AJC: Legal aid fights Ga. poverty

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured this commentary piece authored by GLSP Executive Director Phyllis Holmen on Sept. 30, 2015. 

I went to law school with a vision of making a difference in the world. Those were the heady days of demonstrations and organizations, of picketing and protesting — the days when we watched the rule of law sustain our democracy. A peaceful departure of a disgraced president, a world leader’s relinquishment of power, showed Americans the strength of our democracy.

But my dream as a young law student hasn’t turned out quite like I’d hoped.

Poverty plagues us. In fact, we anticipate Georgia’s poverty rate will be higher than ever this year — and with it, access to justice is diminished. Two million Georgians live in poverty, including one in four of our children, up significantly from just seven years ago when it was one in five. Nearly a third of Georgians struggle to keep food on the table. Increasingly, more seniors go without heat or needed medicine. I’ve come to see that eliminating poverty is a truly complex undertaking, especially in Georgia, where the chances of escaping it are among the worst in the U.S.

Do I throw in the towel? No.

I also see the importance of civil legal aid in the fight against poverty. A quarter of Georgia’s population is eligible for legal assistance, yet lawyers outside Atlanta are scarce, as 70 percent work in the capital city. This gap makes funding legal aid critical to rural Georgians’ ability to seek justice, whether to fight an unlawful eviction, escape a violent situation and seek spousal support, obtain health care through Medicaid and Medicare, or protect access to affordable housing.

Such legal victories truly can make a difference. Legal advice can play a very real role helping an individual climb the economic ladder, often securing basic needs and protecting the stability needed to maintain these and advance further. Minnesota Judge Kevin Burke said it another way: “(A) good lawyer can mean the difference between sickness or health, oppression or liberty, fear or peace of mind.”

Most lawyers know this, or they wouldn’t do what they do. But those who offer civil legal aid to needy clients, many of whom work for non-profit law firms funded by the Legal Services Corporation, are being forced to turn away more and more low-income Americans seeking help. Congress is failing to provide the resources to offer needy clients the hand up that would help lift them out of poverty.

Federal funding that supports these lawyers has failed to keep up with inflation even as poverty grows. Since it was first funded by Congress in 1976, funding for legal aid through Legal Services has been cut by more than half, taking inflation into account. Meanwhile, Georgia’s poverty population continues to grow. While many Georgians are finding their way out of the Great Recession, there are too many for whom recovery remains a dream.

With civil legal aid, they might find that opportunity out of poverty. Without it, the dream dies.

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Eliminating Barriers to Justice: Language Access

This Georgia Bar Journal article featured and interview with GLSP attorney Jana Edmondson-Cooper on language barriers and access to justice. Read the full article here, on pg. 76.

Eliminating Barriers to Justice: How and Why to Ensure Language Access for Limited English Proficient and Deaf/Hard of Hearing Litigants

The Lawyer’s Creed states that we should: “strive to improve the law and our legal system, to make the law and our legal system available to all, and to seek the common good through the representation of my clients.” This access to justice extends to those with limited English proficiency, and deaf and hard of hearing litigants. In his 2014 State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Hugh P. Thompson addressed the subject of language access: “As Georgia continues to grow in population and diversity, access to justice is a challenge requiring the commitment and hard work of us all. . . . In addition to poor people, those who do not speak English are entitled to justice as well. . . . To prepare for the future, Georgia’s courts need an army of trained, certified interpreters. . . .

Currently, Georgia has only 149 licensed court interpreters, and they speak only 12 languages. That is not enough. . . .” Through the leadership of Chief Justice Thompson and other justices, and the work of attorneys like Jana J. Edmondson-Cooper, Immediate Past President Patrise M. Perkins-Hooker and countless other Georgia judges and attorneys, we are making strides toward ensuring access to justice for those with language barriers such as limited English proficiency (LEP) and deaf/hard of hearing litigants (DHH).

Spotlight on Jana J. Edmondson-Cooper
I asked Jana J. Edmondson-Cooper, Bilingual Staff Attorney in the Macon Regional Office of the Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP) and member of the Supreme Court of Georgia Commission on Interpreters (COI), to share her involvement with this important issue—ensuring those persons involved in our judicial system who have limited English proficiency or are deaf or hard of hearing get the justice they are owed, and we had an enlightening dialogue. AH: How did you get involved in the movement to recognize language as an access to justice issue?

