Veterans Day Forum – Panel: Innovative Civil Legal Services Programs & Projects Serving Veterans
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Veterans Day Forum – Panel: Innovative Civil Legal Services Programs & Projects Serving Veterans

December 11, 2019

[MUSIC PLAYING] Good morning. I’m Ron Flagg, Vice
President and General Counsel at Legal Services Corporation. We’ve had a terrific morning
of panels and speakers. The panels have
focused on innovation in providing legal and
other related services to our veterans. And our last panel is going to
talk about innovative projects, and really innovative
service delivery models to serve veterans. We have to my right,
Nicole Massey. Nicole is an attorney at Land
of Lincoln Legal Aid which is in Champaign, Illinois. Nicole represents veterans in
the areas of housing, consumer law, family law,
public and VA benefits. Nicole’s husband,
apropos of today is a veteran who served in
the US army for 22 years. Nicole herself has
dedicated her career to supporting veterans in
addition to her day job, she serves on numerous
committees in her community, including the American Legion
Auxiliary, the Illinois State Bar Association Military Affairs
Committee and the subcommittee for ending veterans
homelessness. To my immediate left, Mo
Siedor is the Director of Swords to Plowshares Legal
Services unit in California. You’ll hear Swords to Plowshares
has more than just lawyers. And Mo’s unit aids and
provides legal representation to homeless and
low-income veterans on VA benefits and military
discharge upgrade cases. Prior to that position,
Mo worked at the Center for veterans advancement
at Public Counsel, a large legal aid
program in Los Angeles and the homeless veterans
project of inner city Law Center. And to my far left,
Esther Leibfarth is a staff attorney at
the National Veterans legal services
program, a program that serves both veterans as well
as military service members and their families. Esther assists active duty
service members and veterans in obtaining medical military
retirements through NVLSPs, or Serving Warriors program. And Esther also
serves as a mentor to pro bono attorneys
representing service members in military disability
evaluation system cases and before the
Board of Corrections of Military Records. In the interest of
full disclosure, I should say that in
addition to my day job, I have the privilege
of serving as the Chair of the Board of National
Veterans Legal Services Program. So I’d like to start by having
each of our panel members describe briefly their program
and the veterans population you serve. We’ll go from West
Coast to East Coast, Mo starting with you on the West
Coast and Swords to Plowshares. Sure. Swords to Plowshares is a San
Francisco-based organization. We serve only Bay Area veterans. All of our clients are
homeless or low income and we serve about 2,800
veterans every year. To give you a snapshot. Our client population looks very
similar to Nicole’s at LAFLA in LA. About 75% are over
the age of 55. About 1/3 of them
separated from the military with a less than
honorable discharge. 47% of our clients live on
less than $1,000 a month in the San Francisco Bay
Area, so you can imagine. 55% of our clients
are people of color. 20% have served during
the Vietnam era. And 30% are post 9/11 veterans. Nicole, going to
the Midwest, tell us about Land of Lincoln
and your work. Land of Lincoln serves
not only veterans but we also serve
active duty members. We don’t see a lot of
clients as we are not near a military base. We also serve the National
Guard and the reserves and their family members. Statistics show that if the
veteran has a legal problem, the family is affected by
those problems as well. And sometimes it’s
the family member that actually comes forward. We are set in a very
rural area, so our office with five regional offices
covers 65 counties. We don’t have our
veterans very centralized. So one of the main
difficulties that we face is how do we reach the veterans
in the very rural areas? And how do veterans
actually find us? When it comes to the
population and the age groups, I think our numbers
are quite similar. We serve a lot of veterans
from the Vietnam era. In the recent years we see
more of the 9/11 veterans, post 9/11 veterans. That’s the younger
generation that luckily finds the way to our offices. And we’re going
to talk about how you overcome your geographic
challenges in a moment. And Esther, how about National
Veterans Legal Services Program? National Veterans Legal
Services Program is actually headquartered in Washington DC. But we are a nationwide program. We have active duty service
members and veterans from all 50 states,
Puerto Rico, and overseas. There is no income
qualification for our services. And the services we
provide are purely legal. And in terms of the age
demographics for our VA Court of Appeals
for veterans claims, they tend to skew towards
