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Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo delivers 100 years of service

WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

The Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo is celebrating a major milestone today.  It's the 100th anniversary of the center that provides legal assistance to citizens. 

WBFO'S Eileen Buckley visited the downtown office to explore the areas of law provided for a century.

Marie Willet answers phone calls inside the reception area of the Legal Aid at the Main-Seneca Building.  It was mid-Monday morning and the rush of calls slowed from earlier. 

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Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Marie Willet answers phone calls inside the reception area of the Legal Aid Bureau

The calls come in from a diverse cross-section of men and women seeking legal assistance.  Four areas of legal services are provided --  criminal defense, civil legal services, appeals and  the Attorneys for Children Unit.  

Jessica Jackson is a social worker in the Attorneys for Children unit.  She often assists children that have been abused or neglected and are involved in Family Court matters.

"I'll interview the children who are clients so that the attorneys can effectively represent them in court," said Jackson.

The cases vary in severity. 

"A lot of the cases we see are families who really need help.  A lot of times the children want to stay at home with their parents and it doesn't rise to a level where the children need to be placed outside the home," said Jackson.

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Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Law books inside the conference room at the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo

Appointed by the Erie County Family Court, attorneys work to represent the wishes of the children, if they are old enough to articulate their concerns.

Jackson assists in getting children out of dangerous situations. Some are placed into foster care and then put up for adoption.          

"Well what I'm really, really proud of that we do here at legal aid is give children a voice.

Jackson said  many cases often trace back to poverty. 

Kamalie Liyanage is a staff attorney.  She works with assisting the re-entry population --those who were incarcerated or have criminal records return into society. 

"Now we have multiply issues that we try to help people with. Primarily child support modifications because a lot of people come out of prison and then there's thousands of dollars in child support arrears payments that building up," said Liyanage.

The legal and community support help recidivism, keeping those individuals from returning to prison.

Another layer of service provided by the Legal Aid Bureau is assistance to Buffalo's growing immigrant and refugee population. But barriers remain a large challenge as they work to provide civil and legal services to

"We have the biggest Burmese population in Buffalo.  So that's a language we need to have more interpreters in," said Liyanage.  "Also we have a very big Arabic population."

Legal Aid is working to expand access to services to the immigrant and refugee population.  Lisa Strand is chief attorney for civil legal services unit.  She said with the foreign population, they primarily are dealing with domestic violence cases.

"People have a hard time connecting with the services because in order to connect with services. They have to call, speak with someone who speaks with English or Spanish to get in. So we've been going to them," said Strand. 

Strand said they strive to assist people to help themselves.

"A lot of times if people have just a few tools brought in they can then get over the hump," said Strand. "So having a little more information sometimes it is just informing people of what rights there are," said Strand.

86 attorneys make up Buffalo's Legal Aid Bureau. 

Paul Curtain is a managing attorney in the Civil Unit.  He works with the foreclosure prevention project and once a week , Curtain works in Buffalo City Housing Court defending homeowners and with code violations and assisting tenants.

"If you spend enough time in the courts that do landlord-tenant, you will see a lot of the same people, and you realize this is the third time I've represented this person, there's got to be something else going on," said Curtain.

Curtain said pinpointing those trouble areas helps repeat offenders.

"Work that gets folks back on their feet with their family, their housing school, employment," said Curtain. 

Each year the local bureau serves 20,000 clients.  

David Schopp is CEO of Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo.

"We are the largest  and certainly oldest provider of legal services to the poor in this community, and we've provided an incredibly important service," said Schopp.

Schopp said there has been a decrease in criminal cases in the last decade due to the city's declining population, however, assisting in civil matters has "skyrocketed."   Still, some are turned away.

"It may well be something that we currently don't handle and we try and make a referral," said Schopp.

Erie County is mandated by the government to provide the service.  It supplies about 65-percent of the bureau's funding.  The rest comes from the state and grants. 

The bureau is also working to expand services to veterans and the LGTB community.  Rolland Lord O'Brien was the first attorney to work in Buffalo's Legal Aid Bureau.   In a century, the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo has represented one million cases.   

The Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo will celebrate 100 years of service with a gala at the Hotel @ Lafayette Wednesday evening in downtown Buffalo.