JEC: After fellow GLSP attorney Lisa Krisher and I co-wrote an article in 2012, “Seen But Often Unheard: Limited English Proficiency in Georgia,” Bernadette Olmos, of A.B. Olmos and Associates P.C., contacted us and told us she was pleased to learn that other attorneys were also interested in addressing language access challenges faced by LEP and DHH litigants. As a result, the three of us formed an ad hoc committee of attorneys representing various public interest organizations and the private bar that began meeting monthly in January 2013. We discussed ongoing issues seen in courtrooms statewide regarding language access and in several practice areas including family law, education law, criminal law and civil rights, and later invited other attorneys, interpreters and judges to discuss these issues in greater depth. The committee decided that one way to tackle the common problems of language access in the courts was to develop a comprehensive training where language access stakeholders, especially attorneys and judges, would learn best practices when using interpreters in legal proceedings, strengthen cultural competency skills and learn the legal ethics of language access.

AH: Can you share some contexts where language access and the need for an interpreter are at issue?

JEC: Here are a few anecdotes provided by Georgia attorneys: SCENARIO #1: An attorney represented a client in a family violence matter on a day when no interpreters were available. The judge asked the bailiff to go to the local Mexican restaurant and grab somebody to come and interpret for the proceedings

Read the full article here, on pg. 76.

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GLSP Family Violence Project Director Responds to Christian Science Monitor

The following letter to the editor appeared in The Christian Science Monitor weekly print magazine on Sept. 26, 2015.

Help for survivors of domestic violence

The July 23 online article “Georgia murder-suicide underscores challenge of domestic violence intervention” (CSMonitor.com) documented the challenges in protecting children from abusers in domestic violence situations. When spouses are abused, they are often financially dependent on the abuser. While it has been shown that the most effective way for the state to protect a child in a spousal violence situation is to protect both the child and the victim, Child Protective Services often lacks resources. There is another option. Civil protective orders offer legal protection by awarding custody to the victim and ordering the abuser to stay away from the victim. Legal aid organizations such as Georgia Legal Services help domestic violence survivors seek child and spousal support, health care, unemployment benefits, and subsidized housing to become independent.
Vicky O. Kimbrell
Georgia Legal Services
Lilburn, Ga.

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A letter from a GLSP client’s son

A letter from a client’s son reminds us at GLSP of the importance of this work.

August 26, 2015

To Whom it May Concern,

This letter is to serve as a testament and record of outstanding work by [GLSP attorney], Attorney for Georgia Legal Services on behalf of my mother, [name kept confidential] and her family.

In all work, communication, and outcome [GLSP attorney] was nothing short of extraordinary.

In order to qualify for a government program, one must have the Wisdom of Solomon and the engagement of a Wall Street Banker. [GLSP attorney] navigated the ways and means of my mother’s needs with aplomb, energy, and a delightful sense of charm. She was at all times a complete professional, yet my family always felt that she treated individuals as people, not rotating digits.

That [GLSP attorney]’s work was completely successful is beyond our dreams, and yet that is exactly what this outstanding attorney accomplished. My dear mother is in a nursing home under the care of the Medicaid program, and she is finally receiving the immediate care an elderly woman with health problems should receive.

We are grateful to Georgia Legal Services, and in particular, to [GLSP attorney] for providing sterling assistance in a difficult field.

You have our profound thanks.

Most Sincerely,

[Son of client kept confidential]

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Transit as an Opportunity Out of Poverty

GLSP Attorney Bill Broker spoke with Savannah Morning News about the way Savannah’s public transportation system’s possible expansion could change the lives of the city’s low-income residents. Originally posted on Savannah Now.

Using CAT as ‘vehicle for opportunity’

A lot has been said about Chatham Area Transit’s plans to expand the system to the community’s underserved areas.

In the city of Pooler, for example, where there is no CAT service, many say it’s an unwanted tax burden and contributor to traffic.

In Garden City, where some areas are served and some are not, there are those who have argued adding routes could aid in redevelopment.

And at the CAT board of director’s meeting this week, I heard it described in a new way, as “a vehicle for the expansion of opportunity for our community.”

“One of the things I’ve been thinking about is sort of the role that transit plays in providing people with opportunities for moving out of poverty,” Board Member Bill Broker said.

Broker invited Step Up Savannah‘s Suzanne Donovan and Director of Planning for CAT Nick Helmholdt to brief the rest of the board on the boundless potential for CAT to improve the economic state of the local community.

View their presentation here.

“There’s been a lot of research recently on using transportation as access to opportunity,” Donovan said. “Both location and transportation matters when it comes to people’s lives. It’s not simply about getting around, but opening up opportunity and connecting people and resources. Rather than talk about route expansion, let’s start talking about opportunity expansion, because that’s what’s at stake here. Mobility changes people’s lives.”

