Legal aid services brace for more cuts

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comDecember 22, 2008 

Two years ago, Tasha Philpot was living in a domestic violence shelter. She had no money, no furniture, no family, no high school diploma and no self-confidence.

Today she has a good job, an apartment and a General Educational Development certificate and is taking college classes. And for the first time in her 26 years, she has control of her life.

Philpot gives all the credit to "Miss Florence," or Florence Huffman, a lawyer who works with a program that connects lawyers with people who can't pay for them.

"She's changed my life," Philpot said of Huffman. "I just can't thank her enough for everything that she has done for me."

But the non-profit program that connected Philpot and Huffman is in jeopardy. This year, funding for legal aid, which provides free or reduced-price civil legal help to the poor, has faced a series of budget cuts.

If more money isn't found soon, legal aid groups across Kentucky say, they will serve fewer people, lay off attorneys and possibly close some offices.

The state typically provides $1.5 million in funding for four legal aid organizations in Kentucky — Kentucky Legal Aid, Legal Aid of the Bluegrass, the Legal Aid Society in Louisville and the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund. But this fiscal year that was cut to $500,000 divided among the four agencies.

Then last week, Gov. Steve Beshear proposed cutting that $500,000 to $250,000. The additional cuts to legal aid were part of a package of proposed cuts to make up for a projected $456.1 million shortfall in the state budget.

And there's more bad news.

Federal funding for the four programs has remained flat or slightly decreased. Private foundation giving is also down. Some United Ways have already told legal aid groups to expect as much as a 20 percent decrease in their grants next year.

The state's four legal aid groups also depend on interest payments on lawyers' trust accounts for funding. Interest rates are at historic lows, which means yet another drop in funding.

Legal aid groups are trying to find private money and grants to stay open, but keeping the lights on and lawyers paid is becoming increasingly difficult.

"We're looking at closing offices and reducing staff," said Cynthia Elliott, director of the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund, which serves 37 counties in Eastern and southern Kentucky. "It will be devastating to our clients and the region. We bring dollars into the community and we help to change lives."

The cuts couldn't come at a worse time.

Before the cuts, legal aid groups turned away many who needed help fighting foreclosure or dealing with other housing problems, and signing up for Medicaid and prescription drug benefits.

"We serve about 50 percent of the people who call us," said Jeff Been, of the Legal Aid Society of Louisville. "That means for every one person we serve there is one person that we can't."

Demand is increasing

With the economy in tatters and more people facing foreclosure, more people are turning to legal aid groups to help save their homes.

The Legal Aid Society in Louisville typically had two or three people at its Tuesday workshops for those behind on their housing payments. Now it sees 10 or 15 people.

It was the staff at Legal Aid of the Bluegrass, which serves Northern and Central Kentucky, that kept Jessica Hollond in her home in the Covington area.

Hollond got behind in her house payments in June after she separated from her husband and lost hours at her housekeeping job in a hospital. She'd bought the house in 2005, when she was just 19.

A counselor at Legal Aid of the Bluegrass helped her restructure and lower her mortgage payments.

"I would have lost my house," Hollond said.

Dick Cullison, executive director of Legal Aid of the Bluegrass, is worried that success stories such as Hollond's will become a novelty.

He's already short six staff members, and he had trimmed about $400,000 from his payroll before the most recent cut was announced. Cullison and others say they hope they can persuade the legislature to restore $250,000 in funding in coming months as Beshear's cost-cutting plan is considered.

"We don't know why we have been singled out for such a huge budget cut," Cullison said. "We've already had a 67 percent cut before this most recent round of cuts. It seems pretty harsh. We've traditionally had bipartisan support. We're perplexed."

'She has ... faith in me'

Philpot says she knows where she would be if Huffman and Legal Aid of the Bluegrass hadn't entered her life. "I would have gone back to my husband," Philpot said.

She had left him but gone back dozens of times. She didn't have the courage, knowledge or money to leave the abusive relationship, she said.

Philpot was placed in foster care at 14 years old. She was raped and pregnant by 15. She met and married her husband young. She had no family. She had no idea of how to stand up for herself.

Huffman represented her in her divorce and child custody hearings. But Huffman was more than just a legal advocate, Philpot said.

"She has so much faith in me," Philpot said. "No one has ever had faith in me. It just changes your life."

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