Monthly Archives: June 2009

Pact signed in foster case opened by Legal Aid in 1984

A 25-year-old lawsuit against the state challenging the adequacy of Baltimore’s foster care system may end soon after a new consent decree was created by the lawsuit’s parties. Maryland Legal Aid originated the lawsuit, L.J. v. Massinga, in 1984, but had to drop out in the mid-90s after Congress prohibited legal services programs from participating in class-action lawsuits.

“While the old decree dealt in very broad generalities, as it was the first of its generation in [foster care-related] consent decrees, really a pioneer, this consent decree is very specific and follows the type of approach that’s been used successfully in other jurisdictions that have seen dramatic progress in the child-welfare system,” Venable LLP lawyer Mitchell Y. Mirviss, who worked for Legal Aid after the case was filed  and continues to represent the children pro bono, told The Daily Record.

Joan Little, chief attorney of Legal Aid’s Child Advocacy Unit in Baltimore, praised the new consent decree, saying the new administration has so far displayed “a lot of energy and vigor.”

“Maybe Maryland can really be on the forefront of child welfare, which is where it belongs,” Little told The Daily Record.

To read the article, click here.

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New York Times urges Mikulski to lift LSC restrictions

Today, an editorial in the New York Times urges Sen. Barbara Mikulski to lift “egregious” restrictions that Congress placed on grantees of the Legal Services Corp., including Maryland Legal Aid, more than a decade ago. The House recently passed a bill increasing LSC’s funding–but only struck one of three restrictions that President Obama asked to be lifted.

“The matter now moves to a Senate subcommittee led by Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland,” the editorial says. “By making sure that the Senate version of the bill lifts all three restrictions, per President Obama’s request, Senator Mikulski and her colleagues can usefully support the cause of equal justice.”

To read the editorial, click here.

Post calls on Senate to end legal aid restrictions

Today’s lead editorial in the Washington Post praised the House for passing an increase in funding for the Legal Services Corp.–but criticized it for leaving in place “unwise and unwarranted” restrictions that impede legal aid lawyers from helping their clients. The editorial asked the Senate, which takes up the funding resolution this week, to go further and end more federal restrictions, including a “poison pill” ban that taints all funds raised by legal aid organizations that receive federal funding. LSC is a funder of Maryland Legal Aid, one of the largest legal services programs in the U.S.

“The LSC has long been prohibited from using public funds to lodge class-action suits, represent undocumented workers or participate in any abortion-related litigation,” the editorial says. “While some limitations on the use of tax dollars may be warranted, there is no legitimate reason for federal restrictions on how local legal aid groups use privately raised funds or money they receive from state or local governments.”

To read the entire editorial, click here.

Help wanted: Legal Aid in the market for a few good lawyers

A survey in today’s Daily Record on local law firms that are hiring–newsworthy in the current financial meltdown–included Maryland Legal Aid, which has several openings.

But since the state’s largest provider of free civil legal help to low-income people, the elderly, and abused and neglected children can’t afford to pay high salaries, we’re looking for entry-level lawyers, explained executive director Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr.

And while other firms have instigated hiring freezes, Legal Aid can’t: “We absolutely cannot afford to have the clients and the applicants we see without services, so we are doing everything we can to avoid a diminution in services,” Joseph said.

In addition, Legal Aid is seeing signs that public interest law is regaining its cache, last seen in the ’60s and ’70s.

“The sense is, we are getting a larger percentage of what I call top-notch graduates seeking work here,” Joseph said.

Falling interest rates create crisis for civil legal services

Maryland Legal Aid executive director Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr.

Maryland Legal Aid executive director Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr.

An article in today’s Baltimore Business Journal outlines the financial crisis facing civil legal service providers in Maryland caused by the collapse of Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA), which generates funding from money held on behalf of clients. Maryland’s IOLTA rate has plummeted 51 percent, from $6.7 million to $3.3 million. Thirty-eight nonprofits, including Maryland Legal Aid, rely on the funding to provide free legal services to low-income Marylanders and the elderly. Legal Aid, serving more than 50,000 people a year,  is the largest provider in Maryland.

“Right now, we’re holding on. But by the time we hit Jan. 1, 2010, the strings will tighten,” said Legal Aid executive director Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr. He’s banking on two uncertain factors to see Legal Aid through the difficult times: a pending cy pres award (left over funds from a class-action lawsuit to be awarded to charitable organizations) and the efforts of the Access to Justice Commission, created by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

Ex-offenders meet, discuss how to overcome employment barriers

Nearly 50 people—40 of them with criminal records—attended a workshop earlier this week to help ex-offenders overcome barriers to employment . With politically charged rap pulsing in the background, they heard a presentation by Legal Aid lawyer Peter Sabonis and United Workers organizer Todd Cherkis.

“I explained the presentation by saying, ‘Lawyers talk about arguments, organizers talk about power,’” Sabonis said. “’Tonight we are going to talk about both, and try to come up with a strategy to change things.’”

The group was relaxed, engaging, energetic. “The presentations were not typical, but involved questions for discussion: ‘What question do you see on employer applications about criminal histories?  How do you answer it? Why do employers discriminate against those with criminal records?  Whose interests does it serve?’” Sabonis said  “United Worker members were in the audience and able to share stories about their successful campaign at Camden Yards to increase wages, better working conditions, and overcome discrimination based on criminal histories.”

The group will meet again in two weeks.

Abused children entitled to adjudicatory hearing, top court rules

The Court of Appeals held yesterday that  child alleged to be a child in need of assistance (CINA) should have been afforded an adjudicatory hearing for the consideration of allegations of neglect in a CINA petition, notwithstanding a request for dismissal by the local department of social services (DSS) that was made with the consent of the child’s parents. The juvenile court erred in ruling that DSS, as the CINA petitioner, had a unilateral right to dismiss its petition, over the child’s objection and hearing request. This ruling was error in light of Maryland Code, the top court held.

The ruling is being hailed as a major victory for abused and neglected children–and for Maryland Legal Aid, which represented the client, Natasha B.

“It stands for the premise the DSS can not unilaterally dismiss a case over the objection of the child,” said Joan Little, chief attorney of Child Advocacy Unit in Baltimore.  “The case clarifies that once a petition is filed with the court, the court then takes on the duty to protect the interests of children which stems from the court’s parens patriae jurisdiction.  Once the court has jurisdiction, it must make findings as to the truth of the allegations in the petition.  If the allegations are true, the court may go on to find the child CINA and issue an order including a designation of placement and any necessary services.  If the allegations are not true, the court may then dismiss the case.”

“The decision in Najasha B. will result in the end of the court’s practice of accepting the DSS’ requests for dismissal and it requires the court to have a full hearing on the merits of every case to determine whether the alleged facts are true,” Little continued. “A judicial determination of the truth of the allegations in a case affords greater protection for our child clients than the dismissal of a case by the department that may be based on a policy that does not support the best interests of the child before the court.

“Even children who do not wish to be in the court system benefit from the court’s resolution of the truth of the allegations, because once adjudicated, those facts can not be re-litigated if the child’s case comes to the attention of the court a second time,” Little added.

The case, In Re: Najasha B., was handled by staff attorney Meredith Esders.