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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Legal Aid Group Proposes 1-Stop Shop for Needy

Assistance: CRLA director is launching a campaign to raise $100,000 to buy Oxnard building and offer array of services.

March 12, 2001|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXNARD — You'd think that poverty law attorney Jeannie Barrett would be ready to slow down about now.

Since roaring into town in mid-December, she has opened an office for California Rural Legal Assistance, launched a campaign to reach out to indigent clients and worked to smooth out CRLA's sometimes rocky relationship with the local bar association.

And she says she isn't done yet.

Determined to broaden the scope of legal services for people who can least afford them, Barrett wants to expand the new office--opened in response to the closure of another longtime legal aid program--into a one-stop shop offering a range of free and low-cost services to the poor.

"It's a natural in this building," said Barrett, 56, walking through the spare but spacious two-story structure, which opened at the start of the year on A Street in downtown Oxnard.

"I'd like to be able to rent space to people who are doing other things that are of interest to our clients, other types of legal services we don't provide," she said. "I think it's a wonderful idea and one, frankly, I'd like to see replicated across the state."

For more than a decade, the statewide nonprofit group has provided free legal help to farm workers and other rural poor through an office in Oxnard.

Since 1989, that office has taken on a flurry of high-profile cases, including filing suit on behalf of female workers who were denied restroom breaks at the now-shuttered Nabisco factory in Oxnard, and exposing the abuse of dozens of Mexican laborers being held in slave-like conditions at a Somis flower ranch.

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The poverty law group agreed last year to add a more broad-based legal aid component when it became apparent that the Oxnard-based Channel Counties Legal Services Assn. would be going out of business.

The closure was the result of a push by Legal Services Corp.--a private, nonprofit group created by Congress to oversee and distribute money to legal aid programs nationwide--to make programs more efficient and effective.

The Washington, D.C., group last year decided that one agency should represent an area encompassing rural outposts from Imperial County to Yuba County, including counties along the Central California coast.

After months of negotiations and talks of merging the agencies that had been providing services in those areas, Legal Services made CRLA the sole service provider.

CRLA officials tapped Barrett, a legal aid veteran who had been running the group's Imperial Valley office, to launch the expanded program, which now provides services ranging from the resolution of landlord-tenant disputes to helping obtain Social Security benefits for the elderly and disabled.

About a dozen people a day visit the new office, which at full staffing will have three attorneys, three community workers and two clerical workers.

Now, CRLA is setting its sights on greater growth, as it prepares to launch a capital campaign aimed at generating up to $100,000 for a down payment on the building. CRLA would then set up a one-stop network, recruiting other providers to offer everything from immigration advice to pro bono work.

"We are looking for the local community to contribute a substantial portion of that," said Santos Gomez, directing attorney of CRLA's migrant services office in Oxnard. The office is about a block from the basic services office but would move to the A Street building under the one-stop plan.

"We want the community to feel as if it is an owner of this building and an owner of legal services," Gomez said. "And we want to make sure that everyone who has legal needs, regardless of their ability to pay, can and will get quality representation."

The loss of Channel Counties, and subsequent launch of CRLA's basic services office, was a source of concern to many in the legal community.

Ventura attorney Ron Harrington, president of the Ventura County Bar Assn., is among those worried that the closure will leave a gap in legal services for the poor. And he worries about the focus that CRLA will bring to its new basic services work, given the Oxnard office's previous concentration on farm-related cases.

In fact, Harrington is so concerned about the loss of Channel Counties that he is trying to build up the bar association's legal services fund to support an independent legal aid program, one free of the red tape and restrictions handed down by the federal government.

The bar is gearing up to launch its own fund-raising drive, which Harrington hopes can raise $100,000 a year for the effort. And if CRLA's proposal comes to fruition, he said, the independent program could be a perfect fit for its one-stop network.

"As long as they know us and are working together with us, then it would be great if they had space they'd be willing to share," said Harrington, who was a Channel Counties board member.

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