The Missouri counties of Franklin, Warren and Washington cover a swath of about 2,200 square miles west of St. Louis, where the suburbs give way to small towns and farmland. The area includes both affluent exurbs and neglected former mining villages; in Washington County, in the Ozark foothills, the poverty rate is almost twice the national average.
But as Jon Althauser can attest, serious poverty exists throughout the region. Althauser should know: For nearly 10 years, he’s seen those problems up close as managing attorney of the tiny Union, Mo., outpost of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (LSEM), about an hour west of St. Louis. The office provides general civil legal aid to all three counties, along with family law assistance in a fourth county to the north.
Plus, Althauser said, “I grew up around here” — in the Missouri River town of Hermann — “so I’m sort of familiar with it.”
With an annual budget of about $200,000 and two lawyers, the Union office of LSEM handled 600 cases in 2010, assisting close to 1,600 people. Attorneys at LSEM’s St. Louis headquarters provide all sorts of specialized legal assistance geared toward things like access to medical care and education. Althauser’s priorities are more basic: securing protective orders and child custody for domestic abuse victims, getting clients relief from debt collectors and fighting evictions.
“We end up taking the worst cases, where people are in an unsafe environment and need an order of protection or they need a custody order,” said Althauser, adding that 86% of the cases the office handled last year involved family law issues. The office is forced to turn people away even when they meet income eligibility requirements — generally up to 125% of the federal poverty level — in order to serve clients with the greatest immediate need, Althauser said.
Althauser said he fears the impact of cuts to the Legal Services Corp.’s budget now looming in Congress, since any reduction in his budget would most likely mean turning even more potential clients away. (The Legal Services Corp. contributes 30% of LSEM’s budget.)
The proposed cuts could strip as much as $400,000 from LSEM’s roughly $7 million 2011 budget, according to the organization’s executive director and general counsel, Dan Glazier. Meanwhile, Glazier said, the economic downturn has increased LSEM’s caseload by 30%. “Domestic violence, foreclosures and consumer debt cases are all on the rise,” Glazier said. “If you couple that with an unbudgeted $400,000 hit on our LSC money, we’ve really got a perfect storm that we’re facing right now.”
During the past couple of years, Althauser said he’s been seeing more clients who are dealing with poverty for the first time in their lives, with reverberating legal consequences. “Someone loses their job, their unemployment runs out and they can’t pay their debts, and that can create stress that can also lead to domestic problems or divorce,” he said.
Althauser, a retired reserve captain in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, spent three years handling domestic violence and other family law cases for LSEM in St. Louis before moving to the Union office in 2002. Along with his rural clients’ isolation, he said, the lack of general social services in the areas around Union has complicated his job since moving out of the city.
“If someone gets an order for supervised visitation, there are resources for that in the city that we don’t have out here,” Althauser said. “There’s no crisis nursery, for example, and you have to come up with a solution — maybe having a family member supervise the visit — that’s not always ideal.”
Each month, Althauser spends a day doing outreach in the former lead-mining village of Potosi in Washington County, home of a maximum-security prison, a boot factory, a tire and rubber plant and little else in the way of businesses. Many of the people in the area, especially the elderly or those who have difficulty reading, “don’t feel comfortable doing stuff over the phone” and prefer to seek assistance face-to-face, Althauser said. The poverty he sees there is the most pronounced, he said, and exacerbated by people’s lack of reliable transportation.
“Sometimes it’s hard just to be able to get them to sign the pleadings,” Althauser said.
Despite the challenges, Althauser said he’s glad to be where he is. “There are a lot of people out here who don’t have access to the courts,” he said. “They have legitimate disputes, whether it’s a divorce or a consumer case or a landlord issue, and they shouldn’t be taken advantage of just because they don’t have the resources.”