Oregon State Bar Bulletin — DECEMBER 2009

 

To call 2009 a difficult year for area nonprofits would be an understatement that only underscores the sadness of Oregon’s situation. Nearly every organization that provides supplies, services and support for the state’s low- and moderate-income populations suffered drastic cutbacks in funding, staff and other much-needed resources.

These cuts occurred even as a growing number of Oregonians needed help: The state has lost 107,000 jobs since December 2007. There has been a 37 percent increase in applications for food stamps and temporary assistance benefits between October 2007 and June 2009, and a 100 percent increase in the number of two-parent families applying for those benefits.

Nonprofit groups that offer legal aid services for the underserved have endured a similar fate, watching demand skyrocket as federal and state funding dwindled and staff positions were cut.

Perhaps the biggest blow has been the dramatic decrease in funding from the Oregon Law Foundation, which supports all of the state’s nonprofit legal aid services and earns its income from the interest on lawyer trust accounts (IOLTA). A 60 percent drop in interest rates over the last two years means the foundation has had much less to give.

Judith Baker, executive director of the Oregon Law Foundation, says the foundation has worked with “leadership banks” to secure the interest they pay at 1 percent. Even with that commitment, however, the foundation’s earnings plummeted along with interest rates.

“Even though the banks have stepped up, the Oregon Law Foundation has lost a significant amount of its revenue this year because of the economic climate,” she says, noting the foundation lost 70 percent of its revenue this year.

One bright note in the foundation’s financial picture: New legislation directs abandoned IOLTA funds from the Division of State Lands to the Oregon State Bar for distribution among legal aid programs. Baker says she has no estimate on how much funding that may provide.

Campaign for Equal Justice
The Campaign for Equal Justice (CEJ) is one of the many groups that saw its funding from the Oregon Law Foundation drop along with interest rates. Established in 1991 by lawyers who wanted to ensure equal access to justice for all Oregonians, CEJ supports 91 legal aid attorneys in 19 offices statewide.

About 40 percent of CEJ’s work is in family law, usually helping victims of domestic violence. About 80 percent of legal aid’s clients are women, most with children. There are now nearly 700,000 low-income Oregonians eligible for legal aid services, but the system can serve less than 20 percent of them, says Sandy Hansberger, CEJ’s executive director.

Along with funding from the Oregon Law Foundation, CEJ receives money from several sources, including the federal and state governments, the Legal Services Corporation and a variety of grantors.

“Our funding picture is complicated, so we’re looking at decreases in some places and slight increases in others,” Hansberger says. “Our federal funding may go up slightly. And, for the first time, we did receive some general fund money from the 2009 Legislature. I believe the Legislature provided that funding because they saw this huge groundswell of need.”

In addition to the 19 legal aid offices, CEJ provides funding for the Center for Nonprofit Legal Services in Medford, Lane County Legal Aid and Advocacy and the Oregon Law Center. Hansberger says legal aid providers are seeing tragic responses to the stress the recession is causing.

“Legal aid offices are reporting increases in domestic violence, both in frequency and severity, as well as increases in unemployment and housing-related issues,” she says. “There also are a lot of new issues related to foreclosures.”

Legal aid offices are attempting to deal with the recession crisis by shoring up in areas such as foreclosure assistance. CEJ will use the money from the Legislature to pay for two new staff positions, one in Washington County and another in Deschutes County.

And, while the recession definitely has presented its own set of challenges, the year didn’t bring just doom and gloom. For many groups, private donations ensured the coffers didn’t go totally empty, and volunteerism is on the rise, particularly among unemployed lawyers who want to help others while searching for work to support themselves.

CEJ saw its fundraising increase this year as it strived to meet a goal of $1 million. Its 13th annual fundraising lunch in Marion County drew a record 300 lawyers, who contributed $43,000. Its first annual luncheon in Eugene also was a success, attracting 130 lawyers who donated $35,000. Hansberger was encouraged to see such numbers at the start of the organization’s annual fall fund drive. She also is continually impressed by the 200 lawyers who volunteer to help organize the fundraisers.

“I know it’s going to be a difficult year, but we’re still shooting high because the need is so great. We’re meeting less than 20 percent of the need out there, and that’s just not enough,” she says. “I think lawyers are motivated to try to do better. I think folks appreciate that this is an important issue, providing access to justice for low-income clients.”

One such person in need moved to the U.S. for an arranged marriage, only to find that her husband was physically and emotionally abusive and often kept her locked in their apartment.

“She was amazing. She saved her quarters from doing the laundry and got on a bus to the only office she’d ever been to in Oregon, the immigration office, and they directed her to legal aid,” Hansberger says. “Legal aid helped her get a restraining order, get a divorce and get custody of her children.”

That woman is now a certified nursing assistant and is working while she earns her license to become a registered nurse. Though she once had little confidence and spoke only limited English, she shared her story with a Legal Aid Services of Oregon advisory committee in September, Hansberger says.

“She just thanked the group for being supportive. She said she is free now and is able to have a life, and she would not have been able to do that without legal aid.”

