October 30 - November 5, 2014

Maryland Poor Deserve Free Attorneys in Family Law Cases, Panel Finds

By Madeleine List

Capital News Service

 

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland – Many Marylanders without law degrees or deep pockets are acting as their own attorneys in certain civil cases. And they usually lose.

So a state task force this month recommended assigning free lawyers in certain family-law cases, and spending nearly $8 million over four years to help the poorest Marylanders work through the complex court system.

Nervous, confused and lost is what many reported feeling as they prepared to face their day in court without a lawyer to defend them.

“I don’t have any clue, I don’t have any idea at all what I’m doing,” said Sara Smith, 22, who on Tuesday was seeking legal advice for her divorce and child custody case at the Family Law Self Help Center, a clinic based out of the People’s Law Library in Annapolis, Maryland, that provides free walk-in legal advice for the lawyer-less. 

Only those charged with criminal offenses in the U.S. have the right to a lawyer at public expense under the Constitution, not those involved in civil disputes. In Maryland, except for certain types of cases, like juvenile delinquency, people involved in civil matters must represent themselves in court if they can’t afford a lawyer.

And few can afford the high rates, which run around $80 per hour on the cheap side, not to mention myriad other costs and filing fees involved with going to court, said John Pollock, an attorney at the Public Justice Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization in Maryland.

“They don’t even have enough for their basic necessities,” he said, “much less legal representation.”

About 80 percent of low-income Marylanders involved in civil lawsuits represent themselves in court and are 3.5 times more likely to lose their case than if they had a lawyer representing them, according to a 2014 report from a state panel.

The Task Force to Study Implementing a Civil Right to Counsel in Maryland is a group of judges, attorneys, delegates and state senators that has been meeting since December to discuss the benefits of providing legal representation to low-income people involved in civil disputes.

Going through the complicated process of law can be overwhelming and intimidating without help, said Maria Rhine, 48, who was also at the law library Tuesday, seeking help filing for emergency custody of her grandchild.

“Knowing what paperwork to fill out, that’s a challenge, what steps to take,” she said. “It’s a scary situation.”

Some fear they may break down or get too emotional in court, potentially affecting the outcome of their case. Having a lawyer to speak for them could help ease that stress, said Bonnie Parker, 58, who is fighting for visitation rights for her grandchild.

“He or she could be that voice for me that I need because it is emotional,” said Parker, also looking for assistance at the help center on Tuesday.

Low-income Marylanders who qualify for legal aid should have a right to a lawyer at public expense in cases involving child custody and civil domestic violence matters, two types of high-stakes cases with high rates of self-representation in Maryland, according to the report, which the task force submitted to Gov. Martin O’Malley and the Maryland General Assembly on Oct. 1.

To qualify for an attorney under the task force’s recommendations, one must fall within 125 percent of the federal poverty line, meaning an annual salary of less than $14,588 for an individual and less than $29,813 for a family of four.

The majority of clients at the center are involved in custody cases, and most fall within federal poverty guidelines, although the help center’s walk-in hours are open to anyone without a lawyer regardless of income, said Amanda Eden, managing attorney at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, a non-profit law firm that provides legal services to low-income people. Eden met clients at the law library on Tuesday.

Family law cases, which include child custody and domestic violence matters, make up over one third of all cases filed in the state, according to the Maryland Legal Services Corp., which raises funds and gives grants to legal aid nonprofits.

People involved in these types of cases need the most pro bono help of any other civil case type in Maryland, said Del. Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery County, who served on the task force.

At least one party had to represent themselves in 78 percent of family law cases heard in Maryland in 2010, according to the task force’s report.

To address this problem, the task force suggests rolling out more than $7.8 million over the course of four years, mostly in state funding, as well as grants from the Maryland Legal Service Corp., to existing legal aid programs and to fund pilot programs that focus specifically on family law matters.

Although providing this service would be an expensive investment, it may save the state money in the long run, said Debra Gardner, legal director of the Public Justice Center.

Trials would run more smoothly and efficiently if both parties were represented by professional lawyers, she said. The state would also save on extra social services it may otherwise have to provide for people who lose their cases and need further interventions later on, she said.

“It saves money for society in other ways by preventing homelessness, instability in families, shelter costs and other kinds of costs,” she said. “Paying for a lawyer handling the case may be quite cost-effective by comparison.”

A bill, sponsored by Del. Sandy Rosenberg, D-Baltimore, outlining the task force’s recommendations, will be introduced to the legislature at the start of the next session, which begins on Jan. 14, said Dumais, who plans to co-sponsor the bill. 

Expanding Legal Support in Child Custody Cases

Low-income parents and children in custody cases involving allegations of abuse or neglect of a child already have the right to a lawyer at public expense in Maryland, but not in custody disputes where the child is not in danger. About 31,000 additional low-income parents would qualify for legal aid if that right were extended to all custody matters, according to a 2011 state justice commission report.

