Giving Thought: Legal aid for those in need

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Just about everyone needs a lawyer at some point, but what if you can’t afford to pay for one?

With offices in Aspen and Glenwood Springs, Alpine Legal Services is a nonprofit, legal-assistance organization that helps people with various legal issues and sponsors free educational seminars to help citizens understand and access the justice system. Executive Director Kim Gent has spent most of her professional life in public-interest law, helping families, children, the disabled and others to get proper legal representation. She believes that everyone deserves fair treatment under the law.

Aspen Community Foundation: Please describe how Alpine Legal Services came to be and who it serves.

Kim Gent: Historically, legal-aid organizations are funded through the federal government, but we’re not because of the unique economic situation in our valley. Most people who cannot afford legal services in this valley don’t qualify for federal legal aid because their wages are higher and they don’t fit into the federal poverty guidelines. Of course, because of our high cost of living, we know those people may make more money, but they’re not any richer.

What we designed here, because of those factors, is a sliding scale. That’s why we’re an independent legal-aid organization. We have seven employees, but only two are full time. We look at the type of case, and often we’ll help someone by answering their questions, trying to empower them to handle things themselves or seek out other organizations. We do take on certain cases, but demand for our services is so great that we can’t take everything.

We provide civil legal assistance, not criminal. There are generally three categories of people we serve. One group is victims of crime. Often that’s domestic violence — cases where someone needs a protection order. We get police referrals when there’s been an incident but they don’t have enough evidence to file charges. The other groups are seniors, who are defined as anyone over 60, regardless of income, and then we have people who don’t have a lot of money — indigent populations.

ACF: Can you give us a glimpse of a typical day at work? Who is coming in your door and what do they need?

KG: We serve about 1,500 people a year, and our service area is from Aspen to Parachute. Given our limited resources, we work with a lot of other agencies. It’s a team approach to help people in need. We work with adult protective services, child protective services, family resource centers — anyone who can help us meet these needs.

We also do some general seminars to educate people. We just had a series of classes through Colorado Mountain College that were geared toward senior issues: grandparents’ rights, wills, advanced medical directives, that type of thing. We’ve also scheduled a family law day, where people can get free mediation, free parenting classes and free consultation with attorneys. We’re also working on a senior law day in October with speakers and services for the public.

There is no “typical day” for us, but here are some examples of the kinds of people we see. Recently a senior woman came to us after being assaulted by a male neighbor. She had gone to the police, but they weren’t sure it rose to the level of a crime, so they referred her to us. She did have some evidence and we were able to get her a protection order immediately. Additionally, we helped her package her evidence so they could see something was going on. Eventually he was convicted of a crime.

We’re also seeing more and more third-party requests for child custody or parenting plans. In most of these cases, the parents are having alcohol, drug, or mental health issues, and the grandparents want to establish custody rights. We work to get orders in place so the child is rightfully in the grandparents’ care.

ACF: Has the divisive political climate changed anything about your work?

KG: In his proposed budget, the president has removed funding for legal services, so that tells you the approach he’s taking toward the kind of work we do. We’re independent, so the budget doesn’t affect us directly, but it does affect the clientele we serve. The administration also wants to eliminate funding for the Violence Against Women Act. We’re not sure how it’s all going to play out, but we do know people are worried.

ACF: Give us a glimpse into the future of Alpine Legal Services.

KG: I definitely want to expand our staff. That depends on getting additional funding. I also want to work more with private attorneys to do pro bono work and make sure everyone has fairness in our justice system.

Right now we have Thursday Night Bar, where volunteer attorneys come in, donate their time, and anyone can come in with a legal question. This happens in Aspen on the second Thursday of the month and in Glenwood on the third Thursday of the month.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.