Some of the research Donovan mentioned has concluded that personal vehicles are the most expensive form of traffic for people of any income bracket. A lack of transit stops in the meantime limits a person’s ability to choose where they live and work, especially if they have no or only one vehicle to serve the household.

Locally, she said, this means that new jobs cropping up in south and west Chatham County are essentially unavailable to the families that need them most.

But locating transit routes and stops in employment areas has proven useful to employers, because their employees have reliable transportation that gets them to work on time, Hemholdt said. This has helped employers maintain employees longer.

He pointed to another groundbreaking study out of Harvard University, which revealed that shorter commute times can contribute to a person’s ability to improve their economic situation.

So how can CAT have an influence?

“(We) make sure our riders can access employment destinations within our entire metropolitan area,” Hemholdt said. “(By) helping our regional employers understand the value of public transit, the benefit to their bottom line. Responding to initiatives that are out there that are really trying to connect communities to these efforts.”

He said CAT will be “actively purusing” funding from the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, Ladders of Opportunity, and other state, federal and local sources to accomplish these goals.

“I think the thing that’s the most compelling about this is indicators for economic success,” Broker said. “We can’t do anything about two and one parent households, we can’t do anything about test scores, we really can’t do anything about crime. But what we can do, is something about transit. And transit … is the primary indicator of people’s ability to achieve economic success. That opportunity is what we’re charged with here.”

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GLSP Health Policy Specialist Honored

Linda Lowe_Award Ceremony_Sept 9 2015_2

Georgians for a Healthy Future’s First Annual Consumer Health Impact Awards were held on Sept. 9, 2015, and included a Health Advocacy Award in honor of Linda Lowe, Health Policy Specialist at Georgia Legal Services. The award is to be given to a professional or volunteer advocate whose “work advances access to quality, affordable health care in Georgia”, focusing on a vulnerable population and working toward policy change. Georgians for a Healthy Future say Linda, “has dedicated her career to serving as an advocate on behalf of underserved Georgians who need a voice on health and human services issues.” Linda is a public policy advocate focusing on Medicaid and other health programs for low-income Georgians, and has been at GLSP for over thirty years.

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#StudentsHaveRights Campaign Launch

Minor Offenses of Children Threaten Expulsion
Legal Representation in Disciplinary Hearings May Keep Kids in School

Georgia Legal Services Program, Inc. (GLSP) launched an education campaign this week, #StudentsHaveRights. The civil legal aid organization handled nearly 100 school discipline cases last year, working to keep students charged with minor, non-violent offenses in school. Most were facing expulsion before attorneys stepped in.

“Understanding children’s rights can ensure that your child is not being unfairly disciplined,” Kenji Roberts says, speaking from experience. Her granddaughter, 12 years old at the time, was threatened with expulsion for yielding to the pressure of a bully who demanded she write “Hi” on the bathroom wall— the student’s first and only offense.

Given the high numbers of disciplinary hearings that take place each week in school districts throughout the state, it’s believed that thousands of students go without the legal representation they need in these proceedings.

“Parents often don’t realize how serious these matters can be until they get there,” GLSP Attorney Jessica Stuart told WABE’s Rose Scott and Denis O’Hayer in a July 30th appearance on their radio show, Closer Look. “In our organization, we provide free services. We can represent students at these hearings.”  GLSP offers legal representation to families in Georgia with low incomes who live outside the five-county metro area.

The #StudentsHaveRights campaign is targeted toward students and parents in Georgia, as well as attorneys who are interested in representing students in school discipline matters.

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GLSP Attorney Jana Edmondson-Cooper Awarded

Jana J. Edmonson Cooper.  Photo by John Disney/Daily Report.

Jana J. Edmondson-Cooper Photo by John Disney/Daily Report

Jana J. Edmondson-Cooper was selected by the National Bar Association (NBA) to receive its Nation’s Best Advocates: 40 Under 40 Award during the NBA’s 90th Annual Convention held in Los Angeles, CA July 19 -23, 2015. The award recognizes the nation’s top lawyers under 40 who exemplify a broad range of high achievement, including in innovation, vision, leadership and legal and community involvement. In addition to the 40 Under 40 recognition, five of the forty awardees were deemed to have distinguished themselves further by exemplifying Excellence in Activism, Excellence in Innovation, Excellence in Leadership, Excellence in Service and as Best Advocate of the Year, respectively and honored with a second award to that effect. Jana was honored with the Excellence in Service Award for exemplifying service to low-income and underrepresented individuals, particularly those who have limited or no ability to communicate in English.