To serve these low-income parents, the task force suggests using the Judicare Family Law Project, an existing Maryland program funded by the Maryland Legal Services Corp., to pilot the idea of providing lawyers to parents in all types of child custody cases.

The state and The Maryland Legal Services Corp. should provide funding and grants, totaling around $3 million, over the course of the next four years to local Judicare providers in Baltimore City and Prince George’s, Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties, which together represented 30 percent of all civil family law cases filed in the state in 2013, according to the Maryland Judiciary Annual Statistical Abstract, a report from the Maryland Courts.

More Lawyers for Civil Domestic Violence Cases

To aid low-income Marylanders involved in civil domestic violence cases, the task force suggests rolling out $4.8 million in state funding over the course of four years to organizations that provide legal representation, among other services, to victims of domestic violence, like the House of Ruth Maryland, a Baltimore center that assists women victims of domestic violence.

Victims of domestic violence can file for a week-long protective measure without a long legal procedure, but receiving a full restraining order involves a court process, especially if the case includes other complicating factors like child custody or financial matters, said Jane Murphy, a law professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Murphy studied the strategies used by women dealing with domestic violence and found that of those who filed for restraining orders, less than half were granted the full restraining order, according to a 2003 study she authored. Of those who had a lawyer, 83 percent were successful in getting the restraining order while only 32 percent of those without legal counsel managed to win their case, according to her study.

Lawyers should be provided for income-eligible victims as well as the alleged abusers so that the trial is fair and balanced, according to the task force.

“In my experience women don’t seek (restraining orders) frivolously,” Murphy said “But having an attorney on both sides is consistent with our legal system."

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PG’s County Library feeds 4,794 children this summer

    

By PRESS OFFICER
PGCMLS 

HYATTSVILLE, Md.—Prince George’s County Memorial Library System in partnership with Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign and the Partnership to End Childhood Hunger in Maryland provided free lunches to 4,794 children this summer. The children came from families who depend on free and reduced-price meals.

The library provided lunches from June 16 through Aug. 22 on Mondays through Thursdays this summer.

Prince George’s County Memorial Library System provides materials and information for study and personal enrichment, offering strategies for lifelong learning through access to varied media and professional guidance. The library system consists of branches in 19 communities including Accokeek, Baden, Beltsville, Bladensburg, Bowie, Fairmount Heights, Glenarden, Greenbelt, Hillcrest Heights, Hyattsville, Largo-Kettering, Laurel, Mount Rainier, New Carrollton, Oxon Hill, South Bowie, Spauldings, Surratts-Clinton and Upper Marlboro. (www.pgcmls.info).


 

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Hoyer Encourages Marylanders to Vote in Upcoming Election

    

By PRESS OFFICER
Office of Steny H. Hoyer

UPPER MARLBORO, MD - Congressman Steny H. Hoyer (MD-5) released the following statement today after attending a “Get Out The Vote” (GOTV) rally with President Barack Obama to support the Brown-Ulman campaign at Wise High School in Upper Marlboro.

"I was proud to join President Obama today to encourage Marylanders to vote and cast their ballots early in support of Anthony Brown and Ken Ulman as the next governor and lieutenant governor of the great State of Maryland. Lt. Governor Brown and County Executive Ulman are already fighting for a stronger middle class, safer streets and schools, and good jobs that make the American Dream accessible to more Marylanders. I know they will continue to work to build a better Maryland, and I look forward to working together with fellow Democrats to ensure we can achieve a historic victory for Maryland."

 

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Golf Outing Sets New Record for Fundraising

  

By Press Officer
Capitol College

 

Capitol’s annual golf tournament, held at the Turf Valley resort in central Maryland on September 29, was the most successful so far, netting $17,000 in scholarship money for students – a record amount in the seven-year history of the event.

Nineteen teams played the eighteen holes of the tournament, matching their skills against the challenges presented by Turf Valley’s championship-level course. Competition was tight, with the top finishers separated by only a few strokes. First place went to Ross Meyers and Mike Milbourne, representing Nauticon Imaging Solutions, with a score of 56.

Team Lockheed Martin was next, with members Rick Geritz, Haden Land, Larry Letow and Roya Mohadjer scoring 58. Third place, and a score of 59, went to Pepco’s team – Phil Kelly, Eric Kerzel, Craig Stark and Tas Taousakis.

Rachel Burns, assistant director of development, was the main organizer of the tournament. She says she was delighted with the turnout and the level of support.

“The golf tournament is a fun event,” she said. “Our alumni and vendors come out and have a great time. It’s also a good way to fundraise and to raise the profile of the school.”

“This year was particularly exciting because we had a tournament sponsor – a sponsor starting at the $5,000 level. I was excited to see that level of support for the college. I also was really pleased that we had a sponsor for all eighteen holes. And I was impressed with the alumni and board members who sponsored a hole even if they didn’t play golf, in honor or memory of someone,” she said.

