recreation Campus (THEARC) and at Greater Southeast Community Hospital, Legal Aid opened its third satellite operation this month at Advocates for Justice and Education, 2041 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, in Anacostia.

Advocates for Justice and Education is an organization that helps parents of special education students navigate the complicated D.C. public schools bureaucracy. But like many organizations that aid poor people with a particular type of problem, Advocates for Justice and Education often found its clients had other issues that its lawyers were hard-pressed to solve.

From lost Medicaid benefits to a parent's drug addiction to a looming eviction, families were bringing it all, Advocates' Executive Director Kim Y. Jones said, and her small staff couldn't handle everything.

"We began to do too much outside work," Jones said. "We found ourselves going to workmen's comp hearings."

With two staff lawyers and eight other employees, the organization was struggling to fulfill its core mission of keeping special education students in school and ensuring that they have the services they're entitled to when they're in school.

Legal Aid, by contrast, has a broader mandate and a bigger staff. And as part of a citywide drive to improve access to civil legal services, Legal Aid has been looking for partnerships in poor communities in the District.

First came the offices at Greater Southeast, where lawyers work with victims of domestic violence, and at THEARC, 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE, where lawyers work with the Children's Health Project.

Then Jones talked to Jonathan Smith, Legal Aid's executive director, about teaming up with Advocates. Jones, a former law clerk at Legal Aid, and Smith saw the possibilities of a partnership.

As gentrification marches east across the city, Smith said, affordable housing is becoming harder to find, creating deeper concentrations of poverty and deeper needs for social and legal services. By working with an organization that helps children with their education, Legal Aid can identify other legal needs facing families.

"The collaboration is not just an economic issue," Smith said. "It's really looking for partnerships where there's a synergy between the work we do and the partners do."

The lack of civil legal services for the poor is a national issue, and in the District, it was highlighted in a 2003 report by the D.C. Bar Foundation, which found that most people who need such services never receive them. The following year, in a bid to extend the reach of civil legal services, the D.C. Court of Appeals established the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, which began work last year.

"I think it's a step in the right direction," said the commission's chairman, Peter Edelman, a law professor at Georgetown University. "We're hoping through the commission's work we can do a lot more."

And money to help Legal Aid and other organizations is in the works. Earlier this year, the D.C. Council voted to spend more than $3 million on improving legal services for the poor

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