Written by Jack Hagen

Jul 15


Housing Shortage in DC Affects Domestic Violence Survivors

The Washington Post recently highlighted a disturbing trend that impacts domestic violence survivors attempting to leave abusive relationships: although funding for organizations providing safe housing has increased in the past six years, the availability of transitional housing and shelter units for survivors has decreased due to the rising cost of housing in the District of Columbia.  Fewer safe housing options for DV survivors means that more survivors often must continue to live with their abusers. Unfortunately, Legal Aid attorneys frequently see this trend play out in our client population.

One of my clients, whom I’ll call Ms. Smith, had been abused by her boyfriend for years.  Multiple times, she returned to live with her abuser after very violent abuse because she relied on him and his family for housing. After a recent violent assault, Ms. Smith filed a petition for and received a Civil Protection Order. She left court that day, order in hand, with no place to go.  With no income other than Social Security disability benefits, Ms. Smith’s prospects of finding sustainable, safe housing in the District were very limited.  She lived in a shelter for a few weeks, but time at DV shelters is short because beds are in high demand.  Ultimately, Ms. Smith returned to her abusive relationship. Read more →

Jun 30


Supreme Court Upholds Gun Ban for Domestic Violence Convictions

The Supreme Court issued its decision in Voisine v. United States on Monday, ruling 6-2 that people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors can be banned from owning guns.  Justice Kagan authored the majority opinion, and Justice Thomas authored the dissent, which Justice Sotomayor joined in part.

The petitioners in the case were two men from Maine who were convicted of misdemeanor assaults – one against his wife, and the other against his girlfriend.  After their domestic violence convictions, both of these men were found with firearms, and charged with crimes under federal law.  These men argued that their domestic violence crimes were reckless, but not intentional, so the gun law should not apply.  The Supreme Court disagreed. Read more →

Jun 28


The Myth of “The Undeserving Poor”

How long will politicians use welfare and food stamps recipients as budgetary punching bags? For as long as we let them. The latest in this year’s scapegoating of the poor comes from Maine, where embattled Governor Paul LePage is threatening to cut his state’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (“SNAP,” the new name for “food stamps”) because the Department of Agriculture refuses to ban the purchase of certain items from the program. “I can think of only one reason the federal government would refuse to eliminate junk food from the [SNAP] menu,” said LePage, in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “special interests.”  LePage isn’t alone in his quest to ensure Americans in poverty are without small pleasures like birthday cake. Read more →

Jun 13


Legal Aid Helps Shape Implementation of Medicaid Program for People with Disabilities

Last week, I submitted comments on behalf of Legal Aid on the District of Columbia Medicaid program’s Home and Community-Based Services Waiver for the Elderly and Persons with Physical Disabilities.  The waiver authorizes DC to pay for services that allow thousands of residents to receive needed care and supports in their homes, and avoid moving into a nursing home or institution.

Our comments focused specifically on a program within the waiver that is being implemented for the first time this year.  The program, Services My Way, allows people to select and hire their own attendant staff, rather than receiving services through a home care agency.  We previously blogged about our cautious optimism around the program.

In our comments, Legal Aid expressed support for the waiver renewal but also offered suggestions for critical modifications so that Services My Way benefits those who chose it.  It is our hope that the Department of Health Care Finance implements our comments to improve the Services My Way program for District residents who rely on these essential services.

May 18


Late Fee Fairness Act Provides Necessary Reforms

On Monday, I testified before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Housing and Community Development in favor of the Late Fee Fairness Amendment Act of 2016 (“Late Fee Fairness Act”).  This bill would provide critical protections to District tenants and addresses many inequities that Legal Aid’s clients currently face.

Just recently Legal Aid represented a tenant who had been sued for nonpayment of rent who would have benefited greatly from the Late Fee Fairness Act. This tenant had tried to pay her monthly rent, in full and on time, but the landlord refused her rent because the landlord alleged she owed some late fees for a couple months that were paid late more than a year before. Eventually, the landlord accepted her rent but still sued her for eviction. The landlord said she was behind on her rent because the landlord credited her rent payment to the old alleged late fee balances instead of to her rent. Read more →

May 11


The Profound Impact of Debt Collection Lawsuits on Low-Income Americans

For the past few years, ProPublica has performed extensive research about how state court systems are used to collect consumer debts across the country.  Paul Kiel’s latest story, “So Sue Them: What We’ve Learned About the Debt Collection Lawsuit Machine,” provides a concise account of the devastating and profound effects that debt collection lawsuits have on millions of Americans.

