Collaboration Provides Alternative Dispute Resolution and Legal Assistance for Individuals in Erie, Genesee and Niagara Counties to Resolve Civil Matters Resulting from their Victimization
New Website Allows Crime Victims to Learn about their Rights, Find Resources and Obtain Help
Both Initiatives Are Part of the Crime Victims Legal Network, Created and Funded Through the State Office of Victim Services to Improve Access to Justice
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced an innovative program serving Erie, Genesee and Niagara counties that provides victims of crime with access to legal services, advocacy and alternative dispute resolution so they can resolve civil matters resulting from their victimization. The Governor also announced expansion of New York Crime Victims Legal Help, a website that allows victims to learn about their rights, connect with resources and obtain assistance. Both initiatives are part of the Crime Victims Legal Network, created by the state Office of Victim Services to help ensure victims' interests are represented in housing, immigration, custody, employment and other matters. The Office of Victim Services has awarded a total of $83 million in federal funding to programs to expand access to justice through 2023.
"Too often, victims of crime end up navigating the court system on their own because civil legal assistance can be scarce and difficult to access, especially in rural communities," Governor Cuomo said. "No one should be left alone as they seek justice, and these comprehensive services will provide critical assistance to New Yorkers and help them get their lives back on track after a difficult time."
"New York is committed to making sure crime victims receive the support they need in the immediate aftermath - and in the weeks, months, and years after," said Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who made today's announcement. "Survivors of domestic and sexual violence, elder abuse, and other crimes are often faced with difficult circumstances and need a place to turn for help. This funding will provide vital assistance and offers a unique approach to resolving legal matters outside of the courtroom. These initiatives are an important step forward to protect our most vulnerable residents."
Lieutenant Governor Hochul was in Buffalo this morning to highlight the state's investment in civil legal assistance for crime victims and officially launch the collaborative program serving Erie, Genesee and Niagara counties. The Child & Family Services' Center for Resolution and Justice, which is partnering with the Center for Elder Law & Justice and Neighborhood Legal Services, received more than $3.4 million over five years for the program, the largest civil legal assistance grant awarded by the Office of Victim Services in Western New York. The Buffalo-based agency is one of 61 victim assistance programs funded by Office of Victim Services receiving approximately $81.4 million through 2023 from the state agency to provide these services.
Administrative Judge for the state's Eighth Judicial District Hon. Paula Feroleto, who hosted the announcement in her ceremonial courtroom, said, "Long after a crime has been committed, the victim continues to suffer emotional, physical and financial harm. While we can't turn the clock back and prevent the crime, we can and must do our share to help innocent victims put their lives back in order. This effort dovetails perfectly with Chief Judge Janet DiFiore's Excellence Initiative, and I am especially encouraged that mediation - a critical part of the Chief Judge's agenda - is front and center. It shows what can be accomplished when separate branches of government are committed to addressing problems collaboratively and efficiently."
Office of Victim Services Director Elizabeth Cronin said, "Crime victim advocates have consistently identified the dire need for civil legal services, especially for housing and immigration issues and Family Court cases involving custody, support and orders of protection. This statewide investment of federal funding has allowed us to establish a comprehensive, collaborative network that provides individuals with information and local legal resources to help them navigate complicated civil matters, regardless of where they live."
The Center for Resolution and Justice's program is unique because it provides access to alternative dispute resolution, which can settle matters without trial, as well as traditional legal representation. The program began serving clients nine months ago and during that time, served 518 victims of crime, providing free assistance in the form of mediation, conflict coaching, restorative justice and traditional legal advice and representation. Nearly all of those clients were victims of domestic or family violence and elder abuse or neglect.
Julie M. Loesch, Esq., Director of Child and Family Services Center for Resolution and Justice, said, "We are thrilled to be leading a collaborative effort with forward-thinking legal services organizations that understand that justice means different things to those who seek it. For some, justice means an apology or the opportunity to be heard by those who have harmed them. For others, justice means the righting a wrong through financial restitution or access to important benefits that may allow them to move forward. For others still, justice means a fresh start and an end to a longstanding conflict. These are the types of outcomes that are so commonly achieved through alternate dispute resolution that just wouldn't be possible with legal representation alone."
Neighborhood Legal Services Family Unit Supervising Attorney Pat McGrath said, "This grant may make the difference for someone who has been traumatized by domestic violence with the opportunity to work with the various units at NLS, as well as our partner agencies, Center for Resolution and Justice and Center for Elder Law and Justice. For many, it can be a game changer."
