For over 30 years, the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law has been a mainstay of the Los Angeles community. In 1981, after the largest legal aid program in LA closed its family law program due to federal funding cutbacks, the Women Lawyers of Los Angeles (WLALA) and the Black Women Lawyers of Los Angeles (BWL) joined together to co-sponsor a program that would provide equal access to the courts for disadvantaged families in Los Angeles. The Family Law Project, as it was then called, was an unprecedented collaboration between the two women’s groups. The LA County Bar soon joined as co-sponsor. In 1983, WLALA proposed renaming the organization in honor of Harriett Buhai, an exceptional local family law attorney and active WLALA board member who dedicated her life to providing pro bono assistance to disenfranchised members of the community. WLALA and BWL received national recognition for their work establishing the Center when, in an historic ceremony at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1985, they received an award from the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations.
Today, the Center continues to provide critical, free family law assistance and legal education for the poor. Each year, with the help of over 300 volunteers, the Center dedicates 25,000 hours of legal services to nearly 900 very low-income persons. Its mission is to protect victims of domestic violence and improve the well-being of children living in poverty; to provide free family law assistance and legal education to the poor; and to empower people in need to assure them meaningful access to the courts. There are currently seven active programs at the Center:
· Pro Per Program: This trailblazing legal program was the first in California to provide very low-income individuals who cannot afford a lawyer with high levels of continuing self-help assistance. Volunteers and law students help 1,500 individuals each year navigate their own way through critical problems including custody and visitation, domestic violence, paternity, support and divorce.
· Pro Bono Panel: Through the support of private practitioners, the Center provides several thousand hours of free legal representation each year to clients who are unable to represent themselves in court. This panel is a lifeline to very low-income individuals who are scared, overwhelmed and cannot represent themselves due to severe abuse, disability or other circumstances.
· Domestic Violence Law Project: The Center provides intensive, ongoing legal assistance to victims of domestic violence, who make up 70% of the Center’s clients. In addition, the Center helps to shield children from harm and provides them the foundation for a stable and successfully future by obtaining appropriate orders for custody, visitation and support. The National Counsel of Juvenile and Family Court Judges recognized the Center’s work in this area as one of “the most effective and innovative programs designed specifically for battered mother and their children in the nation.”
· Community College and Neighborhood Outreach Program: Partnering with various local schools and other non-profit institutions, the Center provides day-long, on-site legal counseling sessions and group education presentations to help students and community members with critical family issues.
· Family Reunification and Reentry: This program was designed to address the profound consequences for children of low-income women who have been incarcerated. The Center offers direct legal services and education workshops on domestic violence and child custody and welfare to formerly incarcerated mothers, and connects them with organizations that offer substance abuse and mental health treatment services and reentry programs.
· Fatherhood Project: In collaboration with Children’s Institute, Inc., the Center is helping to strengthen the engagement of low-income fathers in the care and upbringing of their children. A team from the Center teaches workshops on child support, custody and visitation to help fathers become more nurturing, responsible and active parents.
· Volunteer and Law Student Development: Through its active program of recruiting, training and educating volunteers, the Center is a vehicle by which attorneys, law students, and other professionals give back to the community. The Center places special focus on recruiting and training law students who are the public interest lawyers of the future.
The Center’s work could not be performed without volunteers. Law graduates, attorneys of every level of experience and expertise, paralegals, interpreters, community members and students each have an active role to play in supporting the Center’s work. Nearly 15,000 hours of free legal services are donated by volunteer attorneys, paralegals and law students each year. Over 12,000 hours of work are produced by the Center’s staff attorneys and paralegals. The Center offers comprehensive training and mentoring in family law to its volunteers throughout their handling of a case. New volunteers attend a one-day training (there is one coming up in May), and receive 5.5 hours of CLE as well as a copy of the Center’s excellent resource, the California Family Law Basics Guide.
As a non-profit, the Buhai Center is sustained through the contributions of its donors. Recently, the Center created the Century Campaign to allow for a greater portion of donor funds to go directly to helping low-income families. The Campaign allows for more funds go directly to the provision of free legal assistance instead of towards fundraising efforts and events. As a result, 93 cents out of every dollar received by the Center is devoted to legal assistance for the poor.
For more information about the Center, visit its website at www.hbcfl.org. For more information on volunteering or donating, please reach Elizabeth Beatty (Volunteer Coordinator) at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 213-388-7505.
And now, a pop quiz:
1) For how many years has the Center been in existence?
A. 5 years.
B. 12 years.
C. 23 years.
D. Over 30 years.
2) What is the Center’s mission? [**bonus points if you know to which organizations the other missions below belong**]
A. To ensure a homeland that is safe, secure, and resilient against terrorism and other hazards.
B. To protect victims of domestic violence and improve the well-being of children living in poverty; to provide free family law assistance and legal education to the poor; and to empower people in need to assure them meaningful access to the courts.
C. To provide the nation with a safer, more flexible, and more stable monetary and financial system.
3) Which of the Center’s programs is the first in California to provide high levels of self-help assistance to very low-income individuals?
A. Domestic Violence Law Project.
B. Family Reunification and Reentry.
C. Pro Per Program.
D. Pro Bono Panel.
4) True or False: The Center can continue its critical work without the help of volunteers.
5) How can you get involved in supporting the work of the Buhai Center?
A. Become a volunteer at the Center.
B. Join the Pro Bono Panel
C. Donate to the Century Campaign.
D. Join the Board of Directors.
E. All of the above.
2. B [A=Department of Homeland Security; C=Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System]
Jessica Kurzban is Counsel at WilmerHale and is the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law Liaison for the WLALA Board of Governors.