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FAQ: Supreme Court Marriage Equality Ruling

What did SCOTUS decide?

In a landmark decision, the US Supreme Court struck down states’ same sex marriage bans on June 26, 2015, effectively bringing marriage equality to the entire US. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” says Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Why are the same sex marriage bans unconstitutional?

States’ bans violated the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution because they purposely excluded gay and lesbian couples from marriage laws. The Court held that “the right to marry is protected by the Constitution” under the Due Process Clause. It gives four reasons for this: (1) marriage is “inherent in personal autonomy”, (2) marriage is a “union unlike any other in its importance to” the parties, (3) the right to marry connects to the right to make decisions about family, procreation, and childrearing, and (4) marriage is a “keystone of our social order”.

The Court also held that the States’ bans violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. “Same-sex couples are consigned to an instability many opposite-sex couples would deem intolerable in their own lives. As the State itself makes marriage all the more precious by the significance it attaches to it, exclusion from that status has the effect of teaching that gays and lesbians are unequal in important respects. It demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of the Nation’s society”.

When can people in Georgia get married?

Couples started getting married in Georgia on the day of the decision, June 26, 2015. Check with probate court in your jurisdiction.

Can churches/clergy be legally required to perform same-sex marriages if they don’t approve of them?

No. Today’s decision doesn’t mean churches have to endorse gay marriage or that churches have to perform them.  The decision today determined that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to same-sex marriage: this means that the law cannot be used to prevent same-sex persons from marrying, not that private companies or churches must participate in or support marriage ceremonies, etc.

Today’s decision means that governmental entities and public officers, however, must not perform their jobs in a manner which discriminates against persons who are seeking or are in a same-sex marriage.  This means that if the governmental entity provides certain benefits or treatment to heterosexual couples, they must provide the equal benefit/treatment to same-sex couples.  If a probate court marries heterosexual couples, then the court must marry same-sex couples.

Does the decision affect the military?

There is no indication that this would apply differently to individuals in the military.   Any benefits rights given to heterosexual couples in the military should be given to SS couples.


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GLSP President of Board of Directors Nears Finish Line for Fundraiser


As published in The Daily Report by Kathleen Baydala Joyner.

By next week, lawyer Damon Elmore will have biked across all 159 of Georgia counties.

Elmore, president of the Georgia Legal Services Program’s board of directors, began his trek last year to raise money for civil legal services. On Thursday, he told lawyers gathered at the State Bar of Georgia’s annual meeting at Stone Mountain that he will bike the last two counties—Union and Towns in north Georgia—on Monday.

As a warm-up, he’s leading a seven-mile ride through Stone Mountain Park on Friday morning.

He’s also hoping to bridge the roughly $2,000 gap toward reaching his goal of $15,900.

The Daily Report caught up with Elmore at the bar meeting to ask what he’s learned on his journey.

How did this idea come about? Why are you biking 159 counties?

It’s just a marriage of two different things that I love: legal services for the poor and cycling. And the cycling gives me the real opportunity to see and sort of feel what the communities that we help and the people that we help look like and sort of be a part of it more directly.

I saw real tangible images of poverty: a lot of businesses out of business, dilapidated houses, long lines outside medical clinics.

What is the financial need right now for legal services?

“Critical” seems cliché but appropriate. And that’s because traditional sources are tighter, and the needs are larger and greater. For legal services, we give help with the private attorneys who work with the clients on cases, but there are so many other things that the money can go toward.

We have lawyers in our satellite offices who are helping six, eight, 10 different counties, having to drive to all of those counties.

What have you learned about the need for legal services as you’ve seen different parts of the state?

Legal services are part of the essential, basic, critical needs of men and women. Legal services help with benefits. They help keep families together. They help ensure students receive fair treatment in schools so they don’t turn into statistics, getting in the pipeline to prison.

Legal services are so connected to a better state overall. I really didn’t put that together at first.

What did you learn about yourself on your tour?

I did a ride two weeks ago in Dade County that sort of summarized what I’ve learned about me. The ride started in Trenton, which is in the Lookout Mountain valley, and the route I planned took me up Cloudland Canyon and up Lookout Mountain. So in the first eight miles, I went up 2,300 feet. And three times, I thought about turning around, because it would have been a descent. But I didn’t.

So, I think the two things that were made manifest for me on that day were: the [Nelson] Mandela quote that it only seems impossible until it is done, and it was the first time in this initiative that I’ve really been proud of what I’ve done.

We haven’t raised $1 million or eradicated poverty, but we’ve had a lot of buzz. And we’ve brought legal services back into the conversation without it being threatening or sounding like the same story line.

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