the Vietnam era and Gulf War. But for my practice area
which is medical retirement, they’re predominantly post 9/11,
with some Vietnam era veterans. And then obviously, my
active duty service members are post 9/11 with
a few Gulf War. Just think about
this for a minute, because it’s something that has
popped up in all of our panels. I think of the Vietnam War
as being a long time ago. It occurred during my childhood. And yet I think we’ve
heard on all three panels that we have tremendous numbers
of Vietnam era veterans, at this point actually
a dwindling demographic given their age. But they still
turn up repeatedly in legal aid programs across the
country of all different types. And I think it’s quite striking. But let’s get to the distinctive
delivery service models that each of you represent. Mo, starting with you,
Swords to Plowshares. You operate on a philosophy
that the obstacles veterans face don’t fall in neat
categories like they might appear in a law book. But they’re often tied up
to other non-legal problems. Talk about your integrated
service network. Sure, and it’s actually a good
transition from that comment you just made. Because I think a lot
of the Vietnam era veterans face
substantial barriers to justice and issues
with economic insecurity because a lot of them came
home with disabilities. At that point, PTSD was
not yet a known diagnosis. They were not getting the
mental health treatment that post 9/11 vets, a lot
of them can get today because we just didn’t have
the knowledge of mental health that we do today. And of course, there
was the feelings that society had towards
the returning veterans. And they were turned
away and dismissed and not embraced in a way
that maybe they are today, or were during World War II. And I think a lot of that
increased their vulnerability. So Swords to Plowshares
was founded 45 years ago by returning Vietnam
era veterans who were seeing a great
need in the Bay Area that was not being met by
the government, by the VA. For a lot of those
who were coming back for more, who were struggling
with mental health, struggling with
substance use, this was impacting their ability
to work, keep their housing. And so it was founded
with this mission that it wanted to address
all of those needs and have a holistic
approach to veteran care. And in addition, a
focus on folks who did have mental health
conditions and folks who were turned away
from the VA because they were separated with a less
than honorable discharge. It was spoken about
earlier today. But so often folks manifest
mental health conditions in service that are
construed as misconduct, like self-medicating
with drugs or alcohol or going AWOL to get away
from a stressful situation that we now understand are
symptoms of their mental health condition, but unfortunately
leave the service with a less than honorable
discharge and are told they are not veterans
when they go to the VA and try to get help. So that continues to be
the client population that we focus on today,
the most vulnerable of the veteran population. And to meet the goal of
providing holistic care, we do a number of things. We provide housing. That’s our biggest
project at Swords. We have five permanent
housing sites in San Francisco, two
transitional housing sites. We also provide rental
subsidy, move-in assistance and other housing benefits. And every night, there’s
about 400 veterans who would otherwise be
homeless in San Francisco that are housed in our projects. We have an employment
and training unit that does job readiness
and job placement, a team of social workers
that does case management and therapy, a policy department
that does more national level advocacy. And in a legal
department where I work with a number of other
attorneys and support staff, we provide advocacy
and representation to veterans in the
VA benefits world and also in the military
discharge upgrade practice as well. Thanks. Nicole, you referred
to your location. And in Illinois, Land of Lincoln
Legal Aid and its partners try to make sure that there’s
no wrong door for a veteran whether they enter a
facility physically or by telephone or
over the internet. Could you talk about
how you do that and the ways you work with your
partners to serve veterans? So one aspect in my
work is that our office partnered with the Illinois
Armored Forces Legal Aid network. That is a state wide hotline
that veterans can call. And they provide legal
services, civil legal services, and in the main
areas where we see that there is a great need,
which is family housing and consumer law
issues, public benefits to secure additional income. Veterans can call this hotline. And they can speak
to an attorney. And if the hotline
determines that they’re not able to provide the
service, or extended services are needed,
they refer the veteran to a partner organization. That could be Land
of Lincoln, or it could be one or the other
nine partners in that network, or the civil legal
