Financial Crisis Hits Volunteer Lawyer Services Program

Devoted readers of this column know that I have occasionally used my President’s Message as a place to light-heartedly publicize the VCBA’s Volunteer Lawyer Services Program, Inc. (VLSP), our pro bono legal services program, and to engage in some modest fund-raising for the program. It has been fun to do that, and I appreciate the participation by Ben Shuck, Lou Vigorita, Katie Pietrolungo and others. However, the fact of the matter is that the financial situation of VLSP is dire, and the help the program needs now goes beyond my meager efforts to date.

In my President’s message for March, I wrote about VLSP as part of my column describing the February Bar Leaders Conference. By way of a quick refresher course, please remember how very special and highly regarded this program has become over the last 15 years, with hundreds of lawyers providing untold hours of pro-bono legal services to the low-income and underserved population in the county. The program received special recognition in 2002, when our Emeritus Team of attorneys was awarded the California State Bar President’s Distinguished Pro Bono Service Award, honoring their commitment to provide legal services to the poor in our county.

And let’s face it – nobody can say no to Verna Kagan, VLSP’s Program Manager. Always ready with a warm smile and a get-to-work attitude, Verna’s energy is infectious, and her devotion to VLSP is ever-present. She is the personification of VLSP, and my personal hero when it comes to how a septuagenarian should live her life.

I sat down recently with Verna and she shared with me some up-to-the-minute statistics about the program. In 2009, VLSP handled 290 referrals for pro bono legal services, and through July 15 of this year, the program has handled over 130. Roughly half of the referrals were family law cases, dealing with child custody and visitation issues, while the remaining cases called for assistance with landlord-tenant matters, guardianships, and other legal matters. Verna also told me that the program has seen a marked increase in the number of people needing help due to the economic crisis, particularly with respect to housing, and those who have fallen victim to the various loan modification scams that have emerged in the wake of the housing market’s troubles. Vulnerable homeowners become victims of these programs, and VLSP refers many of these cases to the Real Estate Fraud Unit at the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office.

But it’s not all facts and figures, and each of the 130 matters that have crossed Verna’s desk this year has a face and story to go with it. Some of the most rewarding and memorable cases that VLSP works on involve families and children. Verna recalled for me the recent case of Bryan, a 13-year-old boy whose grandmother, Carmen Apodaca, wanted to adopt him (Apodaca’s case was also the subject of a May 29, 2009 story in the Ventura County Star). She had raised Bryan since he was just two weeks old, when she rescued him from a crack house and a bleak future. Bryan’s mother died when he was five years old, and Carmen has been the only mother he ever knew. Bryan already called Carmen “Mom,” but the law didn’t recognize Carmen as anything more than a de facto guardian for Bryan. It was the story of Bryan and Carmen that brought adoption attorney Michelle Erich to the VLSP Board in early 2009. Michelle had agreed to represent Carmen on a pro bono basis, but the home study required under state law runs a whopping $4,500. With free legal services and waivers of court fees, Carmen’s costs were reduced to $500, but on her monthly disability income, that figure was still insurmountable.

Michelle submitted a proposal that would allow VLSP to cover the costs of Bryan’s adoption. Through Michelle initiative, VLSP now has an ad hoc program that will review a request on a case-by-case basis, and if the applicant’s criteria fit, the adoption fee will be covered. Bryan and Carmen were the first family to be approved, and their story touched Verna, as she recalled Bryan telling Carmen after the adoption was approved that he could then “legally” call her mom. You can read more about Bryan and Carmen’s story at http://www.vcstar.com/news/2009/may/26/new-county-program-helping-low-income-families . Along with cases like Carmen’s, VLSP also handles those that range from the unusual to the bizarre. Thanks to Verna’s efforts, along with pro bono mediation services provided by the Hon. Melinda A. Johnson (Retired), VLSP recently assisted a family in resolving a bitter dispute over the burial of the cremains of their loved one. Verna is also presently helping a woman who has repeatedly received text messages telling her that her former husband and the father of her children is deceased. The problem is nobody can confirm it, or provide her with the hospital he was treated at, the circumstances of his death, or where he was buried. The most likely explanation is that he hopes to be At this point, you might be wondering when is the grim news and the plea for money coming? Well, here it is. The news is grim, and the need is real. At the midpoint in the calendar year, VLSP generally has approximately $60,000 cash on hand to considered dead, and thereby avoid payment of his child support. The poor fellow might wish he were dead if Verna finds him. Verna writes a column that appears most months in this publication, Pro Bono Highlights. I encourage you to read it, and find out more about the devoted people who make up VLSP, and the attorneys who donate their services pro bono to the needy in the county. run the program. Not a fabulously large sum of money, I must admit. But over the years Steve Henderson has used his considerable budgeting talents to successfully manage this money to last throughout the balance of the year. At the mid-point this year, VLSP had only about $13,000 cash on hand, and as talented as he is, Steve has no rabbits to pull out of his hat.

As the financial crisis became apparent, the VLSP Board of Directors kicked into gear to develop a fundraising mission. Thanks to the leadership of past-President Jon Light (2007), VLSP now has commitments from 18 lawyers, law firms and past-Presidents to support VLSP, most on an annual basis for up to five years (see CITATIONS page 6). If you haven’t already, you can expect to receive a phone call from either Jon or another one of our talented and persuasive board members asking you to support this most worthy activity of the Bar. As I write this, Jon and his committee have received over $25,000 in pledges, and are still working to contact as many people as possible to donate to VLSP. In this issue, you will find an outline of the commitments received to date, the giving opportunities, and a suggested amount that you can give, based on the size of your firm and your ability. The plain and simple fact of the matter is that without your additional support, VLSP will simply be unable to continue with its mission. I thank you in advance for your pledge to support VLSP. I also want to emphasize that we are not reliant solely on the generosity of our members to support VLSP. Fundraising occurs throughout the year from a variety of sources, including institutional donors, a small endowment at the Ventura County Community Foundation, and section events that regularly donate a portion of their proceeds to VLSP; the Ventura County Paralegal Association’s Annual Silent Auction and Wine Tasting; and the Ventura County Legal Professionals Association’s Annual “Boss of the Year” and “Secretary of the Year” Dinners. Thanks to President-Elect Joe Strohman, the Law Day 5K regularly brings in thousands of dollars a year for the program.

Oh, and there’s one more fundraiser coming up that I must mention. Please mark your calendars for Thursday, October 7, at 5:30 p.m., when we will be celebrating the occasion of Steve Henderson’s 20th year as our Executive Director. Please drop by the Topa Tower Club between 5:30 and 8:00 p.m., and raise a glass in honor of our fearless leader. As large a portion of the proceeds as possible will benefit VLSP, and I hope to see you all there. Those of you who know Steve know that this event is not something that he is clamoring for and, in fact, is only learning about it as he reads this column for the very first time. Sorry, Steve. The planning committee did consider Steve’s wishes and vigorously debated the issue for at least 90 seconds. In the end, we decided that since it will be a fundraiser for VLSP, Steve might be a little upset, but we were going to go forward with the event anyway. And, it gave us our theme for the party, “The Hell With Him, We’re Going To Do It Anyway!”

RSVP to Steve Henderson’s 20th Anniversary

A Message From The VCBA/VLSP, Inc.

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