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Just Thoughts is the blog of the Empire Justice Center, New York’s statewide, multi-issue, multi-strategy public interest law firm focused on changing the “systems” within which poor and low income families live. Here staff and guest authors will share stories, announcements and perspectives on timely issues related to our work.

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TANF at 20: The 1996 “Welfare Reform” and its Impact, Part 1

Issue Area: Public Benefits

Since 1973, some incarnation of Empire Justice Center has been fighting for low income and disenfranchised New Yorkers' rights.  We've seen many changes and weathered many storms, including the so-called "welfare reform" of 1996.  The advent of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 brought us the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, for better or for worse.  Twenty years later, New York families are still living in poverty.  We present to you our perspectives on TANF at 20.

First up, Don Friedman, Senior Attorney in our Public Benefits Practice Group… 

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (PRWORA), commonly known as “welfare reform,” reaches 20 years of age this year.  I was somewhat taken aback to realize that my experience with public assistance advocacy began 20 years before this welfare reform, and has now extended for 20 years since!  But my assessment of PRWORA has not changed: I believe that this law not only introduced an array of harmful policy changes, but also – building on changes wrought during the Reagan administration – served to intensify public hostility towards public assistance programs and to ensure that benefits for those in need would be increasingly difficult to access and ever more punitive in their administration. 

Here I’ll describe key primary provisions of the 1996 welfare reform and discuss some of the consequences, intended or otherwise.  In light of the wealth of research on PRWORA, I also provide citations to a sampling of available resources. 

The Culture of Welfare Administration

I’ve chosen to begin this discussion not with the statutory changes instituted by welfare reform, but with the cultural changes in welfare administration that accompanied or were exacerbated in the course of welfare reform.  These weren’t necessarily federal mandates, but rather changes that were made more feasible due to the spirit as well as the specifics of the new law.  State and local welfare agencies around the country actively discouraged pursuit of TANF benefits and erected ever higher procedural barriers, making it increasingly difficult to pursue and retain needed benefits.

A case in point:  Jason Turner became nationally famous for dramatically reducing the number of welfare recipients in Wisconsin.  Much of what he did anticipated the federal reforms.  Mayor Giuliani brought him to New York City to work his magic.  A key element of Turner’s approach was called diversion, using a variety of tactics – many subsequently ruled illegal by a federal judge – to discourage people from applying for benefits.  It was the culture encouraged by the welfare reform law and the national debate that surrounded it. [1]

Block Grants, Benefit Levels

The 1996 welfare reforms, as with prior welfare law, left it to the states to determine benefit levels (in contrast with many other benefit programs).  But PRWORA converted TANF (what had been AFDC) [2] from a matching grant program to a block grant program.  This meant that instead of states getting a federal contribution to meet half of their welfare costs – the prior 50% matching grant – each state would receive a fixed amount based on a formula – a block grant – and they would receive that amount and no more, regardless of how many people might need assistance. [3]  In addition, the law provided that the block grant could be used for a range of different purposes, not just cash assistance.  Multiple consequences flowed from these changes:

The block grant and use of TANF funds:  In the early years after PRWORA became law, the nation was experiencing an economic boom, and fewer people needed TANF.  But the block grant remained the same, so states actually often had a TANF surplus.  This masked the problem of a fixed block grant.  Now, 20 years later, the amount of the block grant has not changed – in real dollars, it has lost about 30% of its value – even as the cost of living, particularly with the gradual recovery from the recession, has steadily risen.  In addition, in most states, cash assistance now comprises a significantly reduced percentage – about one-third – of the block grant.  The other purposes for which it is allocated are generally worthy, but too often they don’t reach the poorest Americans. [4] 

Stagnant benefit levels:  As a result of the intense stigma associated with welfare, the diversion of the TANF block grant for other purposes, and the fact that the block grant has remained flat, family benefit levels have stagnated throughout the nation.   A critical result is that, whereas in the mid-1970s a welfare grant plus food stamps would typically bring a family to the poverty line or even above it, the grant plus SNAP now is more likely to leave a family well below the poverty line. [5]  And by itself, the average monthly TANF benefit provides roughly one-third of the poverty threshold for a family of two. [6]

TANF’s counter-cyclical effect:  Before PRWORA in 1996, and particularly since the 1970s, welfare had played an important counter-cyclical role in the American economy.  That is, when the economy was doing poorly, more families would become eligible for and receive benefits to help them weather hard times.  Because of the stagnation of benefits and the diversionary and punitive tactics of the welfare culture, TANF, to a large extent, no longer plays this critical role of cushioning families against economic downturns.  In recent years, including during the great recession from which we are only gradually emerging, only about one-quarter of families with income below the poverty threshold have received TANF cash assistance in a typical month. [7]

Time Limits

Perhaps the most historically dramatic change in the 1996 welfare reform package was the imposition of time limits on the receipt of TANF benefits.  With limited exceptions, families could only receive TANF for a lifetime maximum of five years.  Until the adoption of this rule, welfare law required that each state establish welfare eligibility standards, and then provide benefits to any family that applied and met these criteria.  Many of us saw this as the essential definition of an “entitlement.”  With the adoption of time limits, however, a family could continue to meet the eligibility criteria, comply with all requirements, and still be in need, but nevertheless be denied benefits because they had reached the five year limit.  Furthermore, the five years was a maximum; states were free to set a shorter maximum period, and many have done so.