clinics that also partnered with the hotline. That was one of the ways
to actually reach out in the rural areas and
have veterans call them. Of course, in order to make
that hotline well known, we rely heavily, one, on
the VAs, and of course, we have UUs or the
American Legions and other partners
that serve veterans. So one main focus
of my work is really the outreach,
talking to partners, talking to organizations
about this hotline. And just the numbers, the
hotline started in 2017. 2017, and so far the
hotline has received about 17,000 calls, which equals
about 900 calls a month which shows the great need that
the veteran’s community has. We were so far able to
help about 600 veterans. And that means 600 closed cases. In addition to partnering
with our hotline, we have a medical
legal partnership with our local VA and their
additional outpatient clinics. And we determined that
sometimes calling a hotline might not be the way to go,
especially when the veteran has mental health issues. Determine and making the
approach to call a hotline can cause a lot of
stress on the veteran. So our program really focuses
on a very close relationship with the caseworker, or the
social worker at the VA. And once they start
working with the veteran, they send us a
referral if they come to know that there is
a legal problem, which means that our office
actually reaches out to the veteran most of the time
between 24 or 48 hours, which is extremely critical when
a veteran faces an eviction. They don’t call in
most of the cases right when they get the
eviction notice. They call when the
hearing is the next day. That way we’re really able to
provide very quick services, get in touch with the veteran. Because what we try to
prevent is that a veteran gets lost in the system. Sometimes what a
veteran experiences is that they’re sent
from one organization to another organization. They have to call
several hotlines, different people to deal with. And when dealing with
mental health issues, veterans just disappear in that
system, or they simply give up. And with having the close
relationship with the VA, we can really catch the veteran. And we start working
with them on the issue that they were referred to us. And in addition, we also
have the holistic approach. And it can sometimes
be that we determine that there is a legal need
that the VA or the veteran hasn’t actually
realized, that there is an area that we can help with. Some of our clients are in
the mental health department at the VA. And they are not even
able to make a phone call. So in those cases, we have
office hours at the VA. And it happens quite often
that the social worker brings the veteran to us. Or we meet with them
right there in their room to determine the issues and
provide the extensive services. One other issue with
working so close with a social or
caseworker is really, they are great support on site. Because sometimes
it’s very simple, a very simple problem that
the veteran struggles with is, how do I get important
documents to my attorney? They don’t have a fax machine
right there most of the time. Because it’s a rural
community, they cannot drive to the attorney. So having a social
caseworker assist was simply submitting documents. For example, I
recently had a veteran that the deadline for his SSI
appeal was fastly approaching. There is no time for the
veteran to actually give us those documents. They cannot just come by the
office because they are several counties away. But working with the VA and
getting the referrals from them really helps. And the additional point
is the trust factor. If the social worker at the
VA talks with the veteran and is able to have a
connection and refer them to us, it creates trust. And it’s the icebreaker
at the beginning. Because they know who
they’re dealing with. They know that our attorneys
have a good reputation. We’re there. We step in. And we try to deliver
our services fast. And it has proven in the
past that the referral system that we have and us
reaching out to the veteran is beneficial. I’ll come back to
you in a moment. Esther, National Veterans
Legal Services program serves people around
the country with lawyers almost entirely in Washington. So talk about how you do that. NVLSP serves a broad array
of different legal needs. Talk about that as well, please. So National Veterans
Legal Services Program– and I’ll abbreviate NVLSP
for short as I speak– started in 1980 as a
discharge upgrade program. It eventually evolved
after we successfully were able to get the VA to
recognize legal advocates or allow for legal advocates
before the Court of Appeals for veterans claims. Today we have three
branches of our program. We have our Court of Appeals
for veterans claims litigators. So in-house each year they serve
about 500 distinct veterans with their appeals
before the Court of Appeals for veterans claims. We have our training department. Our training department writes
