Facing the court alone

A federal cutback leaves Nevada domestic-battery victims scrambling

Washoe Legal Services’ Paul Elcano asks why the federal government helped his agency to create a program and then cut off the money for it.

Washoe Legal Services’ Paul Elcano asks why the federal government helped his agency to create a program and then cut off the money for it.

Photo By David Robert

The Bush administration has ended Nevada funding for legal assistance to victims of child abuse and domestic battery.

A letter from the federal Office on Violence Against Women said an annual federal grant of about $325,000 wouldn’t be renewed. “Final selection was based on scores, with consideration given to demographics and geographic distribution,” the letter said. The “scores” reference is presumed to refer to the grant application, which was essentially the same application sent from Nevada in earlier years.

The money was used to fund legal-assistance programs in counties around the state that helped abuse victims get various court actions or services. Locally, it was done by Washoe Legal Services. A joint statement by WLS Director Paul Elcano and Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence Director Sue Meuschke said the cut leaves abuse victims without a significant tool for protection.

“Intervention by the legal system is an important part of a victim’s safety plan,” Meuschke said. “The inability to afford a lawyer is a major barrier to survivors of domestic violence and parents of abused children. … The services literally save lives and protect children and battered adults from further physical and emotional harm.”

The denial of new funds is statewide, cutting off funds to agencies in Clark, Washoe and the less-populous counties.

Within Washoe County, WLS says, the now-discontinued money has been used to assist 725 battered children and spouses so far in calendar year 2004.

Elcano says the denial was a surprise. He’s looking at ways to replace the money but hasn’t found any permanent solutions.

“There are prospects, but it’s not likely to solve the problem. For sure, they would all be stopgap solutions. We’re not going to discontinue the service, though, if we have to mortgage the building. I should say ‘re-mortgage’ the building.”

The notice of denial came after WLS had already entered the budget period for using the money.

“We were preparing our next billing for it and had a full caseload with no warning whatsoever. So, had we tried to make plans for it [the denial], we couldn’t have.”

The reference in the denial letter to “demographics and geographic distribution” puzzles Elcano.

“They could not have considered demographics and geographic distribution and denied us. We’re one of the fastest growing areas in the nation—plus they gave Wyoming 800 grand.”

Wyoming is the home state of Vice President Richard Cheney, but Elcano says he doesn’t believe that means anything.

“Nevada is a key swing state. You don’t issue a denial a few days before the election if that is a factor.”

For victims in comfortable circumstances who are abused, legal services may still be available. But for low-income people who are victims of violence, the loss of the federal money may leave them to cope with the legal system on their own. Those services are provided in all circumstances involving violence, as well as for divorce, child custody, and protection order matters. The assistance comes from a patchwork of staff lawyers, paralegals and volunteer private attorneys.

Meuschke says the rural counties will be particularly hard hit. Volunteer Attorneys for Rural Nevada (VARN) was heavily dependent on the funds to pay court costs and other expenses, even when the attorney provided representation for free. Meuschke says the availability of legal assistance to low-income people changed the whole nature of family law in some small county courts. Now victims will face the court alone.

“I worked closest with the folks at VARN. It was the first time that an attorney had shown up in court on a domestic-violence case. It was that important. … They’ll have to do it on their own [now], unless we can figure out other ways. These are the only free legal services available out there, and divorce and child custody cases, particularly contested [cases], tend to be long, drawn-out and very ugly. And most attorneys aren’t willing to take those on a pro bono [free] basis, and so this was the only game in town if you didn’t have the money.”

Sometimes both parties end up having to argue their own cases, but in cases where only one party has an attorney, Meuschke says it’s not usually the woman, who usually was not the partner in control of the household budget and income.

"[Abuse] victims are being put at risk of losing custody, of settling for nothing in a divorce, and just even going into the system without an attorney.”

There is no provision in the law for reconsideration. Elcano says he understands why there wouldn’t be, since it ends the process rather than encouraging appeals and intervention by local congressmembers.

Such disputes illustrate the hazards of federal funding for local programs. Some Nevada law enforcement agencies faced similar tribulations with the Clinton administration’s program to put more police on the streets. After three years, the money dried up, and localities were faced with either laying off officers or generating revenue by cutting other programs or raising taxes. Elcano is frustrated at the lack of follow-through, that federal officials encouraged his agency to get involved in new programs and then pulled the plug.

“You tool up and then find out you don’t get the money," he said. "They fund the cases to start with, and you take on the cases, and then they withdraw the money. There are still clients out there depending on their program."