Why would we revoke a law that keeps women safe?

In 1994 Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to alleviate the problem of intimate partner violence at the federal level. Since then, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have regularly reauthorized VAWA as a “no-brainer” to protect battered women – that is, until now. After months of heated debate, the House stalled and the legislation failed to pass. And so, for the first time in 19 years, a year begins without VAWA, a crucial law to protect victims of domestic violence – and a critical funding source for the programs that serve them.

In addition to the legal protections it offers, VAWA provides funds to states to distribute to shelters and agencies that help victims of abuse. Many of these programs are now struggling to find replacement revenue, and many could be shut down within the year if their funding dries up.

Civil legal services are frequently cited as the most effective form of relief available to help victims of domestic violence. NYLAG is a recognized expert in this area, helping women file civil orders of protection to keep them safe, and securing child support or marital assets to help them gain financial independence. We know firsthand that VAWA works: it lifts the veil of secrecy that hides family violence and allows victims to break free. This law has been highly successful in protecting women, holding batterers accountable, and providing resources to educate and build awareness for this pervasive societal problem.

Perhaps no demographic has benefitted more from VAWA’s protections than undocumented immigrant victims. For these women, immigration status is just one more weapon that their abusers use to intimidate them into silence by saying, “You can’t call the police because they will deport you.” Cowed by fear of deportation, many victims don’t report abuse to the police, seek medical attention or avail themselves of court-based remedies. This is especially true for mothers who worry that, if deported, they will be forced to leave their US citizen children behind to be raised by their abusers. Our ability to help these women is a direct result of VAWA, which allows organizations like NYLAG to help undocumented immigrant victims file for immigration relief without the abuser’s knowledge. As one of our attorneys, who works with immigrant victims, put it, “This is a law that works. This is a law that lets her leave.”

Why would we revoke a law that keeps women safe?

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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A victory for Sandy victims, but a long road ahead

Last night, the House of Representatives passed a $50.7 billion relief bill for those affected by Superstorm Sandy. This long overdue measure represents a sign of hope that the many people still awaiting aid will finally begin to see some progress. On this landmark night, I had the opportunity to join the discussion on NBC New York Nightly News. My comments in the clip above address why this funding is so critical for the millions of people and businesses affected by the storm, as well as for the organizations scrambling to provide adequate recovery services. Without this bill’s provisions, FEMA would be unable to sustain its own relief efforts past March, and the public and private service agencies already struggling to meet their communities’ overwhelming needs would be left in the lurch.

This action comes 78 days after Sandy upended the lives of thousands of New Yorkers.  For many, that is 78 days in the dark or without access to their homes and businesses. Approximately 305,000 housing units were damaged or destroyed statewide, and Governor Cuomo noted yesterday that more than 15,000 New Yorkers still cannot return to their homes. Meanwhile, 265,000 New York businesses were affected, with 42,000 still awaiting financial assistance.

As welcome as the passage of the bill is, the allocation of a mere $1 million to storm-related legal services (only 0.002% of the total relief package) is a disgrace. This funding can support fewer than 10 attorneys who could handle a total of 500 cases in a year. Given the vast scope of the disaster, this is simply not enough. Legal services enable storm victims to maintain safe, affordable, habitable homes, appeal inadequate FEMA and insurance decisions, and resolve an entire host of other critical problems. NYLAG alone has encountered thousands of victims who stand to benefit from legal interventions. The time to act is now. Any comprehensive emergency response model must include a properly scaled legal services component to ensure that the rights of victims are protected.

It is vital for the country to understand that this bill is only the first step on the long road to recovery. Needs will grow and change, and we cannot let Sandy victims be forgotten with the flip of a calendar page. Legal advocates are providing concrete, tangible benefits to storm victims by fulfilling their basic needs for shelter and income supports. I challenge our government to do the same.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Thank you for putting a roof – 12 of them – over our heads.

A few days ago, NYLAG returned to its downtown Manhattan offices for the first time since Superstorm Sandy. I want to take this opportunity to say thank you, again, to UJA-Federation of New York for donating the office space that housed NYLAG’s management team and its new Storm Response Unit, and to the 11 law firms across the City who sheltered our other legal units. Because of their generosity, we were able to mobilize and respond almost overnight to the needs of storm victims.  Our staff worked around the clock, supported by pro bono attorneys from scores of law firms, to ramp up services. As of December 31, our new Storm Response Unit had helped more than 2,500 people. We could never have responded as quickly or as effectively to Sandy without this extraordinary support from the New York City community.

