NAOMI RODRIGUEZ, a poor, blind mother of three sight-impaired children, was sitting in a New York City courtroom battling to regain custody of her youngest son, 4-year-old Edwin.
When Edwin was born, Naomi, fearful of taking him home because of her often-violent husband, had agreed to a social worker's suggestion that the infant be placed in "temporary" foster care. A few months later Naomi and her husband separated and she felt able to care for Edwin again - but the Child Care Bureau was bent on "improving" the child's condition by keeping him in a foster home, and Naomi was fighting.
Judging by the court transcript, though, trial Judge Nanette Dembitz wasn't impressed by the ways in which Naomi had compensated for her blindness. She made much of Naomi's inability to find the witness chair unaided. "Mrs. Rodriguez, please walk over to this chair," she told her. "Please get up and walk over here to this chair by the window."
Her lawyer protested. "She doesn't know where that is . . . She can't see, your honor." Judge Dembitz replied, "I am pointing to it. You said she was mobile, counselor."
Judge Dembitz ruled against Mrs. Rodriguez. But her attorney from the Bronx Legal Services persisted, and on appeal Mrs. Rodriguez won a ruling that the child bureau and the foster parents had failed to produce the "weighty and compelling reasons" necessary to offset a natural mother's "paramount right" to care for her own child. The case offered strong evidence for the proposition that government agencies are too willing to break up families and too little interested in keeping them together. Mrs. Rodriguez ended up as a party in a lawsuit that produced a June 13 U.S. Supreme Court decision that foster parents don't acquire vested rights in a child's custody merely because they've cared for the child for a year or two.
A decade ago it's doubtful that Naomi Rodriguez or most other poor people could have had the legal help that resulted in her victory, let alone a relationship of trust with a "law firm" she could call her own. As recently as 1965, a few hundred scattered and understaffed legal aid societies were receiving less than $5 million in locally raised funds to help the poor deal with their civil, non-criminal problems.
But the poor have shared in the country's law explosion - some say they ignited much of it - and the nations budget for poverty law has multiplied 40 times. Congress, which entered the field at the start of the late "war on poverty," has agreed to spend $205 million this year on the Legal Services program.
FOR MUCH OF its history, the poverty law program was embroiled in national battles with such enemies as Gov. Ronald Reagan of California and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, and Congress created a semi-private Legal Services Corp. in 1974 in the hope of taking legal services "out of politics."
Today federally aided poverty lawyers in about 900 offices across the country are filing somewhat fewer of the flashy "impact" cases that drove Reagan and other governors to distraction, but the program has not lost its cutting edge. A challenge by Georgia's legal warriors against reductions in state Medicaid benefits, for example, prompted Gov. George Busbee and the Georgia legislature to cut off state support for legal services attorneys, forcing the national corporation to provide all of their future funding. In Maine, poverty lawyers started - and Indian rights groups have sustained - the now-famous suit over title to vast areas of the State. In another legal services case, the Supreme Court, splitting 5 to 4, struck down criminal penalties levied against a grandmother who broke an East Cleveland, Ohio, ordinance which prevented her from having two sets of grandchildren living in her household.
But much of what is important about the poverty law program - both its problems and its successes - happens at less visible levels, at local offices and in individual lives.
There is no shortage of problems at local offices.In Philadelphia, for example, there is racial friction, turmoil over priorities, and suspicion and politicking over program jobs. Dissident blacks took over a neighborhood office there last winter and accused the predominantly white legal staff of imposing its own cultural values on a colonized black community. Some blacks complained that the attorneys were lobbying for a state law against wife abuse, contending that family quarrels, even when physical force is used, are private matters.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., members of a conservative Jewish community have been complaining that blacks and Hispanic Americans are getting all the attention of legal services attorneys, shortchanging the Jews. And there are other problems common to many local offices. Too many are considered divorce mills that offer little or no counseling on how to cope with ruptured family life, while at other offices some people who do need a divorce can't get one. Staff morale is low in many communities, and many lawyers are leaving in the program too soon.
But along with the problems have come many successes, often involving much more than the avoidance or postponement of evictions and foreclosures. In some cases, such as Naomi Rodriguez, families are being held together. In others weak individuals are gaining self-respect and the will to cope with adversity. Often the poor have achieved a new political voice in the community. And in occasional spectacular ways - such as a group of Las Vegas welfare mothers who have organized enterprises already worth $160,000 and still expanding - people are being helped to get a share of American capitalism.
