We introduce you to this unique medical-legal collaboration by way of a brief interview with Co-founder Margaret Middleton.
SL: Can you explain in a nutshell what you do at CVLC?
MM: We integrate legal assistance into VA programs provided at a Connecticut VA Community Mental Health facility called the Errera Community Care Center. Our goal is support veterans recovering from homelessness and serious mental illness by helping remove legal barriers to housing and income. We are lucky to work closely with wonderful VA clinicians and volunteer attorneys across the state to help our clients build the lives they want.
SL: How did you get started?
MM: The model grew out of volunteer work co-founder Howard Udell did at the Errera Center. When veterans found out he was a lawyer, they started lining up to ask legal questions. He was a walking needs assessment! We started the formal program in September 2009 with a small seed grant of $20,000 from the Yale Initiative for Public Interest Law. Our total first year budget was only $52,000. Although we still lack a stable funding base, we have been grateful for support from Connecticut and New York corporations, law firms, family foundations and individuals who have supported our mission and allowed us to grow into a staff of five.
SL: How is your program unique?
MM: There are a couple of things that I really love about our model. First, we are so grateful for the support of almost four hundred volunteer attorneys who take about half of the cases veterans request help with. The generous volunteerism of the private bar humbles us every day. Second, as far as I know, we are the only program to have attorneys on-site at a VA facility full time and we were the first in the country to integrate legal services into VA care. Our staff and volunteers are part of a multi-disciplinary team that works with veterans in recovery. The last I heard there were around 35 legal services programs around the country that were doing legal work with veterans at VA facilities and that number is booming. Most are doing once-a-week or once-a-month intake clinics. I hope that we and our partners across the country can convince national foundations and VA to fund legal services so that these programs can afford to grow into on-site medical-legal partnerships. Attorneys will be an important part of helping the VA achieve it's goal of ending Veteran homelessness by 2015.
SL: What tips do you have for advocate groups who are trying to develop more free legal services for veterans?
MM: We were lucky that the director of our VA facility Dr. Laurie Harkness is very forward thinking and already understood the benefits of partnering with community-based organizations when we pitched this collaboration. I realize that some DoD and VA institutions are more hesitant to make that leap. But, from our experience, there are many people throughout the VA who are open to making these kind of connections, and the culture of the institution is becoming more welcoming to legal services. I'd also encourage legal services organizations to partner with their local SSVF grantees; that program is providing hundreds of millions of dollars for homelessness prevention, and legal services can be a funded through a sub-grant.
More details about the development of the collaboration, its funding, clientele, and operations in this paper (.pdf file) published by the Amercian Psychological Association. Conclusion: Experiences of the legal center suggest that professional aid for civil legal problems provided within VA facilities may be beneficial for veterans and warrants empirical study.
Contact Executive Director Margaret Middleton: [email protected]
Website: Connecticut Veterans Legal Center
Denying Credit: The Failure to Transition Troops to Civilian Employment - 12/23/13 study by Yale Law School for CVLC.
June 2013; updated January 2014