Hudson Valley legal advocates stand up for women in poverty

By Ryan Deffenbaugh

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Joanne Sirotkin, the attorney-in-charge of the Legal Services of Hudson Valley’s White Plains office, went to law school with just one focus: domestic violence.

After starting her career in private practice, she joined Legal Services of the Hudson Valley in 2013 to work as a domestic violence services attorney manager. While she has since expanded her role, she describes her work with the organization, which handled 2,276 cases involving domestic violence last year, as giving a sense of “spiritual satisfaction.”

And that’s the message that Legal Services of the Hudson Valley stresses to clients entering its specialized Domestic Violence Unit. The unit includes 10 attorneys, four supervisors and three paralegals on staff experienced and dedicated to fighting for victims’ rights.

About 70 percent of the nonprofit legal service’s clients are women, and domestic violence cases make up a large chunk of the services Legal Services of the Hudson Valley provides to them. Legal Services of the Hudson Valley offers free legal services to anyone with income at 200 percent or below of the federal poverty level, set yearly by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2016, a single person with an income of $23,600 or less would qualify for the services, as would a family of four with no more than $48,600 in total household income.

The fact that more than two-thirds of the clients who require the legal nonprofit’s services are women matches up with national statistics on women and poverty. In the U.S., women of all races and demographics are more likely to be poor than their male counterparts. A female-headed household is twice as likely as a male-headed household to be living below the poverty rate, according to a 2015 report by the National Women’s Law Center.

In Westchester, 28 percent of female-headed households with children live in poverty, according to a report from the New York State Community Action Association.

There’s a “strong intersection between poverty and domestic violence,” Sirotkin said. While domestic violence can happen to women of all income levels, women with household incomes less than $7,500 are seven times more likely to experience domestic violence compared to women with household incomes more than $75,000, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union.

All of this means the center is consistently taking on domestic violence cases. Some of the cases have male victims, but Sirotkin said most victims they see are women.

However, the group didn’t always have a special team of attorneys to handle domestic violence cases. When Legal Services of the Hudson Valley CEO Barbara Finkelstein took over the center’s top post in 1995, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley was a 28-year-old organization that went by the name Westchester Legal Services. It had just the one office in White Plains and a staff of 18.

In 20 years, Finkelstein has grown the center from that one office and a $2 million annual budget to a $15 million total operating budget that keeps the lights on in eight offices across seven counties: Westchester, Rockland, Dutchess, Ulster, Orange, Putnam and Sullivan. The center now employs a total of 130 people, including 83 attorneys and 19 paralegals. About 300 attorneys work for Legal Services of the Hudson Valley pro bono each year. The organization is the only provider of comprehensive free civil legal services in the seven-county region.

Finkelstein started the domestic violence unit in 1996. The program had just one attorney at the time on a fellowship funded by the state’s Interest on Lawyer Accounts fund. Since its founding, the unit has provided legal services to more than 15,000 survivors of domestic violence.

Those services include seeking orders of protection against abusers, fighting for child custody, filing for divorce and immigration assistance.

“I think we have carved out a niche in that we are very well known for that and well known for the civil legal services work that we do,” Finkelstein said.

Work for the attorneys at Legal Services can be high-stress. In domestic violence cases especially, the stakes are high and the clock is ticking. Attorneys need to move quickly to establish trust and seek legal relief for the situation. Clients often arrive at Legal Services of the Hudson Valley offices when they have first separated from an abusive relationship. It’s in that period that a victim can be in the most danger.

“People often ask, ‘Why didn’t she leave sooner?’ Or, ‘Why didn’t she say something?’” said Sirotkin. “It’s because the leaving period is the most vulnerable — the most likely time a victim could be assaulted or killed. Many of them know that.”

For the attorneys, caseloads are also high and cases are often brought to litigation. That provides the center a strategic advantage for clients, according to Legal Services leaders. Attorneys with the organization are willing to go to court rather than settle, when others might not, they said. But it also requires a lot of work and resources.

In the face of that stress, Sirotkin said it’s often the spiritual satisfaction of the work that powers the organization’s attorneys. “We get to help people who otherwise would have no way to afford an attorney and who otherwise would possibly face terrible outcomes,” she said.

Because of its range of services, the nonprofit can also provide domestic violence victims with what attorney Jill Bradshaw-Soto refers to as “the other piece.” Bradshaw-Soto, attorney-in-charge for Legal Services of the Hudson Valley’s Mount Vernon office, said domestic violence victims often are facing other legal issues that can be handled within the organization’s operation.

“If a domestic violence victim is being evicted, we handle that,” she said. “When food stamps are out of whack or public assistance is not correct because they want her to go for child support when she doesn’t have to, we handle that as well.”

The caseload for the organization jumped 25 percent from 2014 to 2015. Last year its lawyers handled 14,000 cases that had an impact on an estimated 32,000 people in the Hudson Valley, according to Tom Gabriel, chief development officer for Legal Services of the Hudson Valley.

The organization, which is funded through a mix of federal, state and county aid, is increasing the services it provides into new areas of law as well, Finkelstein said.

Lawyers there have seen an increasing need for immigration work. The organization also launched a new unit dedicated to veterans and military families and the LGBTQ Legal Project, focused on fighting discrimination against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

There are about 200,000 people in Westchester who would qualify for Legal Services of the Hudson Valley’s services based on income, according to Finkelstein. She estimated the organization meets about 30 percent of the overall need in the region. “If we had twice the staff, maybe we could hit 60 percent,” she added.

Still, she said, Legal Services of the Hudson Valley will continue outreach initiatives such as dinners, exhibit tables at festivals, presentations and partnerships with area advocacy and charitable groups. Those initiatives can serve a dual purpose: help with fundraising efforts and ensure the organization’s name is known to people who need help.

“Funding for civil legal services has been neglected for so long that we have quite a ways to catch up,” Finkelstein said. “And as we grow and get out in the community, more and more people know about us.”

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About the author

Ryan Deffenbaugh covers energy, education, food and beverage and the Sound Shore for the Westchester County Business Journal. He previously worked for Westchester Magazine and The Citizen daily newspaper (Auburn, N.Y.). He started with the Westchester County Business Journal in March 2016.

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