the Veterans Benefits manual that’s used by veterans
service officers, probably used by other legal clinics,
use by active duty folks. And we publish that. And then we give trainings
across the country. And then we finally
have our pro bono arm, which is Lawyers
Serving Warriors, which is what I’m part of. And actually NVLSP as a whole
is only dedicated to providing legal services. So within Lawyers
Serving Warriors, there’s distinct categories
that we provide assistance with. We provide assistance
with discharge upgrades, with medical retirements,
with combat-related special compensation, and with VA
claims, initial VA claims, but only for service members
and veterans who experienced a military sexual trauma. In all of these
facets we have cases before the
administrative bodies. And we also have litigation. And we also have appeals to
the administrative bodies. So that seems like a lot to
do for a pretty small staff of about seven or
eight attorneys. We flourish. And the way we are
able to work is through a large partnership
with large law firms and the legal departments
of our corporate partners. And so these pro bono
attorneys, is what we call them, provide their services. And we provide the
mentorship and guidance. That mentorship
and guidance starts with us screening a case. So each one of the
staff attorneys like myself will have
a specific niche. Mine is medical retirement. Medical retirement is a benefit
that is outside of the VA. So most people when they
think about veterans benefits, they’re thinking
VA money and care. Medical retirement actually
compensates a veteran or an active duty service
member for an injury that brings about the end of their service. So these are some of your most
critically injured service members. We have your amputees. But we also have a lot
of hidden injuries. And so basically what
happens is these service members and veterans
apply for our services. Either they hear about
us through word of mouth. They meet us at a clinic. One of our partners refers them. And then we screen their cases. If we think there is
merit to their case, not meaning that we
think they will win, but that we think we can
help, we’ll screen it. We’ll write it up. Each staff attorney will
write a brief saying, here’s the basics of the case. And then we will
place it with one of our vast pro bono partners. We have over 50 law firms and
at least 20 corporate partners. And we stay on-board
throughout the entire process. So if there’s a hearing,
I’m at the hearing. If there’s a brief,
I read the brief. And that goes for all of
my colleagues as well. And I think the big
advantage, the way we can provide more is
the each one philosophy, is that as an individual,
I could probably help 10, 15, 20, people a year. But as a mentor, and in this
capacity screening cases, in any given year I
probably have 75 cases. Within LSW, we
have over 500 cases a year where we
provide direct services to veterans of all eras. And what we hear from
our pro bono partners is they’re looking for
ways to contribute. But it can be scary. If you’re not a veteran, if
you’re not a service member, if you’ve no connection
to that world, it can be a very
daunting process, even if your heart is
in the right place. And so what we do is we
facilitate these services. And a lot of the staff like
myself has some connection to the veteran in active
duty service community. My husband has been serving
in the army as an active duty officer for 18 years. Three of my colleagues
are veterans. And we’re a staff of
eight, I and Alice W. And so in a nutshell, we help
people and help service members and veterans through our large
network of pro bono partners. Thanks Esther. So Esther has started to talk
about collaboration and pro bono. And I’d like to talk to Mo
and Nicole about that as well. Mo, could you tell us about the
veteran’s quarterly roundtable that you work on? Yeah, absolutely and
I also just wanted to plug Esther’s
pro bono program. I am one of her
pro bono attorneys. And I have a case through NVLSP. And they’re
absolutely wonderful. Thank you. So I recommend them. So the Veteran’s Law
Quarterly roundtable was founded by my colleague,
Melody Osuna and I when we were working at
the Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles. And I had come from Swords. I left Swords, went to
LA, now back at Swords. But while I was in LA
realized something– well, let me back
up and just say, Swords is kind of
like the main veterans organization in the Bay Area. We don’t have a lot of other
legal services providers doing the Veterans Benefits and
discharge upgrade work that we do. But what I saw when
I came to LA was that wasn’t the case at all. There was like
seven organizations that were doing veteran’s work. And LA of course is gigantic. And it takes 45 minutes
to get done this block. So we’re kind of siloed away. And so VLQ, our Veterans
Law Quarterly roundtable was started in an effort to try
