• In Frazeysburg, Ohio, a father with multiple DUI and drug convictions refuses to return his baby to its mother after visitation.
• Another father in Mt. Vernon, who physically abuses his baby’s mother, unlawfully keeps the infant after visitation. Law enforcement will not help return the children.
• In Somerset, Ohio, a disabled 55-year-old veteran and his wife living on Social Security use their tax refund to buy a “certified” used car that breaks down on the way home from the car lot. The dealer refuses to fix the car or refund their money.
• Another disabled 55-year-old husband and wife in Heath, Ohio, are in the same fix, but neither are veterans, though they lost a son in Iraq.
Both mothers, their infants, and both couples in the examples above need help. But only the DV victim and the veteran get an attorney to help because there is special funding to help DV victims and veterans. The other mother and couple get a “do-it-yourself” packet. Is this the future of legal aid in Ohio? Is this equal justice under the law?
In January 2014, SEOLS closed three of its field offices: Lancaster, Marietta and Zanesville. The counties served by those three offices are now being served by SEOLS’ six remaining offices. As a result, our Newark office, which serves Licking and Knox Counties, has taken on two more counties: Muskingum and Perry. Based on the 2010 Census, more than 34,000 financially eligible clients live in Licking and Knox Counties. Muskingum and Perry Counties add—in addition to more courts, more administrative agencies and more travel time—26,000 poor individuals eligible for help.
The sustained drop in general funding for legal aid since 2008—both at the state and national level—requires SEOLS to adapt. SEOLS is seeking grants to fund legal help for the poor and community partnerships to help maximize the impact that SEOLS can have with less staff. Until recently, SEOLS has worked to provide the same services for the poor and seniors in each of its 30 counties. But with sharply reduced general funds, the range of services available in each county will increasingly differ, influenced by grants obtained and community partnerships formed. Our Newark office reflects this change.
Funding was successfully obtained for Newark to have an Equal Justice Works Fellow focused on children and families, involved in juvenile court, and a Veterans Legal Corps Fellow focused on helping veterans at risk of homelessness. Both of the Fellows’ projects are described in this newsletter. Our Newark office has partnered with the Licking County Coalition for Housing in its successful application for a federal grant to help county veterans who are at risk of homelessness. Our Newark office also receives Title III funding to serve seniors, and VAWA and VOCA funding to help DV victims.
SEOLS recently received approval for a program assistance grant (from the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation) to pay for technology that will link the six field office phone systems for greater efficiencies in the use of dispersed staff serving its client population. We have been invited by the Osteopathic Heritage Foundation to submit a grant for work by the Athens office with community partners to help at-risk pregnant mothers in Jackson, Meigs and Vinton Counties. SEOLS is seeking funding from the Ohio State Bar Foundation for a self-help center in Lancaster, funds to expand the Athens project to other counties and, in the next round of funding, a partnership with Behavioral Health in Portsmouth to help its clients overcome barriers to employment and legal problems that complicate their recovery. SEOLS will be seeking a federal fair housing grant this spring. These are just a few examples of SEOLS’ efforts to stretch its resources further through grants and community partnerships.
SEOLS will pursue grants, use technology and form strategic partnerships to continue to help as many people as possible. But, to prevent our society’s stated commitment to “equal justice for all” from becoming only words, access to justice cannot be based on whether one is a member of a group targeted by funders.