Center for Elder Law and Justice CEO Karen Nicolson, Esq., said, "This unique partnership addresses the many gaps that victims of crime face in obtaining services, and allows for justice for our clients. Providing free civil legal services to victims of crime addresses a significant need in our community. We look forward to working together to close the gaps in service and assist those who need it most."
The Crime Victims Legal Network is comprised of Child and Family Services, as well as 60 other nonprofits receiving grants from the Office of Victim Services, enabling organizations to either hire or contract with legal professionals and accept potential client referrals from New York Crime Victims Legal Help. Initially piloted in Erie, Genesee and Niagara counties, the online portal can now connect victims in every county in the state outside of New York City to civil legal assistance. Crime victims in New York City also can use the portal to find information about their rights, learn more about their legal issues and access resources, such as legal forms and links to other service providers.
More than 5,700 individuals have accessed New York Crime Victims Legal Help since it was piloted in October 2018. The portal features a user-friendly screening tool that allows crime victims to identify what legal needs they may have and then locate relevant resources; a searchable legal service help directory with filters to isolate organizations that can assist with specific issues; a self-help resource library to inform them of their rights; and a live chat function to access referral information in real time.
Crime victim advocates and service providers also can use the screening tool and legal help directory to assist individuals they serve, and crime victims can connect with programs funded by the Office of Victim Services that can provide counseling, shelter and other assistance, in addition to helping them apply for financial assistance from the agency.
In addition to using $1.5 million in federal funding to establish the portal in partnership with three nonprofit organizations, the Office of Victim Services recently committed another $2.9 million in federal funding to ensure crime victims can obtain these critical resources and assistance for the next three years. The agency awarded the funding to the Empire Justice Center, which partners with Pro Bono Net and the University at Albany's Center for Human Services Research to expand the portal and network of legal professionals available to assist crime victims.
Crime Victims Legal Network Project Leader at Empire Justice Center Remla Parthasarathy said, "New York Crime Victims Legal Help was designed to be a single point of entry for crime victims to access civil legal information, resources and assistance. We have made it a priority to provide legal content written in plain language, with an eye on being victim-centered and empowering - giving people useful information and options that can help them. We're excited to help bring these tools to people all across upstate New York and Long Island."
Program Director at Pro Bono Net Liz Keith said, "We are proud to be a part of this groundbreaking effort to expand access to civil legal help for victims of crime. This expansion is the culmination of a multi-year vision that combines collaboration, technology and direct services to ensure that New Yorkers who are victims of crime can obtain vital assistance, regardless of their location."
Senior Research Scientist at the UAlbany Center for Human Services Research Susan Ehrhard-Dietzel said, "The University at Albany's Center for Human Services Research is honored to be part of this continued collaboration to assist crime victims. We are excited to see the network expand across New York State so that victims can easily access information and services."
The Office of Victim Services provides a safety net for crime victims and/or their family members, helping eligible individuals with medical and counseling expenses, funeral and burial expenses, lost wages and support, in addition to other assistance, all at no cost to taxpayers. The agency also funds more than 200 victim assistance programs that provide direct services, including counseling, advocacy and legal services, among other help, across the state.
One of Western New York's oldest human services agencies, Child and Family Services is dedicated to its mission of strengthening families and promoting the well-being of children through prevention, intervention, education and advocacy. The agency's programs and services help more than 10,000 children, individuals and families every year.
Neighborhood Legal Services has offices in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Batavia and provides free civil legal services to persons with low-income and persons with disabilities, including a wide range of technical assistance and support services.
The Center for Elder Law & Justice has provided comprehensive free legal services to seniors, individuals with disabilities, and the financially eligible since 1978. They also provide guardianship and trustee services for older adults and people with disabilities.
The mission of the Empire Justice Center is to protect and strengthen the legal rights of the poor, disabled or disenfranchised through advocacy, training to other advocates, and high-quality direct civil legal representation.
Based in New York City, Pro Bono Net is a nonprofit leader in developing innovative technology and forging collaborations to increase access to justice.
The Center for Human Services Research at University at Albany has more than 20 years of experience conducting evaluation research, designing information systems, and informing policy and program development for a broad spectrum of agencies serving vulnerable populations.
About New York Crime Victims Legal Help
New York Crime Victims Legal Help was established as a result of work done by the New York State Office of Victim Services and its partner agencies, the Center for Human Services Research, the Empire Justice Center and Pro Bono Net, under Grant No. 2014-XV-BX-K009 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.