Thank you, Ms. Boughton, for your courage in sharing your experiences with us so that we can highlight the importance of civil legal services in helping families stay safe and free from violence and abuse. Thank you to the Chief Judge and the Permanent Commission on Access to Justice for holding this hearing. I would also like to recognize your fearless attorney, Adrienne Thiel, who works tirelessly on behalf of survivors of domestic violence and their families in Ulster County to ensure access to justice and safety. Her commitment and tenacity to her clients and this work enables survivors to continue to achieve stability, despite a global pandemic and other seemingly insurmountable odds.
This work was even more essential during the pandemic, when survivors of domestic violence were forced to shelter-in-place with abusers. This horrific byproduct of the pandemic left victims completely isolated from any supports they may have established through employment, religious institutions, their children’s schools, or medical providers. Quarantining at home with an abuser, prevented victims from being able to confidentially access legal and other supportive services. With courts physically closed, victims seeking legal relief were not always sure how to access orders of protection, modifications of custody and visitation orders, or child support necessary to keep themselves and their children safe. With limited opportunity to leave their homes during the pandemic, victims’ ability to access supportive services, including civil legal aid, were limited.
The pandemic made one thing crystal clear. Families living in poverty in our region, who are often communities of color, suffered disproportionately because of inequities in access to healthcare, technology, education, and other resources. Indeed, justice is also a resource that low-income and vulnerable communities are too often unable to access without the assistance of civil legal aid.
During the pandemic, our neighbors who could not access justice experienced devastating consequences, including homelessness, living in apartments in disrepair, forgoing important medical care, and having to choose between feeding their children and paying their other bills. These inequities underscore the important role that civil legal aid played during the pandemic and how it can be transformative in maintaining vulnerable communities’ health, well-being, and safety.
Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV) is the sole provider in the Hudson Valley of free, comprehensive, legal services in civil matters for individuals and families who cannot afford an attorney when their basic human needs are at stake. In 2020 alone, LSHV handled over 12,000 cases affecting over 27,000 people. Nearly 3,000 cases were for seniors, over 3,000 for victims of domestic violence, and nearly 1,000 were for veterans and military families. At the same time, LSHV was unable to serve nearly 3,000 people who were looking for assistance.
Lack of access to civil legal services is a public health crisis. Recent data shows that communities with the highest eviction rates, also have the lowest vaccination rates. Access to civil legal aid continues to be a lifeline for people facing the loss of basic necessities to help mitigate the destruction the pandemic inflicted on marginalized communities. Legal aid keeps our neighbors healthy and thriving and plays a transformative role in people’s lives. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today to highlight the essential role of civil legal aid and access to justice.