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Restructuring revises coverage area for some pro bono offices

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In 2011, the Indiana Pro Bono Commission formed a redistricting committee to research whether the state pro bono districts should be reconfigured to mirror Indiana’s 26 judicial districts. The group recommended that instead, the districts should be realigned in a way that would better meet the needs of poor people in Indiana.

As of Jan. 1, Indiana has 12 pro bono districts, down from 14, which are now denoted by a letter rather than a number. Some district boundaries shifted – particularly those closest to Richmond and Terre Haute, whose districts were absorbed by surrounding offices. Some districts saw no change in the boundaries. But all saw a sharp decrease in funding from the year before, marking the third straight year of declining funds.

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According to the United States Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, 15.3 percent of Indiana’s population was living in poverty in 2010, up from 14.4 percent in 2009 and 12.9 percent in 2008. But during that same time, funding for pro bono services has been steadily dropping, and no one can predict when that downward trend may change.

Doing more with less

The boundaries of Pro Bono District C (formerly District 3) – the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Northeast Indiana – have not changed, but its budget has. It received only $35,000 this year in funds from interest on lawyer trust accounts. That’s about 20 percent less than the $179,184 spent on personnel costs alone in 2009.

Terry McCaffrey, District C plan administrator, said that the district had to eliminate two jobs in 2010 to make up for budgetary reductions but that he did not expect further layoffs this year. He said a few other local grants will help supplement its budget and, so far, no programs or services have been cut. But McCaffrey said fundraising is going to be essential going forward.

“This is going to be a first-time effort for us, going to door-to-door asking attorneys for donations, but we’re optimistic,” he said.

In Bloomington, District H (formerly District 10) absorbed Clay, Putnam, Hendricks and Morgan counties in the statewide restructuring. Last year – before the addition of those four counties – one full-time and one part-time attorney served 683 people, plan administrator Diane Walker said.

In 2009, when the district still had an office manager, $82,141.06 was allocated to personnel costs. Total funding for 2012 is $79,000.

“We’re going to try to keep it our normal operation, but we’re going to have to do a lot more fundraising, grant-writing and appeals letters,” Walker said. “We’re going to be doing the same that other nonprofits do, which is fundraising and getting by on a prayer.”

Pro Bono District J (formerly District 12) – the Legal Volunteers of Southeast Indiana – wrote in its 2009 annual report and combined 2011 grant application: “Pro bono districts are being encouraged to seek other funding sources or to engage in fund-raising. While this is a pragmatic decision for some districts, it will be especially difficult to accomplish in District 12, where the plan administrator is part-time and the demands of intake, referral, record-keeping, and maintaining the business health of the program already demand more than part-time efforts.”

A group effort

In Evansville, the Volunteer Lawyer Program of Southwestern Indiana (District K) works in conjunction with two other pro bono providers to serve the people of Vanderburgh County.

“The technical word is collaborate, but we say we play well together,” said Beverly Corn, District K plan administrator.

Legal Aid Society of Evansville and Indiana Legal Services’ Evansville office predate District K (formerly District 13). Corn said those two offices already had a thorough, effective process for handling intake, so when her district opened, she saw no need to “reinvent the wheel” regarding intake.

LAS and ILS-Evansville combined have the administrative staff to handle intake for all three pro bono providers, Corn said. And almost every Friday since 2004, Corn has attended a group meeting at the invitation of ILS, where attorneys review cases and decide which would be best handled by a particular office.

Corn’s district now includes Sullivan and Vigo counties, and Vigo is a two-hour drive from Evansville. She said her district has sent letters of introduction to every member of the Sullivan and Vigo county bar associations to try to make new connections in those counties.

“I think the biggest challenge is going to be distance, and the second challenge is going to be, how do we handle referrals for those two counties, because from what I recall, they are served by the Lafayette office of ILS,” Corn said.

Corn said District K does not have the resources to handle its own intake for the additional counties, and she hopes to create some type of collaborative relationship with the ILS-Lafayette office akin to the current partnership with ILS-Evansville.

“Obviously, everybody got cut a little bit more this year, and that’s OK, we’re going to make it work, but I will not be able to travel back and forth to those northernmost counties on a regular basis due to budgetary concerns,” she said.•

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