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Non-profit offers legal aid to food pantry clients

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On a sunny, brisk Tuesday morning in March, the parking lot for the St. Vincent de Paul Society warehouse on the northeast side of Indianapolis was completely full. Some people visiting the largest food pantry in the state, if not the Midwest, needed to park on the street and walk two blocks to get their free groceries for the week.

On that day alone, Jake Asher, the food pantry's day manager and past president of the all-volunteer organization, said he estimated they would be helping 900 families throughout the day, and the pantry had been helping a total of about 3,000 families each week. The organization also has a furniture and clothes warehouse, and a medical clinic.

A handful of those 900 families visited the Ozanam Free Legal Clinic in a small office space with a phone, computer, a few chairs, a desk, and a handful of legal books.

Available only to clients who've met the income requirements to receive other services from St. Vincent de Paul Society, Indianapolis attorney Kevin Tyra and other volunteer attorneys first started seeing clients at the legal aid clinic in late 2002.

Since then, he and other volunteer attorneys, including Stephanie Crossin, Michael Gabovich, Rick Malad, Judy Hester, Richard Hersberger, and paralegals Amy Heustis and Brenda Davidson have helped clients with issues that include "family law - particularly guardianship, child custody, and support, landlord-tenant, mortgage problems, creditor-debtor, employment, name changes, various Social Security issues, driver's license problems, and the preparation and execution of wills and related documents," according to their 2009 annual report.

Malad compared the variety of issues the clinic sees to his volunteer work with the Indianapolis Bar Association's Ask a Lawyer program.

Another attorney who volunteers for the clinic is Jerry Padgett, who worked with Tyra on a two-day trial in Marion Circuit Court and the subsequent appeal. Those efforts resulted in a decision where the legal aid clinic's client was able to keep her child. The Jan. 29 for-publication Court of Appeals decision is In the Matter of the Paternity of T.P., M. and M.L. v. B.C. and M.P., No. 49A02-0907-JV-685.

In that case, according to the Court of Appeals decision, a child had stayed with caretakers after she was determined to be a Child in Need of Services. The mother went through the appropriate services and got her child back from the caretakers. Claiming circumstances had changed, the caretakers claimed they were the de facto parents and should have custody of the child.

When the mother came to the clinic, Tyra said they wanted to help because the caretakers had more resources and an attorney, making it more difficult for Tyra's client to have a fair chance.

Tyra added even though the mother wasn't a model citizen, she had been doing her best to be a good mom to her child.

That level of work is atypical for the allvolunteer clinic, Tyra said, as many issues that can't be resolved with a letter or phone call are referred to other legal clinics, particularly Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society legal clinic is available to clients every Tuesday. Clients complete an intake form about their legal issue and sign up for a 15-minute time slot a week in advance.

Tyra said many schedules fill up, but often only about half of the clients show up for the scheduled times. So while 15 minutes seems like a short amount of time, the attorneys take as much time as they need to resolve the issue or give the client a referral. Volunteers often don't know what they will get until they get to the clinic.

In 2009, attorney volunteers spent 91.5 hours helping clients during scheduled visits, plus 124 hours on cases outside of the clinic. Paralegals donated 18 hours of their time. Tyra also reported he spent about 30 hours on administrative tasks for the clinic, including "volunteer recruiting and scheduling, and report preparation."

All these hours were spent helping more than 154 clients during the 2009 calendar year. The clinic report defines "client" as anyone who came to the clinic, which includes couples and families who were only counted once and not as the number of people helped.

In 2008, the clinic helped 135 clients, and volunteers gave 90 hours in the clinic and 87.5 hours outside the clinic. In 2007, the clinic helped 89 clients over the course of 80.5 hours in the clinic, and 50 hours outside of the clinic.

Like most legal aid clinics, Tyra said this one has seen an increase during the past few years in issues regarding creditor's rights, bankruptcy, housing, unemployment, and other situations that have to do with decreases in income due to the loss of a job or fewer hours at the jobs clients do have.

While some of the clients can come in with complex cases, Tyra said many can be resolved with the simple involvement of an attorney.

In one case, he said, a client was denied housing through an agency because of an issue they couldn't tell her about. When she had the volunteer attorney at the clinic look into it for her, it turned out the file that explained why she should be denied was missing, so they were able to work it out and she got housing assistance after all.

Malad, who volunteers on a monthly basis when he can, saw a client recently who didn't understand why he was still paying child support for a child in his 20s. In that case, he helped the client learn he would need to pay arrearages on child support, even though the child was older. Malad also helped that client figure out who he needed to contact to determine how much money he still owed and how long it would take for him to pay it off.

As to why he got involved with the clinic a few years ago, Malad said, "I promote pro bono work with everyone - especially younger lawyers - because I feel that's what they should do as a lawyer."

He added giving two hours a month in the clinic, plus driving time, isn't a huge commitment and recommended other attorneys consider getting involved.

The organization appreciates the clinic's work as well.

"I think it's wonderful," Asher said. "Even though our clients could never afford an attorney, amazing people are here to help them."

Tyra said they're always seeking volunteer attorneys. To volunteer, he suggested they contact him at (317) 636-1304 or kevin.tyra@tyralaw.net.
 

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