Oakland nonprofit provides array of free legal services for seniors
By GEORGE AVALOS | Bay Area News Group
OAKLAND — Ms. EMaia recalls how she burst into tears when she witnessed a judge’s ruling over a guardianship fight that had become a daily ordeal for her.
The Oakland resident had been battling for about a year to gain guardianship over her grandson, a legal struggle she would have been ill-equipped to wage had it not been for the advice, combativeness and professionalism of Legal Assistance for Seniors.
Ms. EMaia (who goes only by her first name) said she tried one law firm after another to see if they would help her establish guardianship. Complicating matters, the effort began during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The result was weeks of utter futility for an increasingly desperate EMaia, who is 68 years old.
“I couldn’t get anybody to respond to me,” she said. “We were in the middle of COVID at the time, so that made it worse. It was very hard to even get someone to phone back.”
By happy chance, a Google search brought EMaia to a nonprofit with a straightforward name: Legal Assistance for Seniors.
“Legal Assistance for Seniors was amazing,” EMaia said. “They responded right away. They first had to intake my case and see if I qualified for their assistance. The next day they assured me they could take my case.”
Through the East Bay Times’ annual Share the Spirit campaign, which seeks to raise money for the most vulnerable in our communities, Legal Assistance for Seniors hopes to raise $7,000 to support its legal services and community education program. The non-profit anticipates the funding will allow it to serve 500 people with individual legal assistance and community educational programs.
Three women — described on the organization’s website as founding mothers Willie James, Jane Welch and Doka Clausen — launched the operation in 1976.
“The agency began as a storefront office in downtown Oakland, with the mission of promoting the independence and dignity of Alameda County seniors by providing legal services to assure life’s most basic needs,” the Legal Assistance for Seniors website states. In 1984, the organization officially became a private nonprofit organization.
It achieved considerable prominence by organizing and hosting a conference on the topic of elder abuse, a gathering that became an annual affair where people in the field could discuss how to recognize, prevent and address elder abuse.
Over the years, the organization began to steadily widen its portfolio of free legal offerings for seniors in Alameda County.
It handles cases linked to elder abuse, guardianship of minor children, public benefits, health law, legal services for immigrants, conservatorship and housing.
“These kinds of cases are a lot of work for an individual to do,” said Kristen Boney, a supervising attorney with Legal Assistance for Seniors. “You have the complexity of the paperwork. And going to court can be very intimidating.”
Darnella Street, an Oakland resident, was attempting to gain guardianship of her granddaughter and was able to find help from the law firm.
“They really worked with me on my case,” Street said. “I didn’t even know where to begin. I am so thankful and happy and appreciative that I found them and how they were able to help me. They took care of everything.”
Legal Assistance for Seniors also helps out with the renewal of the guardianship that Street is required to accomplish on a yearly basis. Each year that the renewal must be undertaken, Boney reminds Street of the obligation.
“Kristen continues to do everything, even after the case was resolved,” Street said. “Kristen is so thorough, my goodness she is so thorough. Even though she is not on the case any longer, she goes above and beyond her fiduciary responsibility. She even offers to appear on my behalf.” Street’s granddaughter is still living with her.
The LAS nonprofit, when it takes a case, attempts to assess the entire situation as part of the organization’s strategy to best represent its clients.
“There can also be a lot of trauma, the kids go through a lot of trauma,” Boney said. “We look at the whole life of the clients and their families.”
LAS gets involved in plenty of other types of cases in addition to guardianship matters.
“We assist with restraining orders for seniors who have been abused by other family members or caregivers,” Boney said. “We help immigrants with citizenship cases. We help people who are having problems accessing Medicare. The housing crisis has become so bad we do a lot of cases involving housing law.”
For EMaia, Legal Assistance for Seniors takes an approach that combines expertise with a passion for the work that’s necessary to resolve cases such as her grandson’s.
“There is a difference between someone just doing a job and doing a job they love doing,” she said. “Legal Assistance for Seniors has a big heart and they know what they are doing. I would recommend them to anybody and everybody.”
That combination of the organization’s passion and skill played a big part in helping EMaia reach a successful outcome in the bureaucratic and legal ordeal so she could become her grandson’s guardian.
“I was crying when we won the case,” she said. “There was so much going on and there were so many delays. Every step of the way, the attorney was holding my hand. The day we got the decision and it went our way, we screamed and we cried.”
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