While our own displacement was an inconvenience and an operational challenge, the displacement suffered by so many of our clients and neighbors was far more devastating. And while we have now returned to a functional workspace, we recognize that thousands of those in the hardest hit areas are still without homes or businesses to which they can return.  Many of them are struggling to find shelter and pay for basic necessities like food, clothing, and medicine. They will need the strength of the entire community to help them rebuild their lives. To play our part in this recovery process, NYLAG begins the New Year by launching a vastly expanded Storm Response Unit that will address the entrenched, long term legal challenges now facing victims of the storm. We are planning for the long road ahead, and I look forward to updating you on our progress.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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The fiscal cliff that is always there

As we wait to see what life on the other side of the fiscal cliff will look like for our nation and the world, it strikes me that low-income New Yorkers already know all about fiscal cliffs – they live on the edge of one every day. If you are poor, or near-poor, there is no safety net to catch you, no savings account or network of friends and family with the means to keep you from falling over the edge.

Nothing has brought this into sharper focus than Hurricane Sandy. We are already seeing how this disaster, like so many others both natural and man-made, is most devastating for the poorest among us. As of today, NYLAG has helped 2,500 storm victims deal with their immediate civil legal issues. And we proudly begin 2013 by launching a vastly expanded Storm Response initiative to address the long-term legal challenges that would otherwise be the tipping point for these vulnerable New Yorkers.

NYLAG’s Storm Response Unit – a dedicated team of 27 attorneys, paralegals and financial counselors, supported by a cadre of pro bono lawyers – will focus on two pressing issues: shelter and economic stability. People are still living in the dark without heat, some with mold spreading to their living spaces, creating landlord-tenant disputes over habitability and repairs. Lenders are now demanding to inspect the properties of homeowners, who were already facing foreclosure prior to the storm, before moving forward with loan modifications and settlements – a stalling tactic that is in direct violation of orders from the Attorney General. Numerous clients are struggling with convoluted benefit applications and insurance claim processes, while a growing number need help appealing wrongful denials. Others who have lost a home or a job need financial counseling to learn how to deal with debt, get credit and benefits, and recover lost documents.

There is no doubt that Sandy has created a treacherous new cliff for low-income New Yorkers to traverse. But it really only amplified a vulnerability that was always there. A lost job, a debilitating illness, or any number of personal disasters can easily become their own Sandy. No matter what happens in Washington, for these people the fiscal cliff is ever-present.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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Recommended Reading

I recently had the pleasure of attending the 2012 conference of the National Cancer Legal Services Network, held just a few weeks after Storm Sandy hit New York. This terrific event was organized by Randye Retkin, director of NYLAG’s LegalHealth Unit and attended – despite the storm – by professionals from over 50 organizations from around the country working to alleviate the legal and economic consequences of cancer.

The keynote speaker was Eric Manheimer, a physician, writer and social commentator who is the former Medical Director at Bellevue Hospital, the oldest public hospital in the nation. Dr. Manheimer has had years of front-line experience caring for cancer patients and dealing with the economic, policy and ethical issues that surround patient care. He is also the author of Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital, a memoir in which he shares his views as a doctor, and as a newly diagnosed cancer patient himself. He spoke movingly about the unique circumstances and challenges faced by his patients and about his struggles dealing with his own cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. He also addressed how a natural disaster such as Sandy affects people with serious illnesses and how the “darkness makes visible” the health care needs and health care inequities they face.

Eric Manheimer, M.D.

Dr. Manheimer recently authored an article in The New England Journal of Medicine that expands on the theme of “seeing in the dark,” revealing the fragility of patients in New York City’s public hospitals, and the “interconnectedness of everything” they face – poverty, marginal to no housing, lack of insurance, education debt, language and legal status issues, unemployment, bankruptcy, and untreated mental and physical conditions. At NYLAG we know only too well how these risk factors play out in the lives of our clients. If Storm Sandy helps to put the spotlight on the enormity of the problems they face every day – problems that were there before the lights went out, then some measure of good will have come from this devastating disaster.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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More pro bono is a great idea for New Yorkers and New York Lawyers

Last week the 2012 Report of the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services was submitted to NYS Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. The report is the work of a diverse group of leaders from private practice, the judicial system, civil legal assistance providers, and others charged with  finding new solutions to the acute and growing need for free legal services for low-income New Yorkers. The report makes for sobering reading:

“Each year, more than 2.3 million low-income New Yorkers must navigate the complexities of the State’s civil justice system without the assistance of counsel in disputes over the most basic necessities of life… Indeed, even before the most recent natural disaster in the form of Hurricane Sandy, the Task Force determined that at best only 20 percent of the legal needs of low-income New Yorkers are currently being met.”

