Native Americans on the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations continue to suffer from a lack of access to legal services, an attorney with Elk River Law said Wednesday at the Billings Access to Justice Forum.
Georgette Boggio, a Billings attorney specializing in tribal law, said Montana Legal Services needs to have a consistent attorney on the reservations to help them with navigating civil courts. Boggio’s call for assistance was addressed to several judges and politicians during an evening forum at the Mansfield Education Center on the St. Vincent Healthcare campus.
The forum was a response to the ongoing struggle to provide impoverished Montanans with the same legal access as those who can afford a lawyer. With more than 15 percent of Montanans living at or below the poverty line, many don't understand the legal resources they can use during tenant-landlord disputes, matters of family law or other civil legal issues.
These struggles are even more apparent on the reservations, Boggio said. The tribes need a consistent lawyer to be on the ground at the reservations. Tribal members need help not only with legal representation, but also with identifying when they have a legal issue, he said.
Many tribal members lack the basic resources of the modern world, Boggio said. Some of her clients don’t have access to things like transportation or electricity, let alone phone or Internet access. Navigating issues of family law, guardianship, power of attorney, consumer rights and tenant rights are all a struggle when some members of the tribe are without these basic tools of communication.
“Without targeted outreach on reservations, Native Americans will remain underserved,” Boggio said.
The Indian Affairs Bureau doesn't provide adult protection services, like the Montana Department of Health and Human services does for Montanans across the state. This makes them more vulnerable to people who would take advantage of them.
“Eldercare is an up and coming need,” Boggio said. “People don’t understand how many barriers the elders face, including language barriers.”
Boggio said someone needs to be placed on each reservation who is familiar with not only law but tribal law and tribal courts.
Tribal cases involving family law are very complex, Boggio said.
“I don’t think we are doing a good job following the (Indian Child Welfare Act) cases,” Boggio said.
Yellowstone County District Court Judge Michael Moses as well as Judge Rod Souza both spoke at the forum, responding to Boggio’s point on the disproportionate number of Native American children going through the courts.
The district courts saw 450 children removed from their homes in 2015, Souza said. Of the 70 to 80 cases he handled, over half were Indian Child Welfare Act cases.
The Montana Legal Services Association does have an attorney on the Crow and Fort Belknap reservations, but no others are listed. On the whole, they have 13 attorneys to represent clients across the state. In 2015, 962 people requested assistance from them, with 592, or about two thirds, being turned away.
Alison Paul, executive director of the Montana Legal Services Association, said the association struggles to help everyone who needs legal assistance when its operating budget is $3.2 million a year. Paul stressed the importance of helping people with legal issues that come up with things as complex as federally subsidized housing.
“Governmental agencies sometimes don’t know their own rules,” Paul said, adding that her clients can’t handle these issues without someone who knows the law.
In addition to Montana Legal Services Association, 57 percent of active attorneys in Montana provide pro bono services. That’s 1,799 lawyers who provided 143,406 pro bono hours in 2015. The market value of that much legal advice would be in the ballpark of $21 million, according to the Montana Pro Bono Annual report.
Neglect cases as a whole were addressed as a continuing problem in Yellowstone County and across the state, as well as problems facing homeless teens. School District 2 Superintendent Terry Bouck said 39 percent of his students live in poverty. These students often can’t get a bank account, don’t have a parent and don’t have regular access to health care, food and shelter. They need an attorney to help navigate them through things like the emancipation process or gaining the guardian they do want.
SD2 Homeless Education liaison Sue Runkle said her students and families struggle like many in the community to recognize when they need a lawyer to step in and help.
Mental illness and domestic violence
St. Vincent Healthcare Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Bush focused on the two other populations struggling to get help with their civil legal actions — victims of domestic abuse and the mentally ill.
Bush said the emergency room has seen an uptick in the number of people coming in who are victims of family abuse, kids and partners. He said he thinks there is a lot more abuse and neglect than what is being reported to the DPHHS. Bush requested a lawyer be on call at the hospital in order to provide advice and help to these families.
For the mentally ill and his clients at the crisis center, Bush said the struggle is the continued cycle of getting people through the first 24 hours, sending them back into the world without enough treatment and seeing them again either in the emergency room or at the crisis center. Bush said it's a never-ending problem and that the crisis center needs more than it has. It is far cheaper to house someone at the crisis center than to give them a bed in the emergency room, Bush said.
The access to justice panel — comprised of Souza, Montana Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker, Sen. Robyn Driscoll, D-District 26, Sen. Doug Kary, R-District 22, Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy, Office of the Governor chief legal counsel Andy Huff and Billings Gazette Editor Darrell Ehrlick — heard from 11 people requesting more robust legal services.
Among the representatives already mentioned were speakers from the YMCA, the Agency on Aging, RiverStone Health, the Yellowstone County Veterans Treatment Court, Crowley and Fleck PPLP and the Billings Self-Help Law Center.
In Yellowstone County, civil legal aid programs include the Montana Legal Services Association, the Self Help Law Center and the Yellowstone Area Bar Association Family Law Project.