CHARLESTON – Families at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School will be able to access legal services through Legal Aid of West Virginia, thanks to a 24-month, $270,028 pro bono innovation fund grant from Legal Services Corp.
The pro bono innovation fund was established by Congress and enables more pro bono lawyers to serve those who have barriers to legal services, including the elderly, disabled and low-income families. In fact, the west side neighborhood of Charleston, site of the Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School, is home to many of West Virginia’s low-income families.
Approximately 500 children attend the school and, based upon school data, more than 75 percent face domestic violence, are exposed to adult substance abuse, suffer child abuse and 20 percent are homeless or living in shared homes. They also face eviction at a higher rate than children in most other West Virginia communities.
Kate White, Legal Aid of West Virginia's access to services manager, said those very barriers are why the grant is so important. In fact, 14 percent of the population do not have a vehicle. So the pro bono attorneys who volunteer to help will be at the school several times each month to work with families needing legal services. They’ll provide onsite advice, brief services and assistance in completing pleadings.
“If a student comes home from school and all of the family’s belongings are on the sidewalk because they’ve been evicted, that could impact the student’s ability to perform well in school,” White told The West Virginia Record. “If a student’s parents are not in the picture for whatever reason and grandma provides the care, but she needs to make a medical decision for you and can’t because she’s never gotten the legal documentation to do that, then that would jeopardize the student.”
The grant money will enable Legal Aid to hire an attorney and a paralegal to focus on supporting the volunteers and recruiting volunteers. There also will be training available to attorneys who aren’t an expert in a certain area. The attorney and paralegal dedicated to the project also can help determine what else Legal Aid can do for the school’s families.
This is the first such arrangement between Legal Aid of West Virginia and the school. White said the school is thrilled for the arrangement and Legal Aid is “really excited.”
“We’ve struggled to engage pro bono attorneys in targeted ways and this is an opportunity in a targeted way for attorneys to donate a couple of hours of time in a year or a month to help people out, to get them steered in the right direction and receive basic guidance,” White said. “We also hope to have attorneys mentor students and even lead mock trials, so the students understand the legal system.”
Carl Rauscher with Legal Services Corp. (LSC) said this is the third year LSC has awarded the pro bono innovation grants.
“The creation of the fund was recommended by LSC’s pro bono task force in 2012,” Rauscher told the The West Virginia Record. “Congress allocated $2.5 million for it in LSC’s fiscal year 2014 appropriation and increased that allocation to $4 million in LSC’s fiscal year 2015 appropriation. It remained at $4 million in LSC’s fiscal year 2016 appropriation. In addition to the 11 grants we awarded this year, we awarded 15 last year and 11 the year before.”
There will be a kickoff event for the grant Oct. 20 from 5:30-7 p.m. at Black Sheep Burrito and Brews, 162 Summers St., Charleston. Supreme Court of Appeals Chief Justice Margaret L. Workman will be the special guest.