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Legal services program shutting its doors

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A long-standing legal services organization in northeastern Indiana is closing its doors because of a lack of funding.

Legal Services of Maumee Valley has been struggling to stay open for the past six to eight years, but the last two years have been particularly difficult, said business manager Steven Morgan. The clinic has served the community for nearly 50 years. He said the only reason the legal services organization was able to stay open over the past year was because the former executive director, Ralph Adams, volunteered his time to take cases.

The organization ceased having a paid attorney in summer 2007 and funds for the organization went to pay rent, utilities, and Morgan's salary, as he is the only paid staff member.

Legal Services of Maumee Valley began in 1960 and grew to serve 11 counties in northeast Indiana at one point, although typically the organization served seven to nine counties: Adams, Allen, Dekalb, Huntington, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, Wells, and Whitley.

The group took financial hits in the 1980s and 1990s when Congress voted to slash funding of legal services corporations, leaving legal services groups in the state to vie for the one federally funded program. Indiana Legal Services was chosen to receive the funding, Morgan said.

"The funding was never adequate to do the job completely, and that's still true," he said. The organization has since relied on state funding, but even that money has dwindled over the years as additional legal services groups have entered Allen and surrounding counties and the funds are now divided four ways.

At its peak, Legal Services of Maumee Valley had more than $700,000 to spend in a fiscal year; this year, the organization is operating on a budget of less than $60,000.

"One of the saddest things is I think that we might have been able to remain open had we just another $10,000 or $15,000 a year," Morgan said. "We were doing a lot with very little because we were using the volunteer services of a few attorneys. But it did reach a point where the board said we just don't believe we can adequately and responsibly handle any more work."

The board made the decision in August and Legal Services of Maumee Valley stopped accepting referrals for general work at the end of September. The organization remains open for people seeking information on housing and utility issues until the day before Thanksgiving.

Morgan said the organization is offering to return any documents or files to past or current clients through Oct. 31; after that, they will preserve only the most recent files and destroy the rest. They are also referring people to the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Northeast Indiana, Indiana Legal Services, Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, and the Allen County Bar Association.

Morgan notes that this time in the U.S. economy, when it appears the country may head into a recession, is the worst time for a legal services organization to cease operations.

"The need for legal assistance by people who don't have funds to hire an attorney is increasing right now, and the ability to deliver services to these people is decreasing because we are going away," he said.

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