MARGARET SWEEZER, unemployed and in her early 30s, had been married twice and divorced twice, with a son by each marriage. Her first husband battled her for their child's custody, while her second husband would have nothing to do with their offspring. For many years she fought welfare, food stamp, vocational rehabilitation and housing officials as well as finance companies without realizing that she could have had legal help. "All this time I'm not knowing that there's a legal aid that could have done all this talking," she says.
To poverty lawyers in Savannah, Ga., she was a walking catalogue of problems besetting those poor persons who consider their plight to be temporary - if only they can "get back on their feet." It look no lawyer or psychologist to diagnose a key part of Margaret's trouble: Men took advantage of her in financial and other ways. One such exploitation drove her to the Legal Services office.
"I was dating this guy, you know, and he had a lot of free time. He's an iron worker, a construction-type worker. Like when I would pay my bills, I didn't have a checking account, so I would just give him the money to buy money orders because that's how he would pay his bills. So I would say, 'Hey, buy me a money order.'
"Well, I knew he drank. Everybody has bad points. I knew he had some bad points. But I thought he was very honest, so I gave him the money for my house payments, and this went on and on and I did't think anything of it. All of a sudden I get this letter from the finance company that said they were in the process of repossessing my home . . ."
Desperately behind in payments on her home, which was purchasd under a federal mortgage-subsidy program, and rejected for welfare, Mrs. Sweezer heard about Legal Services and went there. Her attorney became Phyllis Holmen, a 28-year-old graduate of the University of Illinois Law School.
"It was like a whole new world," Mrs. Sweezer recalls. "She was just so nice and so concerned. It was like you're kidding me, that somebody would really care, really give a damn, when I'm not paying them, you know. I had had people treat me worse when I was forking out money to them . . . Miss Holmen has helped me during this house thing a lot. She also let me know [the finance company official] really couldn't have done anything. Some people were defaulting as much as six months on their homes. He couldn't have taken my house away from me, tell me that I might just as well start packing . . . She let me know that if he bothered me again to call her . . . And knowing that she was there, that nobody's gonna walk on me no more, nobody's gonna push me down in the ground no more, that now there's somebody that'll listen to me."
Typically, this client's "checkup" revealed other legal problems. Mrs. Sweezer received advice that enabled her, for the first time, to stand up to her first husband. "I told his father, 'I plan on exercising my rights.'" Would she have done so without Legal Services' backing? "I wouldn't even have known that I could do that. I wouldn't have had the strength. Ordinarily just about anybody can make me buckle under. Now legal aid has got me to the point - strengthened - they've definitely strengthened me as a person."
FORTY FAMILIES in a low-rent housing project in Jackson, Miss., went to Legal Services with a curious complaint.
"Let's say you've got a child," tenant Walter Harper remarks. "If that child walks out on the edge of the grass, the manager jumps up and says they're going to charge you $5 for it. And that's got to be paid with your rent. If you don't, they're going to put you out. You can't stand on the sidewalk. If you do, that's going to cost you $5.
"Some people was afraid and paid them. Frankly, I was one of those that wouldn't. And these things we went to Legal Services with. And they took it. They definitely did, to the full."
Barry Powell, managing attorney of Jackson's poverty law program, wasn't much liked by the housing project's manager, but the harassment stopped. According to Harper, a presser in a local laundry, the manager began complaining that "'every time something happens the people break out to Barry Powell with it.' He got a little scratchy because he knows that Powell knows about the project, understands the project quite well, he's not going to put up with it."
IN SPRINGFIELD, MASS., Ann Bailey, a 32-year-old divorced woman with six school-age children, learned from Legal Services lawyers that she and other parents had a right to a voice on how schools spend billions of dollars in federal aid for economically and educationally disadvantaged pupils. The Springfield parents met with resistance, both outspoken and subtle, when they told local officials that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act called for parental involvement in planning, development, operation and evaluation of such programs.
"I've never had a school administrator who says he doesn't believe in parental involvement," Mrs. Bailey remarks, "but I've also never had a parent who said they listen to us, we're able to affect things. Parental involvement is very threatening to school officials."
