A crying need
Stuck in a bad marriage with seemingly no way out, Vicki Austermiller, a Grass Valley mother of five, was in dire need of affordable legal help.
But with private family law attorneys charging up to $200 an hour, Austermiller found herself out-priced by the legal market with nowhere to turn for help.
“I needed to get out of a bad marriage, but I couldn’t afford it,” Austermiller said Thursday at the Nevada City office of Nevada County Legal Assistance.
Austermiller’s marriage ended four years ago when she first went to Nevada County Legal Assistance for help. She has since remarried.
Mary, not her real name, remembers the first time she came to Legal Assistance, a nonprofit organization that provides legal aid to low-income people.
“I was in a very bad way,” Mary said. “My hands were tied, and I didn’t think I had any way out of a bad marriage.”
Struggling to get by with a 13-month-old baby, Mary said she couldn’t afford an attorney.
“I was in desperate need of legal help, and I got it here,” Mary said. “The weight was lifted off my shoulders because I could see there was an end.”
Nevada County Legal Assistance staff helped Mary with all the paperwork and walked her through each step of the divorce process.
“There was abuse – a lot of mental and emotional abuse – and it got to the point that I had to call the Sheriff’s Office because it got so scary,” Mary said. “I didn’t want my daughter to have to witness that.”
Since her divorce, Mary said life has gotten better for her and her daughter.
“You can see how much happier she is,” Mary said. “She’s learning quicker and developing better. She’s a healthy child now.”
But due to recent funding cuts, Nevada County Legal Assistance has found itself in the same shoes as many local nonprofits – struggling to keep its doors open.
“I really feel bad that this office is struggling for funding,” Mary said. “There’s so many people out there who need these services, especially in Nevada County where so many marriages are in distress.”
In addition to assisting in divorce legalities, Legal Assistance helps low-income parents get restraining orders to prevent emotional and physical abuse of both the parents and their children.
Austermiller said it would be a huge disservice to the community if the nonprofit was to close for lack of funding.
“It’s not just the legal services,” she said. “It’s the people; they really care that things go well for you.”
A group of “public spirited lawyers” created Nevada County Legal Assistance back in 1974 to provide legal support to low-income people, said board of directors’ vice president Brad Welton.
“Now we’re having a significant funding crisis,” he said. “Fifteen percent of our budget has disappeared over the last month or so.”
Welton said funding from the United Way was cut by $2,000, another $3,000 was lost from a large private donor, and the county’s allocation was slashed by $10,000.
“To stay open and continue operations, we’re asking the community to help us,” he said.
The nonprofit will mail letters to local businesses and every attorney in the county asking for donations, Welton said.
“If we close down, there’s going to be a lot of people without assistance, and the courts will be inundated by people who don’t know how to represent themselves,” said board president Jennifer Walters.
she said Nevada County Superior Court judges have already contributed $500 to the cause.
Domestic violence is a situation that affects everyone in the family, said Ann, which is not her real name.
“(Nevada County Legal Assistance) helped me get out of a marriage where there was domestic violence and substance abuse, and of course it affected my life and my children’s lives,” she said.
With help from the organization, Ann said she was able to forego hiring a lawyer and avoid the ugliness that often comes with divorce court cases.
“I wanted to help myself and my kids with as little conflict as possible, so I came to Legal Assistance,” she said.
Learning how to prepare the paperwork and putting her story on paper was a good healing process, Ann said. “I’m taking care of my business myself, and there’s been less conflict.”
When the issue of domestic violence came into play, the nonprofit helped Ann get a restraining order.
Legal Assistance empowers people and provides a way to get out of a situation that’s not healthy and safe, she said.
“My kids are happier, my kids are healthier, they have a routine, and they have goals,” Ann said. “My oldest is talking about college. They can see they have a future.”
InfoBox: Getting out of a bad marriage or buying a little family law advice can come at a high price in western Nevada County:
— Family law attorneys charge up to $165 for an hour’s consultation.
— An hour with a family law specialist can cost up to $200.
— An hour with a legal assistant at Nevada County Legal Assistance costs no more than $35. Clients are charged for services on a sliding scale, based on family size and income.
– Source: Nevada County Legal Assistance
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