to bring all of those players together to create a space
where we can be in community, we can discuss our
case work, we can do trainings, and have a space
where we discuss law updates. And then go to happy hour after. And so it’s been very productive
because now a lot of people do this area of law. And it’s really helpful to have
just conversations with those who do, so we can shoot ideas
around and strategize and try to figure out the
best way to serve a very large,
impoverished veteran population in Los Angeles. And then the other main way
that we collaborate at Swords is with pro bono attorneys. And it’s been a
struggle of mine. Before I became legal director,
I was the pro bono manager at Swords for a number of years. It’s been a struggle of mine
to figure out exactly the best way to plunk pro
bono’s into this work. You know, we heard
in the first panel, there’s a lot of
clinical opportunities where they can come
in for a few hours. I think the downside of
that is then, you do that, and you’ve intaked
35 veterans that are now on Nicole’s docket. And it’s just Nicole. So there’s a lot of things
that we need to tweak around. How we have leveraged the
private bar to meet this very critical, civil legal need. Thanks. Nicole, talk about
your collaboration with the Salvation Army because
collaboration and cooperation are not just with
pro bono lawyers. That’s absolutely correct. So veterans work depends
on networking and knowing the partners in
the community so we can assist the veteran finding
the right organization that would be able to help him. So saying that, one focus
of the collaboration with the Salvation Army
is veteran’s homelessness. And we have monthly meetings
with the Salvation Army. It was created through this
sub-committee to prevent veterans homelessness. At that meeting are
various organizations. We discussed veterans
in the community that face homelessness or
are currently homeless. And we also have the chance
to discuss the services that we provide. So the partners know each other. We know where we have
to send a veteran to so they can get the help. And again, networking and
knowing the partnership is the important key. Yeah, it’s odd because we all
know that there are literally hundreds of thousands of
veterans around the country who need legal services. But it’s not always
easy to find them, to find the ones for
whom legal services will make a difference. So innovative outreach and
collaborating with partners to identify those folks– and we’ve heard about that
from all of our panels– is critical. So I have a wrap-up
question for each of you. And that is, what is the next
step for your organization in how it serves veterans? What is something you’d like
to see more emphasis given to? Mo, let’s start with you and
talk about an issue or two that I know. Yeah, so we just two weeks
ago on-boarded a new fellow whose project is to work with
criminally justice involved veterans. And in San Francisco when you’re
arrested and taken into custody you’re sent to the San Bruno
jail just south of the city. And I don’t remember what
the acronym stands for, but it’s the cover pod. It’s basically where all
the veterans get placed. And of course, if you
could plunk an attorney into the cover pod and get
them benefits eligibility, and maybe start the VA benefits
claims process with them while they’re
incarcerated, the claim may take six months to
process so that by the time they get out, then they’ll
have that income and stability that of course, will
help reduce recidivism. And so her project is
to go into this jail and do intake and provide that
guidance and representation. So it’s in its nascent
stages though obviously. And so we’re going to be
learning over the next two years of her project. What are the hiccups with that? And what are the unique issues
to that veteran population? And how are we going to best
serve them and try to develop those best practices. And then the other
thing I would mention is that we’ve also developed
a project for LGBTQ veterans. So we do a lot of
discharge upgrade work for veterans who have
less than honorable discharges. But there’s a lot of military
records correction work that looks very similar to the
discharge upgrade work that folks who got kicked out
under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the previous policies
that were in existence before that law to get removed
from their military separation document any indication or
language that they were kicked out for their sexuality. And then for
trans-identified veterans, being able to change the name
on their military document to reflect their
legal name today so that they have that
consistent identity documentation. So when they go to a job
interview or a social services provider and they need to prove
their veteran status by handing over that DD214
separation document, it doesn’t say a name that’s
inconsistent with the name on their driver’s license
