Neighborhood Legal Services has been offering quality, free legal assistance for decades
Looking to continue with new innovations
By Zackary Kephart
Special to Niagara Frontier Publications
Niagara Falls may be known as a geological wonder of the world, but as its citizens know, there's more to the city than that. There's a spirit and drive to help others in Niagara Falls, whether it be through the St. Vincent De Paul Parish, Community Missions or Catholic Charities.
Needless to say, the opportunities to give back to the community are endless and, today, one organization would like to spread the word about the new ways it plans to continue serving the community. The name? Neighborhood Legal Services (NLS).
Imagine this: A woman who is nine months pregnant is about to lose her home. She would have no place for her newborn child. The reason would simply be due to a lack of running water, making it so the city would condemn the home she was renting.
Such a reality faced Colleen Atwood.
Last year, NLS was featured on WIVB
-TV Channel 4 for helping Atwood fix that exact problem.
Atwood was represented by NLS attorney Danielle Bruno. Thanks to Bruno's work, the Water Board re-evaluated its shutoff policy, amending it with what was dubbed the "Atwood Clause" to restrict arbitrary disconnections by landlords.
This is just one example of how NLS has helped its community.
NLS is a civil legal services, nonprofit organization serving low-income, disabled and other residents in need in Western New York. It is funded primarily by the Federal Legal Services Corp., the Interest on Lawyer Account Fund of the state of New York, and a grant from the New York State Assembly. Financial support is also provided by the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, as well as various state agencies
In 2004, NLS's Buffalo office merged with two other legal services programs: Niagara County Legal Aid Society, located in Niagara Falls and serving Niagara County; and Oak Orchard Legal Services, located in Batavia and serving Orleans, Genesee and Wyoming counties. NLS now provides services primarily in Erie, Niagara, Orleans Genesee and Wyoming counties.
Jennifer Graesser, grant manager for NLS, says that, in 2017, NLS attorneys and staff provided services to 19,712 people, including 554 people in households victimized by domestic violence, and 294 U.S. veterans. From ensuring homeless families were able to be housed and fed to assisting disabled people as they attempted to rejoin the workforce, NLS attorneys and staff fought to ensure essential needs of the impoverished and disabled in the community were met.
On Jan. 15, Lauren Breen assumed the duties of the executive director of NLS after an exhaustive nationwide search. Breen was a staff attorney at NLS in her early career and later served on its board as president from 1997-99. She retired from the University at Buffalo School of Law after serving for 24 years as a clinical professor, and thus brings with her not only a wealth of knowledge, but also an infectious passion and energy for serving those members of the community who might otherwise not have a voice or access to quality legal services.
Breen says her biggest inspiration to serve others came through her upbringing.
"I was brought up Catholic and lived in Lackawanna. A lot of people I went to school with didn't have a lot. It was easy for me to see that from an economic perspective," she says. "In fourth grade, I moved to Orchard Park, and I immediately saw the socioeconomic differences between the students I previously went to school with and the ones I went to school with now. Seeing that stark contrast had a deep impact on me to want to help serve others."
When questioned as to the differences in the organization between her tenure as a staff attorney and now, she says that, in 1996, one of their co-funders put restrictions on funding to prohibit NLS from doing class actions. Thus, NLS had to be creative in its legal thought process in order to still effect wide-ranging systemic changes. She is quick to credit the hard work and dedication of Penny Selmonsky, supervising attorney of the public benefits unit, as an example of this approach.
Selmonsky's challenge arose out of the large influx in the refugee population that has chosen to call Western New York home. She was tasked in finding a way to connect clients who have limited English proficiency (LEP) with services. She has been responsible for implementing a new program on the organization's website, called "interpretation services."
Selmonsky says that implementation arose by way of a particular case that came NLS's way.
"By way of background, there is a federal law; Title Six of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that states you cannot deny meaningful access to services based on discrimination because of national origin. We were seeing people who were trying to access benefits, but couldn't because they couldn't speak the language. In response, NLS filed an official complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in their office for civil rights. We filed a complaint on behalf of five Burmese- and Karen-speaking people who were unable to get help because of their language barrier.
"The Office of Civil Rights gets hundreds of complaints each year. After three years of advocacy, we were fortunate that we were able to convince HHS that our claim was meritorious, and that our case was worth their time. We worked very closely with the supervisory equal opportunity specialist at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services office for civil rights. As a result of our complaint, HHS is requiring the Erie County Department of Social Services to improve language access services for all of our refugees and those who are limited in English proficiency. Now there is an agreement between HHS and the Department of Social Services in which they have agreed, as required by law, to provide meaningful language access services by providing translation of documents and interpretation services for refugees who need it."
Breen, in further assessing the needs of the community, was also quick to point out issues with transportation.
"Approximately 29 percent of the people in Buffalo do not have a car," she notes.
While public transportation exists in the City of Niagara Falls, it is often a cumbersome process, and for those in the outlying areas of the five counties they serve, it's virtually nonexistent. To that end, Breen, in conjunction with the University at Buffalo School of Medicine, has recently been working to develop a medical-legal partnership between the two entities. This would allow for the purchase of a van to house both a medical office and a legal office that could go into the neighborhoods where transportation is an issue.
It would also offer a holistic approach. For example, a victim of domestic violence who seeks medical attention could also meet with an attorney to seek an order of protection, if needed.
Breen says, "The interesting thing about medical legal partnerships is that many health-related issues that lower-income people face can often be made better by holistically addressing all the issues they face."
NLS, in furtherance of addressing those with health issues, has a strong disability advocacy project (DAP) unit to assist those individuals who are entitled to receive federal Social Security benefits in obtaining them.
Joe Clark, supervising attorney of the DAP unit, says, "I think disability work is important, especially with what we do at NLS, because we do not charge a fee for our services for those individuals who are 200 percent below the federal poverty guidelines. If they go to a private attorney, they are typically charged 25 percent of their back award, with a cap of $6,000. That money, however, can make a huge difference in the lives of the disabled or working poor."
Deborah Olszowka, a staff attorney in the unit for 30 years, is also quick to point out that receipt of any back awards often provides an economic boost to the local economy, as many NLS clients purchase necessary goods and services in the community where they reside.
When asked where she sees NLS in the future, Selmonsky says, "Neighborhood Legal Services has been a leader in the provision of civil legal services in the Western New York community for over 40 years now. We have provided free, high-quality legal assistance for decades to low-income and disabled members of our community. We have recently hired a new executive director and we are all very excited. With her leadership, we are looking forward to building upon our decades of experience to create an even stronger program.
"Our new director is having us dig deep into how to meet the emerging needs of our community and asking us to re-examine and create effective methods and strategies to address challenges and emerging needs. We are looking at different ways of delivering services and creating new partnerships in the community. We have a talented and seasoned staff and now we have this synergy that I think will allow us to provide even more effective methods to provide access to justice through individual representation, community work and systemic reform."
Breen also says she'd like to acquire the resources to hire additional staff. Her major goal is to "modernize the organization in terms of new technology to better manage our offices. We want this not only for our staff, but for the people we serve, as well."
Find additional information about NLS on its website HERE