Free legal aid program changing lives, but future uncertain

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Barbara Dinwiddie is an 87-year-old widow, pinching pennies to get by on Social Security and a small pension.

Sometimes, the longtime Indianapolis resident admits, she has trouble keeping up with her bills.

So in December, Dinwiddie called her phone company to see whether there was any way to trim her bill.

"I had a cellphone I didn't use that much," she said, "and I thought I might get rid of it, because it was costing me more than my home phone."

The man she spoke to at the phone company said he would take care of Dinwiddie.

Not long after that call, someone showed up at her Eastside home and began wiring it for Internet access — even though Dinwiddie doesn't have a computer or surf the Web.

Then a second cellphone was added to her account.

And that was followed by a bill for more than $300.

Suddenly, Dinwiddie found herself even deeper in the hole than before.

"I was trying to cut down my bills, and this happened," Dinwiddie told The Indianapolis Star ( ) during a break from her volunteer work helping feed low-income neighbors at Trinity CME Church on Dr. Andrew J. Brown Avenue.

"I was right back where I started."

But thanks to a free new legal assistance program — a joint project of Indiana Legal Services, the Heartland Pro Bono Council and John H. Boner Community Center — Dinwiddie's problem was soon resolved.

Cheryl Koch-Martinez, the Indiana Legal Services attorney who staffs the part-time program, contacted the phone company, and the tide quickly turned. The threatening notices stopped coming in the mail, replaced by a final bill that showed Dinwiddie's balance due had finally fallen to zero.

"I don't know what I would have done without that help," she said. "I wouldn't have been able to pay a lawyer."

That's the idea behind the Consumer Advocacy Project, launched in October with about $60,000 in proceeds left over from a settlement in a class-action lawsuit against an unscrupulous payday lender.

Just six months in, the value of the new program is obvious, said Boner Chief Executive Officer James Taylor.

"As you can imagine," he said, "a lot of our low-income neighbors don't typically have access to legal representation."

Taylor said the project complements the center's financial literacy programs, adding a new resource and expertise on-site to help clients move toward a goal of financial stability.

"A lot of it," Koch-Martinez said, "is about being there for people."

Koch-Martinez has already provided direct assistance to more than 50 people like Dinwiddie. The most common problems people bring to her involve debts, collections and federal taxes. She also has conducted educational programs and training for more than 250 other clients and is developing a pool of consumer law attorneys to help provide pro bono assistance.

Details of accomplishments from the program's first six months are included in a report Koch-Martinez submitted Thursday to Marion Circuit Court, which directed the money left over from the class-action settlement to the new project.

"We're just scratching the tip of the iceberg," she said of the success stories detailed in the report.

Whether the program will dig any deeper into that iceberg, however, remains in question. The funding from the court settlement is only enough to cover one year of operation.

Koch-Martinez and Taylor said they want to find a way for the project to continue long into the future.

The hope, Taylor said, is that these initial success stories will demonstrate "what a dramatic difference (the project) can make in people's lives" and help attract new funding sources. Their success, or failure, in finding that new money will ultimately determine the project's fate.

Still, Koch-Martinez and Taylor remain optimistic the necessary money will be found — not only to continue the project at Boner, but also to expand it to other community centers around Indianapolis.

"It's a very unique project, and it seems to be generating a lot of interest," Koch-Martinez said. "Seeing what we've already been able to do is really energizing."

Lydia Farris, 44, Indianapolis, is the beneficiary of another of the program's early successes. She said the value of the free legal help cannot be overstated.

"This program was basically a lifesaver for me," she said.

Farris said she was directed to Koch-Martinez after her landlord illegally locked her out of her apartment on a snowy winter night.

"She represented me, and we won," Farris said. "I wouldn't have been able to hire a lawyer to fight it, but she was really, really helpful, and we were able to take care of it."

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