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Robbery and Neglect: Mothers Shafted By Legal 'System'

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“Anita” has 2 ex-boyfriends stalking her. Life threatening. I’ve seen proof. What legal help can she get? None, and I’ve tried to intervene on her behalf. Not getting legal help means she must continue to her share custody of their toddler, despite the documented disregarded mandate that he not give the baby alcohol.

“Jessica” has a lawyer to fight for custody of her 7-year-old son. Her stereotypical ex, who has cheated on her and impregnated another, has poisoned the water by accusing Jessica of being an unfit mom. The lawyer appears to be useless. Jessica tried everything, including filing a complaint with the state Bar association. She’s now saving for another lawyer with her part-time $10 an hour job.

"Rita,” a hard working single mom who provides emergency assistance for struggling families in her county, grappled with too few resources herself (love those nonprofit poverty-level wages). Somewhere she may have made an inadvertent misstep with her own food or childcare assistance programs, and now she’s been charged with a felony. Trying to get a lawyer she found she needs an impossible $10,000 upfront.

While celebrating the Supreme Court’s no-brainer decision about domestic violence perps not being able to possess a gun, it seems that day-to-day justice is harder to come by for women in poverty. The beleaguered Legal Services Corporation, the largest funder of civil services for people in poverty, list “family law” as one of their services, but my experience is they, and other poverty law providers, are beyond overwhelmed.

This March, the National Women’s History Project chose the Women’s History Month theme of Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment. Among reasons for those qualities, they recognize,  “Against social convention and often legal restraints, women have created a legacy that expands the frontiers of possibility for generations to come. They have demonstrated their character, courage and commitment as mothers…” No kidding. Motherhood takes a tremendous amount of character, courage and commitment, especially if you dance with poverty. My HEAR US work puts me in contact with women of character, courage and commitment. We made a documentary, on the edge: Family Homelessness in America, illustrating the horrendous gaps in the safety net for women and their families.

Fighting legal battles takes its toll on mothers, especially when they can’t get legal services. A welcomed media spotlight now shines on NY Governor Cuomo and the NY legislators’ thieving practices, if you will, for robbing legal services from impoverished mothers and other desperate folks.

“State lawmakers and Cuomo have agreed for years to use money meant to cover the cost of legal defense for the poor to help balance the state's budget,the Democrat & Chronicle reported today. "Over the past six years, the state's elected officials have yanked close to $50 million from a fund designated for indigent legal services," the paper reported.

What the (mostly) boy robber barons don’t seem to understand is that stealing from poor mothers causes myriad hardships. Ask Anita, Jessica and Rita…and millions more like them. Kids and abused spouses are traumatized in domestic violence battles. Kids are separated from loving custodial parents by judges' rulings that ignore the well being of the child. Families end up homeless because of bogus felony charges that value “right” over a desperate family’s survival, scarring the wrongly-persecuted parent with a criminal record and shattering the family’s fragile existence to the point of homelessness.

Among countless current women’s issues, access to legal services seems to be dreadfully shortchanged. If you doubt it, find a mother in need of free legal help and sit down to assist her. Make sure your phone battery has a full charge and that your heart is ready to break.