Pioneering Md. Center takes legal aid on the go

The Mobile Library Law Center, a new project of Maryland Legal Aid and the Baltimore County Public Library System, is a Ford Transit mobile legal aid office that meets with underfunded residents of Baltimore County where they are located. with free legal services and a library. services.

At first glance, the Mobile Library Law Center looks a lot like any of the white pickup trucks that drive the streets of Baltimore County, a collection of towns and cities that surround Maryland’s largest city. But this seemingly indescribable Ford Transit is actually a historic first, according to Baltimore County Public Library System Director Sonia Alcántara-Antoine.

Julie Brophy, responsible for adult and community engagement at the Baltimore County public library system, and Deb Seltzer, executive director of Maryland Legal Services Corporation.

“We are proud to be the premier library system in the country – in the entire United States! transportation, ”she said at a groundbreaking ceremony in mid-August at the system’s branch in Woodlawn.

The center, for which the BCPL has partnered with legal services provider Maryland Legal Aid, hit the road on August 11 with a mission to provide free legal services to underserved communities where residents may not be aware of such offers are available.

The need and difficulty in accessing such services in Baltimore County, as in much of the country, has a lot to do with poverty. Although locals often say that the suburb is totally different from the city that surrounds it – a predominantly black municipality where long-standing racist policies have allowed segregation to be rampant, a poverty rate of 21.2% and a myriad of other systemic issues – Baltimore County still experiences many of the same issues. . This is especially true in parts of the western and eastern parts of the county, where BCPL’s adult and community engagement manager Julie Brophy said the Mobile Library Law Center would initially be centered.

“There are pockets of our community that are very rich, predominantly white, and they have a lot,” she told Law360 on Monday. “But that’s not all. We have huge swathes of our county where the median household income is $ 25,000 or less.”

Brophy said the BCPL and Maryland Legal Aid first dispatched the Mobile Library Law Center to the areas around Woodlawn, to the west of the city, and to the eastern area of ​​Essex after assessing census data and figures on assets, income and employment to find the places that needed it most.

The van that actually travels to these communities is equipped with air conditioning, a small table, chairs, and a curtain so Maryland Legal Aid lawyers can speak with clients in privacy and comfort. relative. It’s large enough for most people to stand fully upright and talk with lawyers without getting too close for too long – an important feature, given the recent increases in COVID-19 Delta variant infections that have also pushed organizations forward. to have a mask warrant in the van. .

Just outside the vehicle, Maryland Legal Aid and BCPL staff greet and provide library research resources under a canopy that doubles as a waiting area.

Maryland Legal Aid’s deputy chief attorney, Amy L. Petkovsek, explained that this kind of enveloping mobile legal service not only literally caters to people in need where they are, but also helps cope with some of the challenges. the underlying pressures they face. For example, people who might request removal from their permanent records or protection from an abuser may also need help applying for a job, so that they can live independently; MLLC provides all of these services, while helping people avoid paying for gas or transit passes that they might not be able to afford anyway.

“By having this mobile unit and parking outside of a social housing complex, we take all that stress away,” she said. “And eliminating stress is the goal here – to make people feel good legally, to make them feel healthy, to make them feel that they can make their own choices in the future. “

Amy L. Petkovsek

deputy chief advisor
Maryland Legal Aid

Executive Director Deb Seltzer of the Maryland Legal Services Corporation, another statewide legal advocacy organization that was a major donor and supporter of the center, added that these library resources separate the MLLC other decentralized legal awareness programs.

“There are a few other mobile units across the country, but none are operated by a library,” she noted. “To have this trusted partner with a recognized name that a client can say, ‘Even though I don’t go to the library often, I know what the library is, I know it’s a community resource, so even though I haven’t made her heard of Maryland Legal Aid or I don’t agree that I need a lawyer, I’m going to check this out because I have confidence in the resources the library has to offer. ‘”

Besides Seltzer’s organization, MLLC is fully funded by donations from the Baltimore County Public Library Foundation, American Bar Endowment, Baltimore Gas & Electric Company, Maryland Bar Foundation, and others. philanthropic and commercial entities, said Brophy.

The lawyers who make up the MLLC come from Maryland Legal Aid’s Community Lawyering Initiative, which conducts outreach activities and provides free legal services through a variety of related programs. One of the initiative’s lawyers, Stacy Bensky, said he saw about 12 clients when the van stopped at the Islamic Society in Baltimore on Thursday. Aside from issues with the immigration process, for which Bensky said Maryland Legal Aid does not offer services and therefore had to refer elsewhere, the biggest issue clients sought help with was tenant-owner issues.

Clients of the Community Lawyering Initiative frequently ask questions about housing issues, Bensky added, as states and municipalities determine which parts of the federal moratorium on evictions actually apply to them. In Maryland, local moratoria have expired and thousands of residents face eviction despite tenant help and other state-provided aid resources. Otherwise, many clients will come up with what Petkovsek has called “a panoply of problems” ranging from domestic violence to difficulty accessing unemployment through Maryland’s BEACON unemployment system.

It remains to be seen whether MLLC’s innovative solutions will help stem the tide of these statewide issues. Going forward, executives from both operating organizations hope the van will continue to be used and supported by customers and donors, respectively. Petkovsek said the lines that have developed on some site visits anticipate a bright future.

“When you introduce yourself as a service provider, the need arises, and the need is already manifesting for this mobile unit,” she said, adding, “Build it and they will come.”

–Edited by Emily Kokoll.

About Kevin Strickland

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