The multi-year study found that debt buyers filed more collection cases than any other type of plaintiff in most courts across the country.  Debt buyers purchase distressed debt, such as defaulted credit card accounts, for pennies on the dollar.  An illustrative example of the growth of the debt buying industry and its use of the court system can be found in New Jersey, where the number of court judgments obtained by debt buyers went from a mere 500 in 1996 to 140,000 in 2008. Read more →

May 11


Legal Aid Helps Those Facing Sky-High Prescription Drug Prices

Last week, the Washington Post ran an alarming article, the title of which announced, “Cutting pills in half may save you a bunch in prescription drug costs.”  As a public benefits attorney, I was troubled to see this discussion of the “benefits” of pill-splitting without any mention of one of the biggest culprits of high drug costs for people in Medicare: having the wrong insurance coverage.  For the thousands of Washingtonians who have prescription drug coverage through Medicare Part D, being in the wrong plan can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs.

As we’ve previously blogged about, each year the private prescription drug plans that offer coverage under Part D change.  Legal Aid and Whitman-Walker Health coordinate an annual series of clinics where we are able to help scores of people like “Rita,” an 86 year-old woman with severe visual impairment.  Rita would have faced $7,900 a year in drug costs if we had not changed her plan.  Cutting pills in half may be the only option for some, but we hope low-income Medicare recipients will first consider consulting an expert to make sure they are in the right plan before they resort to the pill splitter.

May 05


Advocates to Council: Time to Fix TANF is Now

An old adage goes: if you truly want to know someone’s priorities, just take a look at her checkbook. Last Friday, advocates implored the D.C. Council to elevate the need to protect 13,000 District children and their families from losing crucial cash assistance by funding a robust set of exemptions and extensions to TANF’s draconian time limits in the FY 2017 budget.

Legal Aid and our community partners have spoken frequently about the dangers the District’s plan to cut 13,000 kids and their families from the TANF program but the points bear repeating: TANF is a critical safety net for District families struggling toward full-time sustained employment in an economy that often does not have room for them, and it is a lifeline for District families facing insurmountable barriers to self-sufficiency.

Eric Angel, Legal Aid’s Executive Director, personally testified before the Council Committee of the Whole to emphasize the importance of preventing the TANF Cliff, stating: “We should do all we can for the Districts most vulnerable families.” Read more →

Apr 22


Pro Bono Firms Lauded at 40 at 50 Breakfast!

On April 21, 2016, the judges of the District of Columbia federal courts honored a record 33 local law firms – including 21 Legal Aid Board firms – for their outstanding leadership in pro bono service and, in particular, for having at least 40% of their attorneys devote 50 or more hours in 2015 to providing free legal representation with limited financial resources or to charitable organizations.

Chief Judge Merrick Garland – whose photograph from the event with Judge Amy Jackson and Legal Aid Executive Director Eric Angel appeared in the Washington Post – spoke eloquently about the acute need for legal services for the poor. “Without legal assistance, poor individuals and families have no real access to justice,” Chief Judge Garland said. “Without access to justice, the promise of equal justice rings hollow.” Read more →

Apr 15


Firms Donate $5M to Local Legal Services

“Even in good economic times, the legal services network is chronically underfunded and lacks the capacity to meet the critical legal needs of the District’s indigent residents,” reports the D.C. Access to Justice Commission.

In 2010, the D.C. Access to Justice Commission established the Raising the Bar in D.C. Campaign to increase funding for the local legal services community by establishing benchmarks for law firm contributions. The campaign has been immensely successful. In 2015, more than 45 law firms gave over $5 million to support the Commission’s goal of increasing access to justice in our community. These crucial funds help support Legal Aid and other legal services organizations that serve and empower vulnerable District residents. Read more →