Legal help for poor, disabled often hard to come by


David Crisp/Last Best News

Panelists at an Access to Justice forum in Billings on Wednesday included, from left, Montana Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker, District Judge Rod Souza and state Rep. Ken Holmlund, R-Miles City.

An aging population, suicidal and homeless kids, Indian child welfare cases, rising domestic violence—Yellowstone County caregivers and advocates laid out a litany of legal troubles during a forum Wednesday.

In presentations at the Billings Access to Justice Forum at the Mansfield Health Education Center, many witnesses called for more money and more resources. For Montana residents with little money or with disabilities, legal help is too expensive and too hard to find, witnesses said.

“State funding for victims’ access to justice is critical,” said Erin Lambert, director of programs at the YWCA, which hired its own staff attorney to assist victims of domestic and sexual violence. The YWCA has served 30 victims in just the last two months, she said.

Other witnesses said legal help was needed to fight not just abusers but government bureaucrats. One witness, identified only as Vicky, said she fought a two-year battle with Medicare before obtaining a $3,000 scooter that helps her carry on daily life while coping with cerebral palsy.

“I didn’t know where to go or what to do,” she said.

Vicky was among the lucky few Montanans who get legal help through the Montana Legal Services Association, said Alison Paul, director of the association.

“They won the lottery,” she said.

Paul said the Legal Services Association had more than 7,000 requests for help in 2015. Only about a third of those people actually received help from the association, which has only 15 lawyers available for the 150,000 low-income Montanans who qualify for legal services.

Montana is one of only a handful of states that provide no state funding for legal services for low-income people, Paul said. While people charged with crimes are guaranteed access to attorneys, there is no guarantee of representation in civil matters.

Legal Services tries to focus its $3.2 million annual budget where it can do the most good, she said. But despite working closely with other agencies and spending resources carefully, “It’s really about money,” she said.

Elderly Montanans face similar problems, said Todd Wood, director of the Area II Agency on Aging, which provides services over an area larger than West Virginia. Federal funding for the program has declined in recent years while state funding has slowly increased so that the agency now gets about two-thirds of its funds from the federal government and a third from state government.

But those sources account for only $5 million of the agency’s $9 million budget. The rest comes from contributions by clients for such services as meals and transportation. Without those contributions, the program probably would fold within five months, Wood said.

He noted that many elderly residents live in deep rural areas, some without electricity or telephones. They often need help with such legal matters as wills, power of attorney and guardianship problems, he said, but they often are unaware of their rights or unable to find help.

“Their mailman might be the No. 1 contact in the course of the day,” he said.

Providing legal help for seniors is especially critical in Montana, which faces a coming tidal wave of elder care needs, said Gary Connelley, a fulltime pro bono attorney for the Crowley Fleck law firm. By 2020, Montana is expected to be third in the nation in the number of people per capita age 65 or older, he said.

But even though Crowley Fleck donated nearly 5,000 hours of free legal help in 2015, Connelley said, it turns away eight or nine of every 10 requests it gets for free legal assistance.

For those who do get help, he said, “It’s just luck and timing.”

One goal is to try to get to potential litigants before they go to court to avoid costly trials, Connelley said.

“By the time they get to the clerk of court’s office, it’s often too late,” he said.

Young people also face problems with access to legal help. Terry Bouck, superintendent of School District 2, said 39 percent of School District 2 students are in poverty, and 33 percent receive free lunches. In addition, according to an annual youth risk behavior survey, 23 percent of high school students have thought about suicide, and 21 percent of middle school students have had similar thoughts.

In response, the district added five counselors this year, Bouck said, but the 633 homeless students often fail to get the legal help they need. Sue Runkle, the homeless education liaison for School District 2, said underage students who have no parents or guardian have trouble opening bank accounts, signing leases, getting food stamps and finding medical care.

Indian children are particularly vulnerable, said Georgette Boggio of the Elk River Law Office in Billings, because of centuries of discrimination against Indians in America. Some Indians still remember days when “No dogs or Indians” signs were posted at stores, and she said that even she was once told by a city employee that she was “too pretty” to be a Crow Indian.

“The history of racism and bias is not ancient history,” she said.

District Judge Michael Moses said that of the 452 cases involving removing children from their families in District Court here in 2015, 45 percent involved Indian children.
He urged the 75 or so people at the forum to go online and take a Harvard University test for bias offered through the Project Implicit nonprofit organization. He said that taking the test could be an eye opener.

“I’ve represented Native Americans for 35 years, and I am ‘moderately biased’ when it comes to Native Americans,” he said.

Michael Bush, chief medical officer at St. Vincent Healthcare, said he works in the emergency department, where domestic abuse victims often need not only medical care but legal help, such as restraining orders and child custody assistance. The Community Crisis Center helps, but often has people waiting in line for services, he said.

Ben Halverson, who prosecutes domestic violence cases for the city of Billings, said more help is needed to break the cycle of violence in which victims go back repeatedly to abusive spouses.

“Our taxpayer dollars are not being used in the most efficient way possible,” he said.

A couple of programs that seem to help are the Yellowstone County Veterans Treatment Court and the Self-Help Law Center. Terry Stapleton of the Treatment Court said that veterans who have been charged with crimes often have other problems as well, such as family and custody concerns, bankruptcy, landlord-tenant problems and untreated injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Veterans are really proud and often feel like they need to be strong, so they don’t reach out,” Stapleton said.

Patt Leikam, facilitator of the Billings Self-Help Law Center, said the center served more than 16,000 people in its various locations in 2015, most of them at, below or just above the poverty level. The centers walk people through the process of dealing with family law matters, name changes, guardianship, landlord-tenant issues and debt collection problems, she said.

Panelists at the forum largely restricted their participation to asking questions of witnesses, often about alternatives to additional funding. Ken Holmlund, who represents House District 38 in Miles City, urged those who wanted additional state funding to have advocates rather than lobbyists appear before the Legislature. Legislators are much more willing to hear from the public than from lobbyists, he said.

Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker wondered whether setting up additional specialty courts, as some witnesses suggested, would be better than simply adding additional judges to handle a range of cases. Yellowstone County has the busiest courts in the state, she said, and could use up to six more judges.

District Judge Rod Souza said that specialty courts such as the Veterans Treatment Court do a great job but are also “resource intensive.”

Baker summed up the panel’s response to testimony at the forum: “I think we see solutions in the works, and we are all dedicated to trying to reach them.”

The forum was one of seven being held across the state by the Montana Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission. The commission plans to use information gained from the forums to make recommendations to the Supreme Court, the Legislature and the State Bar of Montana.

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