Immigration Counseling Services
Immigration Counseling Services, a not-for-profit immigration law firm, lost about $40,000 in grant funding this year. That, combined with fee increases implemented by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for citizenship petitions, have been a double whammy, says executive director Barb Babcock.

“The hike in fees was just huge for our clients, so it’s even more of a struggle this year,” she says, adding ICS created a credit plan to help the hardest hit clients spread their payments over several months so they could continue with their citizenship application process. “That’s kind of a struggle for me from a financial standpoint, but we’re doing it to help our clients.”

As its funding diminishes, ICS is seeing a growing need among immigrants.

“We are seeing more and more people coming in who are involved in removal proceedings. They are coming in here for help, and we can’t take the cases because we simply don’t have the funding. That is depressing,” Babcock says.

There is plenty of uncertainty this year about how much area attorneys will be able to donate to support ICS given the economic climate. “It isn’t that people don’t want to step up, it’s just that they are not in a position to do so,” she says.

Yet Babcock expressed optimism about the support ICS receives from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which hosts an annual gala that benefits ICS and Catholic Charities.

Disability Rights Oregon
Federal funding for Disability Rights Oregon (DRO) has flattened out over the last five years. Meanwhile, the state’s population continues to grow – as does demand for DRO’s services. DRO preserves the legal rights of the physically and mentally disabled, often investigating complaints made by people living in care facilities, institutions and, increasingly, jails.

“When you consider the number of people with mental illness in our corrections system now, not only in juvenile facilities but state and county prisons as well, they are the largest mental health residences at this point,” says Bob Joondeph, DRO’s executive director.

DRO formerly had three staff members to do outreach work but now has only one. “We simply don’t have the resources to respond to the complaints,” he says.

Funding cutbacks jeopardize services that help mentally ill and disabled people stay in their homes and participate in vocational rehabilitation, programs proven to have positive results. Cutbacks also impact programs that serve the homeless, special education students and people who rely on general services funding for support between Social Security payments.

“The safety net has frayed, which has put our clients in a difficult position,” Joondeph says. “The good news is we received some tax money we didn’t expect and we didn’t suffer the deep cuts we feared during the last legislative session.”

Joondeph says DRO also is seeing greater volunteerism from the legal community.

Oregon Lawyer Assistance Foundation
Many Oregon lawyers take the brave step each year of turning to the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP) for help with drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues and other personal challenges.

OAAP is a free and confidential counseling program that provides support, crisis counseling and resource referral to lawyers. Its services do not include treatment, however, so lawyers in financial need were sometimes unable to obtain mental health or addiction treatment.

Recognizing this gap in lawyers’ ability to access assistance, Michael Sweeney, an Oregon attorney and recovering alcoholic who served as an OAAP counselor for 18 years, came up with the idea of creating a much-needed fund to help pay for mental health and addiction treatment.

When the family and friends of Deborah Dealy-Browning, an Oregon lawyer who died in 2004 after a long battle with alcoholism, offered to donate money that would help other lawyers seek treatment, Sweeney saw the opportunity to bring the idea of funding treatment to fruition. He created the Oregon Lawyer Assistance Foundation (OLAF).

In return for an OLAF grant or loan, attorneys are asked to contribute back to the foundation when they are healthy again. Though OLAF is separate from the OAAP, one of the requirements of getting an OLAF loan or grant is that the lawyer must access the OAAP.

OLAF offers different kinds of grants and loans. One grant is named for Dealy-Browning to honor her life and her efforts to combat alcoholism. Another bears Sweeney’s name in recognition of his work as an OAAP attorney counselor and his tireless efforts to help lawyers across the country in their recovery efforts. Sweeney passed away in 2008 from complications associated with Pick’s disease.

“One of the most compelling things about Michael was that if he learned about someone who was struggling with drug abuse or alcoholism – it didn’t matter if it was a lawyer in a prestigious firm, a lawyer living out of a car, or a friend or relative of someone he just met – he would go out of his way 24/7 to help that person into recovery,” says Barbara Fishleder, OAAP’s executive director and a member of OLAF’s board of directors.

Fishleder says fundraising for OLAF is challenging because of the program’s confidential nature. Unlike other nonprofits, OLAF can’t provide testimonials or use client photos on a brochure because of privacy issues. At the same time, the need for OLAF’s support is growing, especially with cutbacks in state and county services. In addition, many attorneys don’t have health insurance.

“People think of lawyers and say, ‘Well, don’t they have insurance?’ A lot of them don’t. A lot of them are destitute and may be living out of their cars, or living in their office so they only have to pay one rent. There are a lot of very desperate situations out there,” she says. “And, people who have a mental health or addiction issue really need to get treatment as soon as they are ready to accept it.”

The up side for OLAF is that donations continue to arrive, even a recent contribution from a treatment center. And Oregon’s legal community is doing its best to ensure the program continues to help colleagues recover their physical, emotional and mental health.

“I’m happy to report that we have a wide range of donation sources,” Fishleder says. “This includes contributions from large regional firms, small firms and sole practitioners, as well as contributions from family members or friends who wish to commemorate a special occasion or donate in honor or memory of a loved one. We even have folks who make OLAF their holiday donation charity.”