This access-to-justice gap is not only denying justice to many people, it has also placed a burden on the state, increasing costs and reducing quality. The recession in 2008 exacerbated the problem and now Hurricane Sandy presents a whole new set of pressing legal needs for those affected by the storm.

The report has many worthy recommendations, including increases in funding and more involvement of law schools and non-lawyers. But in particular, I heartily endorse the idea that all lawyers be encouraged to perform 50 hours of pro bono service annually, up from 20 hours currently. I believe this is the right next step in expanding access to civil legal services – following on Judge Lippman’s own initiative earlier this year, leading to a new rule requiring 50 hours of pro bono work as a condition of admission to the New York bar. By doubling or tripling their pro bono involvement, today’s seasoned practitioners will not only bring justice to those in need, but stand in solidarity with a new generation of lawyers behind  the central importance of pro bono work in the life of every lawyer.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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NY Times Op-Ed gets it right about who wins in eviction court

Matthew Desmond, an assistant professor of sociology and social studies at Harvard, recently wrote a great Op-Ed in the New York Times that makes a strong case for providing public funding for lawyers to represent tenants facing eviction. None of us who witness what goes on in eviction court today need to be reminded that virtually no tenants are represented by a lawyer, while landlords almost always are – with the predictable result that landlords almost always win and tenants almost always lose.  But Mr. Desmond’s research (he is writing a book on the subject) reveals the enormity of eviction’s consequences on society: increased homelessness, missed schooling and poor academic performance among children, entrenched poverty and depression.  He also points to a study that suggests legal representation would help the majority of families facing eviction stay in their homes, avoiding the downstream damage to their lives, and saving government money in the long run. Here is my December 10 (Letter to the Editor) in response.

Sadly, Matthew Desmond (“Tipping the Scales in Housing Court” – November 29) describes the scene in eviction court all too accurately. And although there are agencies, including our own, offering free legal assistance to poor and low-income tenants facing eviction, many people do not know such help exists, and even if they do, demand far outstrips the services available.  Now, we can add to this dismal picture the impact of Sandy. In the month since the storm, New York Legal Assistance Group has received thousands of requests for assistance. Landlord-tenant disputes over habitability and repairs are quickly becoming a major issue. Though many banks and institutions have placed a temporary hold on evictions and foreclosures, these reprieves are set to expire soon and we expect a flood of evictions in the new year. Tenants who stopped paying rent on uninhabitable space or who cannot afford payments after losing a job in the wake of the storm will need attorneys to protect their rights in these lengthy proceedings.

Now more than ever there are economic, social and moral reasons to give tenants a fighting chance by putting lawyers by their sides in eviction court.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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The growing problem of mold

Mold is removed from a Sandy-flooded New York home.

Earlier this week the Gotham Gazette reported on the growing problem of mold in homes flooded by Sandy. Click here to read the article.

NYLAG has been seeing the problem first hand. For example, we are working with a 28-year-old single mother of three who lives in Staten Island. She is recovering from cancer and working two jobs, as a nurse’s assistant and home health aide. Since Thanksgiving, mold and mildew are appearing on their walls, clothes, and cabinets – rising from lower floors. Two of her young sons have chronic asthma and require daily nebulizer treatment. We are helping her secure FEMA assistance and deal with her landlord, who has been unable or unwilling to take the necessary steps to treat the mold problem. This too seems to be a growing problem. Landlords and tenants and insurance companies and policy holders are increasingly locked in disputes over who is responsible to pay for remediating affected homes. Meanwhile, the mold grows.

Luckily, as the Gotham Gazette points out, there are many elected officials and citizen’s groups calling for creative solutions to get those affected out of harm’s way and into alternative housing and avoid the potentially serious health problems that can result from extended exposure to mold. We need to learn from the lessons of the past – including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina – and find workable solutions to address the ancillary, long-term harm to people that can last years after the clean up is over.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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One-stop Sandy aid centers a great step for NYC

The NYC Restoration Center in Coney Island.

