Barb Otte has a soft spot for senior citizens.
So when elderly people comes to the executive director of the Benton-Franklin Legal Aid Society, grab their own chests and say their hearts no longer can take the harassing phone calls from collectors, Otte doesn't hesitate to take them on as clients.
"We have a lot of senior citizens as clients who are being brutally attacked over the phone for Social Security, and it causes health problems," Otte said.
Their financial constraints often are brought on by the death of a spouse, which leaves the survivor to cover credit card debt and other bills even though their income has been reduced.
Social Security payments can't be garnished and collection agencies know that, so they go after the elderly, rarely mentioning that the person has a right to an attorney, Otte said. Most people don't realize that they qualify for civil legal aid if they fall below the poverty guideline, as is the case for many senior citizens.
She's had clients who've changed their phone number at least three times to avoid the abuse, and one who was told to write a check for $250 when the total account balance was $252.
"They will hound and abuse the elderly on the phone, to the point where they come in here just crying their eyes out and can't take it," Otte told the Herald. "Collection agencies will do it until they get a letter from an attorney saying they need to leave this person alone, and sometimes the attorney must go after them."
The Legal Aid Society is a nonprofit organization that helps provide free legal service for qualifying low-income clients.
Civil legal aid covers family law, landlord/tenant, debtor/creditor, bankruptcy, wills, guardianship, power of attorney, Social Security issues, immigration, protection orders and child support.
Once applicants pass the screening process, Otte matches them with a lawyer who has offered his or her services for free. Typically, attorneys can charge thousands of dollars if privately retained for such cases.
In 2012, the organization recorded a conservative $468,000 in pro bono time. Otte said she calculates that number by setting a lawyer's hourly rate at $200.
This year, the Benton-Franklin Legal Aid Society has opened 708 new cases, which includes 324 referrals from the Northwest Justice Project's hotline service, and assigned 83 to lawyers for representation. There are 391 open cases currently.
About 4,000 people annually walk through the office for help, whether it is for questions or legal help. They don't all qualify to go into the system as referrals. The office is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays.
The organization covers Benton and Franklin counties, but this year has handled cases with clients in Adams, Chelan, Grant, Kitsap, Lewis, Pierce, Snohomish, Spokane, Walla Walla and Yakima counties. Clients may live in another county but their cases must be in a Tri-City court, such as a domestic violence victim who fled the area but has an active restraining order against an abuser.
Otte said people don't realize the varied ways Legal Aid can help.
She's had clients who stay home to care for their adult disabled children while getting Social Security, but unless the parent gets guardianship once the child turns 18 they no longer can sign for medical or other needs.
Attorneys have an ethical obligation to take on pro bono work once in a while, but Otte said her organization is blessed with a long list of Tri-City lawyers who want to help. Attorney Steve Defoe of Kennewick had 19 cases this year, many of those dealing with dependency matters where there are allegations of abuse or neglect of minors. Defoe was recognized by the society last year with the Gene Schuster Award.
The organization's annual attorney recognition luncheon is scheduled this Friday.
It also is sponsoring a free record sealing clinic with Northwest Justice Project at 6 p.m. Dec. 16. People with a juvenile record who want it sealed for employment or housing purposes can meet with a Kirkland attorney in a Pasco office to get the paperwork completed and filed.
It normally costs $75 to get the documents before a judge, but Otte said the fee will be waived this one time if the organizations make the copies and deliver the papers to court. People must meet certain criteria to get their records permanently sealed, like being crime-free in the community for two years or five years if it is a serious felony. Juvenile sex crimes don't qualify.
Space is limited, so people who want an appointment should call 509-521-1804 or email email@example.com.
The Legal Aid Society also offers a family law class on the third Tuesday of every month at 2 p.m. An attorney can meet with up to 10 people to give legal advice and review documents for divorces, parenting plans or custody issues. To register, call 509-734-9840.
Legal Aid has 12 board members, but always is looking for more volunteers to help with planning and fundraisers. The front-office employee at 418 N. Kellogg St. is part-time, while Otte is on three-quarter time.
The organization's budget is about $82,000, but Otte has scaled down to $72,000 in recent years by getting operational costs down to the bare bones.
A grant from the Legal Foundation of Washington will bring in $51,944 for 2014, slightly up from the $50,000 she got for this year.
Otte said they will receive another $12,500 next year designated for a separate reserves account, the first time they've had any padding since she was hired in 2006.
Legal Aid has a barbecue every summer to bring in money, along with three Continuing Legal Education (CLE) programs every year to help lawyers get their required credits.
"It is tough to do public fundraisers because the judicial bench does not want to tap in to non-legal funds," Otte said. "... Everybody knows somebody who's gone through Legal Aid. It's not that big of a community, and people can fall on hard times and need to come in here for help."
People who need legal advice are instructed to first call a state bilingual hotline -- the Coordinated Legal Education, Advice and Referral system, or CLEAR -- and undergo a screening process before being referred to the appropriate organization or attorney.
Call 1-888-201-1014, or 1-888-387-7111 (for people age 60 and older); 1-888-201-9737 (TTY).
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer