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ABA tool highlights veterans’ legal issues

July 26, 2017
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Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic attorney Matthew Gaudin, right, works with the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation to provide legal aid to veterans such as Walter Young, left. (Photo courtesy of Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation)

To ensure a healthy lifestyle, doctors recommend their patients visit for a yearly checkup that can help identify potential issues before they develop into serious medical problems. With that concept in mind, American Bar Association President Linda Klein wondered why the bar couldn’t do the same for legal issues.

That question, coupled with Klein’s passion for addressing the legal needs of America’s veterans, led to the creation of Legal Checkup for Veterans. The online tool from the ABA enables veterans to find legal services in their area that will help with their individual needs. More often than not, the problems that lead to veteran homelessness find their roots in legal troubles, Klein said, creating a need for a service that points veterans toward resources that can help them get back on their feet.

The concept of Legal Checkup for Veterans, which can be found at veteranslegalcheckup.com, is similar to a routine checkup at a doctor’s office, said Nicole Bradick, chief strategy officer with CuroLegal, a legal tech company that assisted in the website’s development.

The first step is for veterans to answer an online questionnaire about their “symptoms” — the life problems they are currently facing, such as a lack of stable housing or employment. Then, using the responses and ZIP code, the website produces a “prescription,” or a list of potential legal problems and resources where the veteran can go to receive help. Possible responses could include do-it-yourself fixes that don’t require legal services, a referral to the local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office, or the name of a legal service provider that specializes in a relevant legal area, Bradick said.

“We try to make it as easy as possible, with bite-sized actions to help veterans help themselves,” Bradick said.

Addressing veterans’ legal needs has been a major part of Klein’s presidency, and it’s an effort she traces back to her days as an attorney volunteering at a men’s homeless shelter. A large portion of the shelter’s population was veterans, a fact Klein said was troubling to her when she considered their sacrifices.

“Without veterans, there would be no rule of law,” Klein said. “We rely on the men and women in uniform, and so there’s a responsibility for veterans that all Americans should take part of.”

Flashforward to today, when roughly 40,000 veterans around the nation are homeless. Klein said she knew the country — and lawyers, in particular — could do better. About 11 months ago, the ABA and its partners began researching the various resources available to veterans across the country, input the data and developed a comprehensive list of legal services veterans could access with one trip to the website.

“We don’t know of anything else like this,” Klein said.

In Indiana alone, there are as many as 800 homeless veterans, the ABA president said, and services such as statewide veterans court, the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation or the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic have already begun the legal work that Klein is seeking to accomplish. But Matt Gaudin, an NCLC staff attorney who works with referrals from HVAF, said the ABA’s new national initiative will shine a greater spotlight on the need for legal service providers to address veterans’ concerns.

veterans-factbox.gifOften, a simple problem left unchecked can snowball into a life without stable work or housing for veterans, Gaudin said. For example, veterans without a driver’s license often can’t get a job. Without a job, they can’t pay their child support, which could then lead to their driver’s licenses being suspended.

Klein agreed, recalling the time a team of attorneys she was working with helped a homeless veteran obtain a government-issued ID. That simple fix helped the man gain access to the benefits he was entitled to, which then enabled him to get off the streets almost instantly.

Similarly, Floyd Superior Judge Maria Granger, founder of the state’s first veterans court, noted that mental health issues such as substance abuse also frequently contribute to veterans’ legal troubles. That’s why programs such as veterans courts — which seek to understand how military service impacts the veterans’ lives as civilians — are important tools in addressing the underlying legal problems that lead to homelessness.

Klein praised local programs such as veterans courts and Indiana Free Legal Answers — a Hoosier affiliate of ABA Free Legal Answers — for their work toward furthering the ABA’s goal of responding to veteran homelessness and legal problems. Both Gaudin and Granger said they will likely refer the people who come through their offices or courtroom to Legal Checkup for Veterans as a tool on their road back to self-sufficiency.

Trent Sandifur, a veteran and attorney with Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP who is HVAF board chair, said establishing self-sufficiency among struggling veterans is HVAF’s primary goal.

As the population of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan grows, Sandifur said lawyers are becoming increasingly aware of the deep-seated legal problems that are keeping veterans from a being self-sufficient. That awareness is inspiring more in the legal community to get involved with veterans’ programs, which is a positive step toward accomplishing HVAF’s goal, he said.

Klein agreed, noting that there are now 21 million veterans across the United States, each facing post-duty problems that, if not checked, could create larger legal issues down the road. Though initiatives have been in place at the local level for many years to address these issues, Klein and the local attorneys welcome the attention the Legal Checkup for Veterans will bring to them.

“It brings a sense of national organization to problems that are being addressed at the local level,” Sandifur said. “If you bring that national organization and its best practices, I think it’s going to have a positive impact on how legal services are given to veterans.”•

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