Juvenile Rights Project
Juvenile Rights Project (JRP), a legal advocate for children and families, experiences varying funding impacts because of the diverse array of services it provides. One constant, however, is the rising number of calls to its HelpLine, says executive director Mark McKechnie.

“Often the calls now are more complex and involve financial issues or housing issues,” he says. “We get calls from many families who aren’t necessarily indigent…but they are lower- and middle-income folks who don’t have a lot of resources or access to services.”

Many calls relate to children with medical or mental health issues, and their families don’t have insurance coverage or the money to pay for medications or treatment. Oregon’s passage of the Healthy Kids Act may ease that demand, though it still is too early to tell, McKechnie says.

Other calls come from guardians seeking authorization to make decisions about school enrollment and attendance, immunizations, medical care and health insurance for the children they have taken in.

“There are many families out in the community where an aunt and uncle, a grandparent or even neighbors have taken over taking care of a child because of circumstances at home, and the parents basically consent to that arrangement,” McKechnie says. “There are all these legal decisions that parents and caregivers make, but in these informal caretaker situations they don’t have the consent or authority to make those decisions.”

JRP receives funding for its HelpLine from the Oregon Law Foundation and grants. While it once had additional help from AmeriCorps workers, that support no longer is available. Now, staff members and student law clerks take HelpLine calls, and the more complex questions are referred to an attorney who provides part-time assistance.

“We knew the need would probably increase, but we haven’t been able to expand our capacity,” McKechnie says.

That creates plenty of opportunities for attorneys to offer pro bono help, and many have stepped up to meet that need. Pro bono assistance is particularly helpful in the areas of probate guardianships, trusts, immigration, name changes, and relief from lifetime sex offender registration for juvenile offenders.

McKechnie says JRP also receives support from the legal community during its Champions for Children Gala fundraiser each September.

Oregon Women Lawyers
Oregon Women Lawyers (OWLS) has seen an influx of new members this year as well as heightened volunteerism among existing members, many of whom are seeking ways to help out in the community while looking for jobs. Dress for Success and Habitat for Humanity are two of the organizations benefiting from this increased activity among OWLS members.

Dress for Success, which provides business suits to women who are job hunting while trying to get back on their feet, has seen its demand nearly triple this year. Executive Director Barb Attridge says the organization had helped more than 2,200 women by the end of October – compared to 1,200 in all of 2008 – and she expects that to reach 3,000 by the end of the year. Attridge attributes the increase to the dismal economy and the organization’s efforts to expand its outreach.

Dress for Success receives no government funding and is supported solely by private donations. This year marks the Portland affiliate’s 10th anniversary, and it will serve its 10,000th client by year’s end. Oregon attorneys have supported Dress for Success since its beginning.

“The legal community has been very instrumental in our success over the years,” Attridge says, noting the Multnomah Bar Association started holding annual suit drives early on. “That’s been an incredible support to us because the quality of the clothes we get is amazing. And having that consistent support – both in clothing and financially – is invaluable.”

OWLS holds a fashion show each fall to benefit Dress for Success, and also raises money and holds clothing drives throughout the year.

OWLS co-president Heather Van Meter, an attorney with Williams Kastner, says the organization also plans to partner with Habitat for Humanity to build a house constructed completely by women. When she began asking OWLS members to volunteer, Van Meter received twice as many people as needed to participate.

“There’s a lot of discussion about where people can volunteer, especially for people who haven’t found jobs yet because of the economy,” she says. “A bad economy means people often are focused on helping others. We had 20 more people at our fashion show this year, which is a big jump.”

Many OWLS members see volunteerism as a good way to give back while also getting to know others, particularly for those who are new to the area. And, many are seeking ways to help that don’t carry a price tag.

“You can always find clothes in your closet to donate. You can always spend half a day pounding nails into a house. Those things don’t cost any money and they mean a lot to the organizations,” Van Meter says.

Oregon Lawyers Against Hunger
The Oregon Food Bank has its own set of sobering statistics about the demand for its services this year: The number of people who needed emergency food supplies jumped from 200,000 to 240,000.

Oregon Lawyers Against Hunger (OLAH) so far has raised more than $1 million for the Oregon Food Bank, and its fall fundraising drive this year netted $103,200, according to Lynne Paretchan, an attorney with Perkins Coie and OLAH board member.

In addition, OLAH has challenged Oregon’s lawyers to donate $50 each to help the group raise $120,000 for the 2009 Lawyers v. Hunger Food and Fund Drive.

Paretchan notes attorneys often shy away from receiving recognition for the ways they help out in the community, whether it’s financial donations, pro bono services or volunteering for annual fundraisers. OLAH’s success is just one of the many ways Oregon attorneys are meeting the growing demand placed upon area nonprofits in a time of diminishing resources.

“Lots of lawyers give lots of community service, so this is another way of measuring that contribution,” Paretchan says.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore, a freelance writer based in Vancouver, Wash., is a frequent contributor to the Bulletin. 

© 2009 Melody Finnemore


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