Earlier this week Mayor Bloomberg announced the launch of NYC Restore, a citywide initiative opening Restoration Centers in  neighborhoods ravaged by Sandy to connect residents and businesses with information and referrals to available City services and the many local community-based organizations lined up to help, as well as provide onsite FEMA reimbursement processing and access to a number of government agencies – all in one place, from 8:00 AM – 8:00 PM. Call it one-stop disaster relief aid for hard-hit New Yorkers.

NYLAG, I am proud to say, will be a part of NYC Restore, providing services at the Centers. But even if we were not involved, I would be applauding the City for moving quickly to create a locally based, integrated system for people to get the help they need.  For recognizing even before the storm struck that the devastation would demand immediate and unique responses from every level of government. And for taking responsibility for developing an ongoing plan for restoring our citizens and our communities, long after FEMA is gone.

The one-stop service model is a proven success in business, and increasingly in the social services and public interest sectors.  Perhaps the mayor learned this firsthand as the founder of Bloomberg LP, a computerized information service for the financial industry that owes its legendary success to the famous Bloomberg terminal – you might call it a one-stop shopping machine for financial professionals.

The same model is certainly evident in the approach that New York’s Family Justice Centers have taken to helping victims of domestic violence, who NYLAG also works to support through our Family and Matrimonial Law Unit. The centers are community-based and bring together City agencies and community service providers, making it possible for domestic violence victims to meet with a prosecutor, speak with a trained counselor, and apply for housing and financial assistance in just one visit.

Another winning example of the approach is of course Single Stop, an antipoverty program initiated by the Robin Hood Foundation to address the multiple challenges facing poor people including hunger, access to health care, debt and unemployment with a range of services including financial and legal counseling and job training. The effort is so successful in New York that it has now expanded across the country.

I am glad to see an idea we know works well applied to the needs of our City in the wake of Sandy.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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What I am thankful for – Thanksgiving Day, 2012

I have much to be thankful for. Over the last several weeks, I have been privileged to lead the New York Legal Assistance Group in mobilizing a relief effort to help vulnerable New Yorkers cope with urgent legal needs in the wake of SuperStorm Sandy.

NYLAG staff working in temporary offices.

NYLAG responded quickly and deftly on October 29th because we were strong and ready on October 28th. NYLAG is a mature organization with solid fundamentals, a talented management team and staff, a skilled and supportive board, dedicated partners and generous donors. Their energy, talent and support were already in place when Sandy struck, and the result has been NYLAG at its best.

I am grateful to the NYLAG staff, who were themselves displaced from their offices and in many cases evacuated from their homes or left without power, yet who somehow managed to maintain their caseloads while turning to help an entirely new group of clients affected by the storm.

I am grateful to our longstanding supporters, many of whom contacted me even before I could get to them. To UJA-Federation of New York, which not only wrote us a check, but also opened its midtown offices to our management staff and the newly created Storm Response Unit. To the Robin Hood Foundation, which provided not only immediate financial assistance, but also portable technology that is enabling our attorneys to be more productive on the ground, 24/7. And to FJC, whose response to our request for support was, as always, both swift and so generous.

The Mobile Legal Help Center in Red Hook

I am grateful to our community-based partners and to elected officials across the City and Long Island who have coordinated and promoted events in hard-hit neighborhoods where our lawyers and volunteers are providing invaluable legal assistance. Thanks to this effective network, our services are reaching the people who need them most, both onsite at local agencies and on-board NYLAG’s Mobile Legal Help Center.

I am grateful to the legal community of New York. 11 firms (listed below) have graciously provided our lawyers with temporary office space and support, while at the same time over 1,000 lawyers from across the city have signed up for our recent trainings on FEMA applications and denials, and the growing list of other legal matters arising in the wake of the disaster. My phone still has not stopped ringing with offers of help.

In the weeks and months ahead we anticipate the need for legal assistance post-Sandy will only continue to grow. We have a long road ahead.

But today is Thanksgiving – and today I am grateful.

Cooley LLP

Kaye Scholer
 LLP

Kirkland & Ellis
 LLP

Mayer Brown

O’Melveny & Myers
 LLP

Patterson Belknap 
Webb & Tyler LLP

Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP

Robert Half Legal

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP

SNR Denton

Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP

This is the inaugural post in my new series “Public Interest First,” a place for me to share my thoughts about issues and events that matter, for NYLAG and for me personally. I will try to be interesting and at least occasionally provocative, but most of all succinct. I invite you to check back weekly for more posts.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

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