At the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, Executive Director Jan VanTassel said she recently learned that her agency could face steep reductions in state funding, with an additional $493,000 needed to be operational in the next fiscal year. As a result, the statewide non-profit program that helps people with mental illness and low income may have to reduce its annual caseload.

For 14 years, VanTassel has been running the office with seven other attorneys who help people with mental illness get apartments and jobs, as well as representing them when they are in institutional settings. Now, with less money available, VanTassel said her agency may have to restrict itself to helping only clients who live in large population centers, such as New Haven or Hartford.

Van Tassel is also concerned that the more than 600 people who are helped by the agency’s attorneys each year will remain hospitalized longer than necessary.

The Connecticut Legal Rights Project was created under a consent decree in 1989, when the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut filed a lawsuit against the state because psychiatric patients were not getting access to legal representation. Under a consent order from the Connecticut Supreme Court, the state was obligated to provide funding for the legal services program to assist low-income adults with mental illness.

VanTassel spoke with Managing Editor Jay Stapleton about the impact of pending cuts.

LAW TRIBUNE: Can you tell us about the work your office performs?

JAN VANTASSEL: We focus our work on helping any low-income adults with mental illness to handle their legal issues. It’s a narrow scope of legal issues that we handle. We’re not going to write a will for you just because you have mental illness. About a third of the legal work we do deals with making sure people are released from a treatment setting in a timely manner and we help them get reintegrated into the community. We’re looking to intervene if someone can’t get a job or find housing, because then, they are not going to be able to sustain their recovery.

LAW TRIBUNE: So in housing matters, describe for me what a legal issue might be?

VANTASSEL: The overwhelming majority of our housing cases are direct referrals from mental health treatment staff who are desperate to help the people they serve obtain or retain stable housing. People will have threats made against them that they are going to lose their apartments, or not be able to get a housing voucher for Section 8 [federally subsidized] housing because they miss a deadline. So we will step in.

LAW TRIBUNE: Can you share an example?

VANTASSEL: We got a call about a women who had five children and she was being foreclosed upon and had to move. Someone told her that she was going to lose her rental subsidy because she didn’t file the paperwork within the required time frame. So this was a situation where we intervened and got her an extension. And if we hadn’t, she would have lost her housing voucher and maybe ended up without a place to stay.

LAW TRIBUNE: What about the work you do with employment law?

VANTASSEL: A lot of people will run into situations where a prospective employer will ask a lot of questions [about medical history and mental illness treatment] that are beyond the scope of what they are allowed to ask. We even had one business inquire about medical records. We recently had a person apply for a job and after they were hired, the company said they didn’t want them to work there because they had been treated for a mental illness. We will intervene and make sure employers understand what they are required to do under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many times, the employers don’t know what the law is with regard to people with mental illness.

LAW TRIBUNE: Can you explain how the office receives its funding?

VANTASSEL: We get most of our funding from the state and some from private grants. Part of the funding is to provide legal help for people who are in treatment. When the state hospitals [that provided residential care to psychiatric patients] closed, the state started to provide money as a line item so we could help people secure places to live. The money provided by the state covered about 80 percent of our costs to provide legal help for people to secure housing. But now, that’s being cut from the budget.

LAW TRIBUNE: What was your reaction to the budget cut to your program?

VANTASSEL: Frankly, I was surprised and disappointed when I learned that the governor budget appropriated roughly half of the funds that we expected to be in the legal services line item of budget. The rationale for this cut is not clear. I understand the state has a budget crisis, however, we have been led to believe the governor is a strong supporter of legal services. This budget makes me wonder.

LAW TRIBUNE: Why should the budget cuts be avoided?

VANTASSEL: If the cuts go through, our office is going to have to talk about whether we can continue statewide coverage. The problem with reducing the number of people we help, is that it will cost taxpayers more in the long run. If people don’t have housing after they are treated in a hospital, then they are going to sit in the hospital for longer than they need to. And they could end up costing more to continue in-patient treatment, or a visit to the emergency room at a cost of more than $2,000 per day .•