Guided through administrative mire by the poverty attorneys, the parents took the authorities before an arbitration panel and won the right to a "a communication procedure" - automatic invitations to key meetings, advance notice of impending decisions.
"Just recently they called the parents' advisory committee for suggestions on how to spend some new federal money," Mrs. Bailey says. "That would have been unheard of a few years ago. What you're doing is taking poor parents who have never had a say over their lives or their children's lives and you've given them hope. We hope to have education become a high priority, so that kids will not be in the same situation their parents are."
THERE'S A MOVEMENT afoot, thought not yet heartily embraced by the national Legal Services Corp., to get more poverty lawyers involved in economic and community development - away from the assembly-line eviction and bad-debt cases and toward cooperative housing or farmer cooperatives. According to Jack Anderson, an attorney who helped the band of welfare mothers in Las Vegas become propertied businesswomen with enterprises already worth $160,000, economic development is where poverty law can make its biggest difference.
"Say an attorney is handling welfare caes," Anderson states. "He goes to bat for his clients and wins every case. All you're doing is making an inadequate system more palatable. Once you've gained all the rights, your entitlement is $140 a month in welfare payments. The private attorney is working on how to increase an asset. They're doing tax planning, they're doing investment strategy, they're doing mergers. They're packaging deals.
"Some Legal Services attorneys say, 'Yeah, that's because the client's got a million dollars.' To me it's no challenge to work with a million dollars. I want to represent a person who doesn't have a dime and help them to have a million dollars."
Anderson's client, a group that began as a local welfare rights organization demanding a fair share of government benefits, has renamed itself the Clark County Welfare and Economic Rights Organization. Its venture into capitalism began when the welfare mothers pressed for local participation in a federal health program.
The program, sorely needed in urban ghettos and potentially lucrative for contractors who provide the services, calls for screening of welfare children to spot special medical or nutrition problems. The mothers got the program going and proceeded to show that they could provide better services than the local medical society. With coaching and technical support from poverty lawyers, they then persuaded a city bank to give them a lease on abandoned buildings. These became a community headquarters and a sorely needed library, and both became community magnets. The lease was "money in the bank" in capitalistic terms, and helped them finance massive renovations. The black renovation contractor, in turn, promised to train members of the group in renovating techniques and to give them jobs.
The lawyers also talked Nevada officials into participating in the federal WIC (Women, Infants and Children) supplemental food program, after the lawyers helped in a successful lawsuits to undo President Nixon's impoundment ofthe program's funds. They helped the mothers draft the state program plan, and now the mothers administer it, doling out $35 a month for milk and other diet staples to undernourished families - with a distribution system that happens to draw the families to the organization head-quarters for their health checkups. The mothers are now at work on a filling station and some 30 other budding commercial projects.
"Everything they've undertaken, everyone knew they couldn't do," Anderson states. What is the secret? "For one thing, they have power. The reason most businesses go broke in the first years is they don't have staying power. What do they need operating capital for? Labor costs, mostly. But a welfare mother can earn some money and keep her grant. If the business doesn't make enought money to take home a penny, they still get their welfare. And welfare mothers sat in that building for four winters without any heat before they really got going. Would you see businessmen sitting there, holding on?"
SOME OBSERVERS see Anderson's approach as a partial answer to the need for nourishing and encouraging poverty lawyers as well as poverty clients. If more poverty lawyers were to develop new enterprise for the poor, the thinking goes, they might enjoy a greater sense of professional challenge and fulfillment.
Too much routine work, though, is not the only reason for the low staff morale and high turnover in many Legal Service offices. There is also the "burnout" common to social workers who either become too involved with their clients' causes ot too buried in heavy caseloads. And there is the relatively low pay: Legal Services attorneys start salaries below $11,000 a year, about half what some of them could begin with in big city law firms, and nation-wide the Legal Services pay averages just above $13,000.
Finally, national corporation officials acknowledge, there is too much poor management and inefficient use of still-inadequate resources. The corporation has an able executive staff led by Thomas Ehrlich, former dean of Stanford Law School, but a lackluster board is awaiting its first nominees from President Carter, who is widely expected to give it its first woman and its first non-lawyer.
The outlook at Legal Service is for new stirrings, new policy disputes and more turmoil rather than less. But turmoil had been the lot of Legal Service ever since its leaders decided that the poor needed to make some trouble as well as to be troubled.