“Our board chairman, Harvey Weiss, came and supported the entire event – including with a hole sponsorship – even though he isn’t a golfer himself,” Burns said. “We also had enthusiastic volunteers who helped execute the event. And Turf Valley has a wonderfully responsive and accommodating staff; they are a real pleasure to work with.”

A luncheon greeted the players as they returned from the course. Dr. Michael T. Wood, Capitol’s president, took the podium to thank the event participants for their support and announce the tournament winners.

Also speaking during the luncheon were the two recipients of last year’s golf scholarships, Garrett Baseley and Olin Haramoto.

Baseley, a two-time winner of the scholarship, told attendees that he is currently deciding whether to set his sights on the government or on the private sector after he graduates this coming May – a year early.

An information assurance major, Baseley has also been active on campus, serving as a senior RA in addition to being a Telecommunications Lab assistant and a student employee at Puente Library. He has also held a summer internship at the Defense Intelligence Agency and last year was inducted into the Alpha Chi National Honor Society.

“I’d like to thank everyone again for providing me with this scholarship – it will be well utilized,” Baseley said.

Olin Haramoto, also a senior, expressed his appreciation to the scholarship donors for their generosity, which he said had enabled him to complete his degree in electrical engineering.

“When I retired from the Air Force in 2010, the job market was struggling and I knew that I needed to retrain in order to compete in the job market,” Haramoto said. “Capitol College has allowed me to grow well beyond my skills as a technician and will let me re-enter the job market with a much better skill set. Thank you again for helping make this possible.”

Among the Capitol students who played in this year's tournament was Keith Hinton. It was his second time at the event. The Turf Valley course, he said, "was challenging but very fun to play."

"Every hole gave you something different to tackle. Some had blind drives, others tight fairways, even some of the putts were interesting. While I learned that I wasn't the best driver, I did meet with success while putting on the greens. It was truly exciting being able to sink a couple birdies for my team," he said.

"The opportunity has truly been exciting and humbling," he said. "The entire experience has left me wanting to play more. I can't wait for next year's tournament!"

 

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Bartending Friends Look for Solution to Drink-Spiking Problem

   

By Dennis Ting
Capital News Service

ADAMS MORGAN, WASHINGTON, D.C. – Mike Bokman and Frank Mills are bartenders and best friends who are also in the business of safety. Drink safety that is.

The DrinkLock is a new invention intended to be served as a drink coaster, which would then become an adhesive cover that would stick to the sides of the cup if the user needs to leave it unattended. Once the adhesive is removed, the word “void” appears to let the user know the cover has been lifted.

For Bokman, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, this is a very personal issue.

“I was actually a victim of drink tampering myself,” Bokman said. “My 21st birthday, I woke up at this Greyhound station. I was bleeding. I had blood on my face and I had no clue what happened. I had no recollections. It was just like a total blackout.”

Bokman and Mills said they were inspired to create the DrinkLock, which launched in September, after seeing that too many people were trying to protect their drinks by placing their coaster or napkins over the top of the glass.

By creating a tamper-resistant cover, Bokman and Mills, of Alexandria, Virginia, are hoping to be the first line of defense against drink tampering. Bokman acknowledged that there were other new tools out there to detect drink tampering, like the nail polish that detects date rape drugs developed earlier this year, but said he believes the DrinkLock is the most effective tool.

“Who knows what people are making in their basement,” Bokman asked. “People make the craziest drugs. They put stuff in there. I don’t know if I’d want to trust something that’s going to change color. This (DrinkLock) is fool proof.”

More than 90 percent of rapes involve alcohol, according to Stephanie Rivero, the assistant coordinator for the CARE to Stop Violence program at the University of Maryland.

Many of these alcohol-related rapes also involve drink tampering, but it is hard to find accurate statistics about these cases.

Rohypnol, known by the street name “roofies,” is a sedative that causes victims whose drinks are spiked with it to have no recollection of events. It is among the most well known date rape drugs, though there are many others that can have similar effects on victims.

“There are a lot of challenges with date rape,” Rivero said. “The traditional idea of roofies being the date rape drug is not true anymore. Many people use over-the-counter painkillers and prescription drugs.”

Rivero said she thinks the DrinkLock is a great idea, although the challenge is that it places the burden on the victim to remember to place the cover on.

But there are others who herald it as a great invention to prevent drink spiking.

“It’s going to take a lot longer to change the culture and to change the predator’s mindset, and in the meantime, we need ways to prevent the risk,” Cloe Buzan, a bartender in Bethesda, Maryland, said.

The DrinkLocks have made their way across the country, and even across the globe, with covers popping up in California and even in Germany. Bokman and Mills say they are working on a more effective version, which they hope to release soon.

DrinkLock coasters are available in quantities of 20 or more for 50 cents apiece at www.drinklock.com.


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