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Joe Surkiewicz: Senior Legal Services goes into the community

When low-income seniors grapple with legal problems such as consumer issues, bankruptcy or landlord/tenant disputes, there’s usually more going on.

“With a lot of clients, it isn’t just the legal problem,” said Natalie L. Grossman, director of Senior Legal Services, a joint program of the Bar Association of Baltimore City and the Baltimore Bar Foundation. “A legal problem often impacts their whole life.”

For example, some seniors worked their entire lives, paid off a house after three decades, and then find themselves at risk for losing their home over an unpaid water bill of just a few hundred dollars.

“They could become homeless, which affects the entire community,” Grossman said. “Legal problems affect their health. People have had mental breakdowns because they can’t handle the stress.

“Often, people tell us they haven’t slept in days or weeks because of worry over legal problems,” she continued. “In addition, if they had better access to legal help, there would be less reliance on public benefits.”

Founded 22 years ago as Legal Services to the Elderly, SLS provides free civil legal aid to low-income people age 60 and older in Baltimore city. Over the last few years, the program has helped hundreds of seniors and given dozens of educational seminars at senior centers and other locations across the city.

“There are 13 senior centers in Baltimore,” Grossman said. “We get out into the community. And we also do consultations at area senior housing developments and home visits. Yet, a lot of people don’t know about our work.”

In fiscal year 2013, SLS closed over 800 client matters, Grossman said: “This is despite the fact that the program was without a director for over a month and without a grant-funded attorney for six and a half months.”

SLS advises and represents clients on a broad range of legal matters, including estate and disability planning, consumer issues, landlord/tenant disputes, public benefits, foreclosure prevention, bankruptcy and guardianship.

While the bulk of client intakes and consultations are held in its offices in Courthouse East downtown, in the last few years SLS has increasingly gone into the community to provide services.

“Many seniors have mobility issues, so they can’t drive or get on a bus and come downtown to the SLS office,” Grossman said.

“They often have to schedule around doctor appointments,” she added. “We meet with clients in their homes when physical or mental disabilities prevent them from traveling to our office.”

With SLS’ legal help, clients are able to maintain their housing and income, avoid exploitation by family members and predatory lenders, and ensure their wishes are fulfilled upon their disability or death. “Furthermore, our assistance often allows seniors to age in place, in their homes and communities,” Grossman said.

With only three people on staff (and one, a staff attorney, is part-time), SLS must juggle a rising demand for legal help with a shrinking budget. “We never lack for seniors who need our services, and yet our funding has not increased accordingly” Grossman said.

In fact, the program is at risk of losing its funding for the part-time staff attorney. “It is remarkable what we accomplish on a shoestring budget,” Grossman said. “The loss of our staff attorney would greatly impact the amount of seniors receiving legal assistance in Baltimore and would be a loss for the entire city.”

The big event of the year for SLS is Law Day for Seniors. This year, the all-day event will be held Saturday, April 12, at the Wabash District Courthouse.

“We expect 300 seniors to attend this year,” Grossman said. “People come from all over Baltimore City, and we provide breakfast and lunch. The theme this year is elder abuse and neglect prevention. Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein will be making opening remarks on that theme.”

Elder abuse is a growing problem, she added.

“Whether a senior has a friend being victimized or is a victim themselves, they can learn about elder abuse and neglect in all its forms — emotional, financial and physical,” she said. “It’s extremely relevant. Financial elder abuse is now one of the most prevalent crimes in the nation.”

After Bernstein’s opening remarks, other speakers from his office, the House of Ruth, the Counseling, Helpline & Aid Network for Abused Women (CHANA) and Adult Protective Services will present sessions on how to prevent economic, emotional and physical abuse and neglect of seniors.

Following lunch, judges from the Baltimore City Orphan’s Court will speak on the need for wills and advance medical directives, as well as estate procedures.

For the final session, attendees will have the choice of attending an “Ask an Attorney” Q&A session, or meeting with a lawyer for a brief consultation regarding the need for a financial power of attorney. The Health Department of Baltimore City’s Office of Aging and CARE Services will be on site throughout the day to perform benefits checkups for interested seniors.

“The program will also feature various vendors who will have booths open throughout the duration of the program,” Grossman said.

In addition to helping clients in its office, traveling to locations around the city and sponsoring educational events, SLS also recruits and trains volunteer attorneys.

“In January, we held our first training, co-sponsored by the Pro Bono Resource Center, on estate planning for low-income seniors,” Grossman said. “The all-day event was held at Saul Ewing’s conference center and was also sponsored by them and Wright, Constable, & Skeen.”

In exchange for participation in the training, attendees agreed to prepare two pro bono estate plans for low-income Baltimore seniors within one year. “The training was videotaped and is now available as a webcast,” Grossman added.

Maryland-licensed attorneys who are interested in taking the training can contact Kiah Pierre at PBRC at kpierre@probonomd.org or call (410) 837-9379, ext. 3046.

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org.