Margaret and Barbara's Story
NLS clients often face dire civil justice problems. Combined with the challenges of COVID-19, these problems can become grim ... and even life-threatening.
Take two elderly sisters, Margaret, 83, and Barbara, 78.* When Margaret was too ill to live in her apartment alone, Barbara did what she always did: She took care of things. Instead of putting Margaret in assisted living, Barbara simply moved in to share expenses.
Their quiet life went on ... until they received an eviction notice. Almost nothing is more frightening to people their age during a health crisis than the thought of losing their home.
They were scared ... and dumbfounded. They had paid their rent and utility bills every month.Their lease wasn’t up yet. How could this be happening? And how would they safely find another place to live during the pandemic?
They needed to fight the eviction but couldn’t afford an attorney on their small incomes. Barbara thought she could represent them in court ... after all, they hadn’t done anything wrong. But they soon discovered what so many low-income Americans learn:
The civil justice system isn’t made for people like them. Barbara lost the case.
Months earlier, a new landlord had changed the requirements for paying utilities ... and the sisters hadn’t realized it. As far as the judge was concerned, they were many months behind. He let the eviction order stand and made them responsible for months of outstanding bills, accrued late penalties and the landlord’s legal fees.
Very soon, they’d have nowhere to live. Margaret’s health issues made the prospect intolerable. A civil legal aid attorney with NLS stepped up for Margaret and Barbara, recovering some of their money, getting late fees dismissed and court fees reduced, and extending their move-out date. The sisters are now safe and secure in a new apartment.
As a young, single mom, Amber* reached out to NLS for help in getting a Protection from Abuse (PFA) order against a man she was dating who had begun harassing her, making her feel unsafe in her home and community. After successfully securing a PFA, Amber began experiencing health problems including difficulty breathing for more than a month. While her primary care physician suspected COVID, all her subsequent tests were negative.
However, during this stressful time, Amber was especially worried about her 10-year-old daughter Madison* who has medical and developmental needs requiring Amber’s daily care. Back in 2018, Madison spent six months in the foster care system and when she was returned to her home, she was suffering from PTSD.
When NLS became aware of Amber’s ongoing hardships with her health and her daughter’s needs, they reached out to NLS social worker Rebecca Graban for help. Graban began working with Amber to address safety, her need for appropriate medical testing for her and her daughter and to help with Madison’s school.
Graban was able to organize a meeting with the superintendent of the online charter school Madison attends to create a plan to help including the support of behavioral health services and completion of a 504 plan to assist Madison in continuing her education while addressing her medical needs.
“I don’t know where I would have turned for help with my daughter’s education and medical needs, I was just overwhelmed. I’m so grateful to everyone at NLS for all they’ve done for us,” said Amber.
*Names have been changed to protect client’s safety and privacy.
After spending years taking care of her elderly father, Agnes* was left with a home but not the title to ownership when he passed away. Their family home in the West End of Pittsburgh was in desperate need of repair but without a title, re-financing was out of reach.
NLS housing attorney Daniel Haller helped Agnes secure the title to the home by helping her obtain her father’s death certificate and locating numerous family members who needed to be notified before she was able to move forward with transferring the title to her name.
Since gaining the title, Agnes has been able to negotiate payment plans to make her debt manageable and utilize social services for future repairs on her home.
“I don’t know what I would have done without the help of Neighborhood Legal Services. Every step of the way they were available to explain things to me, get the necessary paperwork and finally, the title to my home. I’ll be forever grateful, ” she said.
When Charlotte* agreed to marry a man who had already hurt her, she didn’t think of him
as an abuser. Jay’s anger could lead to cruel words and bruises from grabbing her too hard, but he hadn’t hit her – yet. That started within a year of their wedding day, and his rage-filled outbursts escalated after they had a child. Pregnant a second time, Charlotte felt forced to move with Jay to live with his parents overseas. Isolated, barred from access to even her own money, Charlotte endured threats to herself and her children with a knife, a heavy mallet and the words, “Some people just need hit.”
Eventually, back in the United States and more frightened than ever, Charlotte tried to file a temporary PFA (protection from abuse) order – but overwhelmed and afraid she was making the worst decision of her life, did it incorrectly. Soon after, she learned about Neighborhood Legal Services. An NLS attorney stood by Charlotte from their first conversation through the final PFA hearing. Most importantly, though, NLS opened many more doors for Charlotte than the one to a courtroom.
“My NLS lawyer spent time talking to me about what abuse is. I hadn’t recognized a lot
of what Jay had done as abuse, because most of the people in my family exhibited those behaviors,” she said. “One thing became crystal clear: Something I thought I had no choice in was actually abuse, and I didn’t have to go back to it.”
For over 53 years, NLS has been guiding people like Charlotte through formidable challenges to a place of security and stability.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity, safety and privacy of our client
Rena*, a grandmother in her late ﬁfties was living with two young adults members of her family. The household was surviving on a combined annual income of approximately $17,000. Rena was hopeful to find a better paying job to provide for her family, but was not having any success. While conducting routine background checks, potential employers discovered previous arrests and minor criminal convictions. Rena did not deny that she made some bad decisions in her teens and twenties. These past mistakes were now part of a criminal record that included retail theft and substance abuse charges.
