Readers forum: Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma is growing
BY BURNS HARGIS
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Imagine what it would be like
to be poor and about to be evicted
because you complained about
the leak that occurs every time it
rains. Or your spouse abuses
you, the violence is beginning to
escalate, you have no money and
two little children. Or you are a
84-year-old widow with a big debt
created by your spouse and his
credit card company threatens to
take payment directly from your
meager bank account, leaving
you with little to pay your bills.
In those situations the poor in
Oklahoma have a place to turn --
their local Legal Aid office. There
are 19 such offices scattered
throughout Oklahoma so that Legal Aid's attorneys can serve eligible low-income families and the
elderly in all 77 counties.
To qualify, a family must be
within 125 percent of the federal
poverty guideline. That's poor --
$25,813 a year for a family of four
and $12,763 for a single person.
Oklahoma has more than 600,000
residents who fall within those
poverty guidelines and more than
24 percent of them are children.
Legal Aid's resources are
stretched to the maximum. For
every case they accept, they have
to turn away a qualifying case due
to a lack of resources, i.e. not
enough staff attorneys. But, even
at that, they've done a good job
-- closing more than 19,000
cases affecting the lives of 19,151
children. And, the cost per case
closed was a mere $386. Most
Oklahoma law firms won't even
open a case for that amount.
Think what they could do if
they had more money! Hire more
attorneys, for sure! Help more
people, no doubt.
Recently, a group of Tulsa businesses and foundations joined us
for lunch and raised more than
$50,000 for Legal Aid's mission.
We want to thank ONEOK, Williams, Bank of Oklahoma, Public
Service Company of Oklahoma,
Tulsa National Bank and the
Mervin Bovaird Foundation for
their generous responses. We also want to thank Pre-Paid LegalServices in Ada for leading the
way in our corporate effort and
the George Kaiser Family Legal
Aid Services of Oklahoma Foundation for its dollar-for-dollar
match on all new monies raised
in the Tulsa area.
These businesses can be sure
that Legal Aid will be an excellent
steward of their gifts.
After years of drawing back
due to lack of funding and the
threat of extinction, Legal Aid is
starting to expand. Our fundraising work along with the work of
Bill Paul in 2003-05 and Judge
Thomas Brett in 2006 is allowing
Legal Aid to set its salaries so it
can attract the best and the
brightest from our law schools. It
is allowing Legal Aid to open a
part-time office in McAlester
thanks to generous funding from
the Puterbaugh Foundation.
It's allowed the Tulsa Legal Aid
office to add another full-time attorney to work on legal issues of
Tulsa's homeless population,
thanks to the Anne and Henry
Zarrow Foundation, and the
Oklahoma City office to add a
full-time attorney to help clients
throughout the state who are living with HIV/AIDS and need legal help, thanks to the Inasmuch
Foundation in Oklahoma City.
Providing access to our justice
system is an issue that touches
every Oklahoman. And, it's a
Legal Aid provides critical and
cost-effective services that prevent problems in the future including: securing a protective order that can save women and
children from severe physical
and emotional harm; gaining access to needed health care at a
critical time that often prevents
more serious and expensive
problems later on; helping an individual make the welfare-to-work transition that helps guarantee a sound economic future,
and preventing an improper eviction or foreclosure through early
legal intervention that can avoid
the much more expensive societal costs of homelessness later.
Good things are happening on
the justice front in Oklahoma.
Burns Hargis is serving with Mike
Turpen as statewide co-chairs of Legal
Aid Services of Oklahoma 2007 Campaign for Justice.
access to our
is an issue that