By Karen L. Nicolson, Esq.
Legal Services for the Elderly, Disabled or Disadvantaged of WNY, Inc.
I recently spoke to the Aging Concerns Unite Us Conference presented by the Association on Aging in New York (www.agingny.org). This is a wonderful conference and a great opportunity for aging advocates from across New York to get together and share best practices and support one another. I was asked to present on collaboration between legal services providers and front line staff at the Area Offices for the Aging. I was happy to share a timeslot with Ken Genewick, our partner in the Niagara County Office for the Aging.Legal Services for the Elderly, Disabled or Disadvantaged of Western New York, Inc. (LSED) covers eight separate counties. Our primary goal is to use the legal system to assure that our clients live independently and with dignity. We receive funding from the local Offices for the Aging through Title III of the Federal Older Americans Act. Our mission meshes nicely with that of other AOA programs: “AOA programs and services funded under the Older Americans Act are designed to empower older persons to remain independent, healthy and safe within their homes and communities for as long as possible.” (From The Administration for Community Living website).
We consider ourselves to be a part of both the legal services network and the aging services network. The availability of legal services (called legal assistance under the Act) is another tool available to help older adults. We feel that it is important that the “boots on the ground” advocates, i.e., the Triple A staff, work closely with the legal assistance provider to assist clients. Unfortunately, this does not always occur. In some cases, everyone operates under the silo system of handing off legal issues to the legal assistance provider. At other times the OFA employees do not know how to spot legal issues. On occasion, OFA employees are unable to call their provider for guidance. All of these barriers are due to the limited funding provided for Legal Assistance under the federal Older Americans Act. For example, most of our contracts at LSED with local Offices of the Aging are under $10,000 (the lowest is $3,800) and the amounts remain stagnant year after year. How do you effect change for you clients with only a few hours of attorney time each month?
However, working together, there are ways to get the most out of those dollars. Several Counties in WNY have found additional state and local funds to support the Older Americans Act funding. Moreover, Chief Judge Lippman’s commitment to adding funding for civil legal services into his annual budget has enabled our agency to provide more services in each and every county where we have a current OFA contract. Last year, the Office of Court Administration funded 62 agencies throughout New York State, so these increased dollars should be available to all the local Offices for the Aging.
In addition to the above, LSED is part of two statewide initiatives that bring added value to our OFA relationships. LSED is on the “Think Group” of the Legal Services Initiative, a partnership between the State Office for the Aging, The State Office of Court Administration and the New York State Bar Association to find and create efficiencies to better advocate for persons with disabilities and senior citizens. These efficiencies will be created through better collaboration among providers, increased use of pro bono attorneys and new technology and legal assessment tools. The goal is to address the barriers that seniors and people with disabilities face when trying to access the justice system.
The Chief Judge has a second initiative which can provide a stream of professional volunteers to the legal assistance provider and thereby increase legal services to older adults. Since 2013, all applicants for admission to the New York State Bar must provide 50 hours of pro bono work before they will be granted a license to practice law. This has greatly expanded LSED’s volunteer pool. We expect to double our volunteer hours this year as LSED has seen a significant increase in applicants for volunteer positions since the pro bono requirement was adopted. I am sure that our experience is not unique and that most legal services providers are seeing a sharp increase in their volunteers.
Thanks to the leadership of NYSOFA and Chief Judge Lippman, local OFA and Legal Assistance providers are making great strides in working collaboratively and efficiently to help our joint clients. This is an exciting time in both the legal services and aging communities and I am happy that LSED works within both groups. Working together takes creativity and an on-going commitment to the cause. Collaboration is hard and difficult to sustain. But it is the way we do our best work. As Henry Ford said “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”