Hoping for a fresh start, Rena came to Neighborhood Legal Services after seeing a flyer one of her students had in the Sunday school class she taught. The flyer detailed how free expungement help was available. An NLS attorney met with Rena and was able to explain that with legal help she could expunge these records from over thirty years ago since Rena had no further criminal convictions and all court-ordered fines were paid.
To Rena as well as most of the general public, the word “expungement” is unfamiliar. Expungement is the process of going to court to ask a judge to seal a criminal record. After the record is sealed, criminal charges do not show up in a criminal background check.
Within six months, Rena’s criminal record was successfully expunged with the help of her civil legal aid attorney. This meant that employers could focus on Rena’s eﬀorts to turn her life around rather than the poor decisions of her youth. Today, Rena is registered with a home health care service and supports herself and her family.
When John arrived at NLS, he was facing eviction for unpaid rent. In his 80s and in frail health, he had nowhere else to turn. After reviewing his case, attorneys discovered that because he did not recertify for Section 8 benefits, his rent was increased and he was unable to make the payments. His landlord sued to evict him.
In addition to losing his home, John explained that he had no heat or food in his apartment. An NLS social worker became involved in the case and help was enlisted through Emergency Case Management from the Department of Aging who supplied taxi vouchers, food and a space heater.
Because of John’s dire situation, his NLS attorney immediately addressed the heat issues and submitted a Reasonable Accommodation, requesting that his client be allowed to recertify late for his Section 8 housing benefits due to his health conditions. His dedicated social worker continued to offer assistance, accompanying John to East Liberty Family Health Care Center where she worked with a doctor and nurse to support that Reasonable Accommodation and successfully advocated for John to continue receiving medical care through home visits. Recognizing the importance of good nutrition, his social worker secured Meals on Wheels, medical assistance, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and long term home care through the Aging Waiver Program.
“So often, clients like John simply fall through the cracks,” said NLS staff attorney Mary Ellen Droll. “At NLS we recognize the importance of a strong team including social workers, medical providers and other professionals, who can secure the necessary services to help get someone like John a safe home, nutritious meals and continuing long term care. It’s really a privilege to be able to do what we do.”
Ten. That’s how many days in a row Sara’s* husband beat her. When she escaped, her jaw and bones in her face were broken. Her eyes were swollen nearly shut, her body black and blue. Even the smallest movement hurt. Sara couldn’t possibly care for her child during the surgeries and healing that followed. She had no family to turn to. So, a child services agency stepped in to help with emergency custody and shelter – temporarily, Sara thought. For a while, it didn’t look like things were going to work out that way. When an NLS Attorney met Sara at court, she saw a petite young woman still marked with remnants of her beating, scared to death she’d never see her child again. After some calls, NLS learned that children’s services had forgotten to request a judge’s permission to return Sara’s child to her. This meant the little one would remain in a stranger’s home until the petition hearing. Before a parent advocate could arrive, two sheriff’s deputies showed up to arrest Sara for a minor retail theft years ago. The caseworker at children’s services was furious when she found out Sara had been arrested. Penalties and court costs had multiplied Sara’s small $6 fine to more than $1,000. They didn’t want to transport her, but they’d need a payment of at least $300.
The women’s shelter where Sara had stayed came through with the money to pay her
fine just in time for the sheriff to pull her out of line to climb into the transport vehicle. An exhausted Sara spent the night at the shelter and was in court the next day with her NLS attorney where they were able to obtain a protection from abuse order against her husband. And because a parent advocate had been secured, she soon got her child back. Sara is now enrolled in school, well on her way to creating an independent life.
When water started flooding her basement a year ago last February, Melinda did what most of us would do, she contacted the water company. After an experience she describes as an “ordeal” reaching someone that could help her, the water company sent a workman to her home some ten days later.
“My basement was completely filled with water and at that point it was three steps from my first floor,” said the 69-year old East Liberty resident. Finally, with the help of a neighbor, the water company located a shut-off valve, the flooding stopped but the fire department had to be called in to pump out the water. “I told them, ‘wow, my water bill is going to be really high,’ but they said it wouldn’t be, that the water didn’t go through my meter, and I wouldn’t be charged.” When July’s bill arrived, it was over $1,000. Unable to pay, she contacted the water company where she was told she was responsible for the charges however she could appeal the bill if she chose.
It was at that point that Melinda turned to the Elder Law Project of NLS. She met with NLS staff attorney Kathryn McKee who accompanied her to the water authority to get her charges removed. But the water authority wouldn’t let McKee argue for her client. At that point, another NLS attorney, Catherine Martin, took the case to Common Pleas court and it was there that Melinda’s charges were finally dismissed. As a retired claims adjuster, Melinda knows better than most how difficult it is to get help in cases like hers but she’s extremely grateful for the support and professional services she received from NLS attorneys Martin and McKee. “I don’t know what I would have done without them. They were on my side when I needed it most. You could tell that it was more than just a job for them, they were dedicated and hardworking on my behalf,” she said.