Legal aid clinic celebrates 25th anniversary

By Correy E. Stephenson
BridgeTower Media Newswires
 
DETROIT — Twenty five years ago, The Salvation Army William Booth Legal Aid Clinic opened its doors in Detroit.

Burned out and looking to give back, Robert Dickman left private practice in 1994 to join forces with The Salvation Army of Metro Detroit. Initially, the clinic offered free services for participants in The Salvation Army’s Harbor Light programs, where individuals undergo detox, residential and outpatient substance abuse treatment.

“Robert was a visionary,” said Amy Roemer, director of the clinic. “The initial goal of the clinic was to help individuals going through treatment and get their legal issues resolved so that legal problems wouldn’t trigger a relapse.”

In 2008, the clinic took its work a step further and began offering its services to anyone living at or below the poverty guidelines in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties.

Roemer, who took over from Dickman as only the second director in the history of the clinic in 2013, made it her mission to get out into the community and spread the word about the clinic’s services for individuals, families and U.S. military veterans.

Anyone receiving assistance from The Salvation Army receives information about the clinic.

Outreach efforts include the clinic’s presence on-site to help with family law cases at the Wayne County Circuit Court (every Thursday for the last seven years) as well as teaching a family law clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

“We teach the students how to interview clients, issue spot and draft any relevant pleadings,” Roemer said, as well as provide real-world experience representing family law clients in Wayne County Circuit Court.

The clinic also shows the students that there is a need in the law to give back to those less fortunate, she said.

“Our hope is that when they are practicing lawyers, the experience working with our clinic made an impression on them and they will continue to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate,” Roemer explained.

Currently comprised of Roemer, an assistant director, two full-time attorneys, a part-time attorney, a student extern and an intake specialist, the clinic screens potential clients through an intake interview to ensure that the legal issue is one the clinic can tackle, such as matters related to family law, divorce, child custody, domestic violence, probate and landlord/tenant law.

“We’re small but mighty,” Roemer said.

Despite its stature, the clinic has racked up some impressive statistics in its 25 years of operation. Assisting approximately 140 clients per year in the beginning, today the program helps resolve roughly 1,800 legal cases on an annual basis, for an estimated total of about 40,000 clients since inception.

“Knowing that we are really making a difference in people’s lives, offering clients hope and being a light in the time of darkness for them and giving them access to justice which they may not have been able to find or receive makes this an incredibly fulfilling job,” Roemer said.

The connection with The Salvation Army also sets the William Booth Legal Aid Clinic apart from other legal aid clinics, she added.

“Clients come to us with a legal issue and then we realize they need a suit for a job interview or help paying their utility bill,” Roemer said. “We can help them with all of those things because we are part of The Salvation Army — we have a really unique environment here.”

The work can be emotionally demanding.

Roemer recalled a particularly challenging situation where the victim of domestic abuse in Texas fled her partner and came home to Michigan, where she gave birth. The abusive partner showed up for parenting time and kidnapped the child, returning to Texas.

“We had to fight over which state had jurisdiction before we could even get to the custody issues,” she said. “It was very emotional and high stakes, as the child wasn’t even six months old at the time.” Custody was awarded to the mother and the child was returned to Michigan.

As the only Salvation Army legal aid clinic in the world, the William Booth Legal Aid Clinic finds itself fighting an uphill battle. With less than one half of an attorney for every 10,000 Americans living in poverty — and more than 2 million individuals living either at or below the poverty line in Michigan alone — the clinic is unable to help all of those in need.

“The hardest part of the job is knowing that we don’t have enough resources to help everyone that is in need and having to turn clients away as a result,” Roemer said.

The Michigan legal community can help, she said. Financial support is key for the clinic and Roemer encouraged attorneys to take part in the annual Walk for Justice at the Detroit Zoo, scheduled for May 9, 2020.

“It’s a family-friendly event and attorneys can come out and support us,” she said.

Lawyers should also keep the clinic in mind when they have clients who can’t afford their services, as “we’re definitely a referral option,” Roemer added. “The court system can be overwhelming and confusing for people and the possibility of having an attorney can be life-changing for clients.”

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