or their gender presentation today. And they’re necessarily being
outed and exposing themselves to risk of
discrimination and worse. And so those are services
that we’re adding to the work that we do at Swords. And again, the
earlier, the panel before talking about how
it’s hard to outreach women veterans because
maybe they didn’t have a great time in the military
and they associate the VA and veterans spaces with that
negativity, that same obstacle exists for LGBTQ veterans. And so we’re finding
we’re needing to go out into the Castro,
into the LGBTQ Center in San Francisco, and all of
those neighborhoods, to identify folks and
tweak the language. You know, not,
are you a veteran? But have you served
in the military? And those language
tweaks allow us to capture these
clients that are not getting the benefits
and the services that of course, they’ve
earned and deserve. Yeah, so those are two things
we’re working on right now. Thanks. Nicole, I know you wanted
to talk about expungement and child support arrearage. That’s absolutely correct. So one of our efforts
will be in the future to focus together
with our local VA on expunging or sealing
criminal records. It appears that
those are sometimes the reason why a veteran
can’t find housing, especially when it comes to
subsidized housing, or it can’t find employment. And we will expand our
efforts and work with the VA to create clinics and
sessions to advocate and reach out to veterans to
take that additional step. The other effort
that we will focus on is child support issues. Some of the veterans, I
would say a great majority, they have a huge arrearage
in child support. And that prevents them from
getting their driver’s license. They have garnishments. And that is an
effort that we will conduct in the future to helping
them with their family cases. Sometimes it’s as simple
as changing a court order. But it hasn’t been
done in the past. Esther, the last
word, I think you wanted to talk about
PTSD particularly among some of our older vets. So I’m actually going to focus
on the nexus between misconduct and mental health. Currently, we’re addressing
it post discharge. There’s plenty of policy memos
that the Department of Defense has issued. However, there is no place
within the military, and quite frankly no legal service
organization addressing it for active duty folks. And the issue is that if we
address it prior to discharge, we won’t have as many
discharge upgrades. We won’t have as many
people denied VA benefits. And so one thing,
and it’s a passion project of mine in particular,
is that we are doing something. We’re representing
service members in dual processing actions. And so the way that
this works is we provide representation for their
administrative separations, their court-martials. And we provide representation
during their medical retirement process in service. All of the branches
have a policy that’s intended to address
both sides of the house. However, they’re
operating in silos. So I went down to
Norfolk this past week. And I was at a special
operations clinic that we had set up. And I’m sitting in front
of a service member who has deployed 9 or 10 times. He’s an EOD, an
Explosive Ordinance enlisted service member. He had allegedly been
taken prisoner of war. He also had abused marijuana,
had self-medicated. And it had some other
domestic altercations. He’s at risk of being separated
with an other than honorable, which means he will
lose his GI benefits. It means he will not get the VA
benefits that he’s entitled to. However, he’s lucky that he
is part of the Navy as opposed to some of the other branches. The Navy alone has a
dual processing procedure by which at least they get
a psychological evaluation. That being said, we kind of
hope to look as the overseer and make sure that policy
gets implemented correctly. And I can say very proudly,
these cases are very lengthy but last year alone we
had two service members, both common deployments,
both military sexual trauma survivors who ended up getting
a honorable discharge in lieu of an OTH for the medical
retirement process. So what I’d like to
change is the way that we view this in-service. I haven’t figured
out, or we as NVLSP haven’t figured out
how exactly yet. But I think it’s something that
we need to champion as a whole. So when Esther talks about
two service members who have gotten discharges
on honorable grounds rather than other than
honorable grounds, that’s the company cases. Those are life changing cases. So thank you. And I want to end our panel
today, this is Veterans Day. This is the day we
focus on veterans. And today we’re
focusing on the services that legal aid programs
and their collaborators can provide to veterans. But our panel members on this
panel and throughout the day have been people who devote
their professional lives to that. So let’s give them a
big round of applause. [APPLAUSE]

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