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Budget would cut funds for nonprofit that helps people navigate court system

Adrienne Worthy

The director of Legal Aid of West Virginia was thinking Thursday afternoon about what it means to her to be an American.

Earlier in the day, Adrienne Worthy had seen the Trump administration’s budget blueprint, which would gut federal funding for offices like the ones she runs.

“I would absolutely argue we are one of the cornerstones of American democracy,” Worthy said. “The Pledge of Allegiance, what are the last four words?

‘And justice for all,’” she recited.

Trump’s plan zeros out funding for the Legal Services Corporation and, in turn, about $2.2 million of Legal Aid of West Virginia’s annual budget of about $10 million.

Nationwide, Legal Services Corporation is a nonprofit group that funds dozens of legal aid offices across the country. It was given $385 million last year and had requested $502 million for fiscal year 2017.

Money from the state funds the other half of the organization that helps low-income people navigate an increasingly complicated court system, Worthy said. More than half of West Virginians are considered low-income. Seniors, veterans and children make up a significant amount of the organization’s clients, but Worthy said victims of domestic violence is what is assisted most.

“We’re talking about eliminating our core funding for the heart of the work we do,” Worthy said. “We’re the only game in town when it comes to statewide services, civil legal services for low-income and vulnerable folks. ... Every state is required to have a legal aid provider to ensure access to justice and we are that entity to West Virginia. There’s nobody else who does what we do.”

In 2016, Legal Aid of West Virginia screened applications from more than 14,000 people, said Worthy. In all, the organization ended up handling about 12,000 cases last year. They handled about the same amount in 2015,

Legal Aid of West Virginia has about 56 lawyers. Starting salaries are just over $40,000.

“These folks are truly dedicated to fairness and justice,” she said.

A recent survey shows the organization is able to help only one out of every two people who apply for the service — and are determined to need and qualify for it. Because of the demand, the organization has devoted more time and resources to creating packets of information to give out and beefed up its website, its director said.

“All of that is in jeopardy if the funding it eliminated,” Worthy said.

“If Legal Aid disappears on a national level, we would still have a presence in West Virginia, but it would be much diminished. At a very basic level, thousands of people would not have access to justice,” she said. “We are the keys to the courtroom for many low-income West Virginians. There are a lot of low-income West Virginians.”

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1723 or follow @KateLWhite on Twitter.

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