The TANF time limit, perhaps the most onerous provision in a law packed with restrictions, sanctions and burdensome mandates, has not had the impact in New York that it has had in most other states.  This is owing to either the wisdom and humanity of our lawmakers, or to a unique feature of our state constitution, or some of both.

New York’s Constitution and TANF time limits:  Article 17 of the New York State Constitution provides that the state must provide for the “aid, care and support of the needy…. in such manner… as the legislature may from time to time determine.”  This article has never guaranteed that the public assistance grant would be adequate to meet the basic needs of poor New Yorkers.  But it has meant that the state can’t refuse all assistance to a household that has established its need.  And so, when time limits were placed on TANF benefits, New York created Safety Net Assistance (SNA) to provide aid to families that had reached the TANF time limits.  As with all welfare benefits in New York, SNA grants are inadequate to meet even the most rudimentary needs of poor families, but they do provide some protection, in contrast with states that terminate all assistance when the time limits are reached.

Work Rules

Welfare programs have always imposed work requirements on adult recipients.  But before PRWORA, states had a good deal more latitude in determining who would be required to participate in work activities, and the range of activities that might be assigned.  With PRWORA, states were mandated to increase the number of people participating in work, increase the hours they would be required to work, and sharply limit the activities that would count as work.

“Work First”:  Perhaps most significantly, the new law embraced the “work first” philosophy, in which the rules were heavily skewed in favor of participation in activities that most resembled a “regular” job. [8]  This might sound reasonable, except that many welfare recipients, in order to improve their job prospects, need training, education and assistance with soft skills.  They also might need drug treatment, appropriate accommodations for disabilities, psychological counseling and support in domestic violence situations. 

Education and training:  PRWORA imposed drastic limitations on the discretion of states to count such crucial activities as education, vocational training and various supportive services as work participation.  For example, for some welfare recipients, being permitted to complete an associate’s degree or obtain a four-year degree would virtually assure their ability to leave and remain off of welfare.  But four-year college was completely off limits until regulatory changes were adopted about 12 years after welfare reform was passed.  In New York City, the number of welfare recipients attending college at the time of PRWORA was about 28,000.  Within a few years that number was closer to 5,000. [9]

The impact of participation rates:  PRWORA instituted “participation rates” under which states had to have a certain percentage of adult recipients engaged in countable work activities.  Certain technicalities in the law made this less onerous than it might have been, but states nevertheless tended to shape their work programs to avoid penalties for non-compliance with the participation rates.  Since these rates are based on the total number of families that include an adult, states have had a strong incentive to reduce the number of recipient families, especially families in which the adult is not able to engage in work activities because of, for example, a disability.  Thus the changing culture of welfare administration described above, resulting in daunting barriers to obtaining public assistance, paid off by helping states meet their participation rates. 
In this article, I’ve described, in broad terms, some of the key provisions of the 1996 welfare reform.  In the years after its adoption, the number of families receiving TANF benefits fell by more than half nationwide, and by significantly more in some states.  As a result, PRWORA was the hailed as a great success – the rolls fell dramatically, and the disaster predicted by many progressive advocates did not occur.  I have not discussed the major changes made to immigrant eligibility for federal benefits.  This will be the subject of a separate post by Attorney Emeritus Barbara Weiner…

In the next installment, I will take a closer look at the aftermath of PRWORA in an effort to better assess its impact.

End Notes:
 [1] See, Reynolds v. Giuliani, 35 F.Supp.2d 331, 347-48 (Southern District, N.Y.1999).
 [2] PRWORA – the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, a/k/a welfare reform; TANF – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal cash assistance program for families with children; AFDC – Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the predecessor to TANF.
 [3] An excellent overview of the TANF program, including the block grant, can be found in “Policy Basics:  An Introduction to TANF,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, June 15, 2015,
 [4] See, for example, TANF Block Grant, Center on Law and Social Policy, August 2015,
 [5] It should be noted that the Federal poverty level is, especially in more expensive parts of the country, unrealistically low.  For example, to suggest that a family of 3 in San Francisco or Boston or New York City is not poor if they an income of $20,160, does not accord with reality. 
 [6] “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: Spending and Policy Options.” Congressional Budget Office, January 2015,
 [7] See “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: Spending and Policy Options,” above.
 [8] A good overview of the TANF work requirements, as modified in 2005, can be found in H. Hahn, D. Kassabian, and S. Zedlewski, “TANF Work Requirements and State Strategies to Fulfill Them,” Urban Institute, March 2012,  For a brief description of “work first,” see Work First:  A Guide for Implementing Employment Programs for Welfare Clients, Department of Health & Human Services, May 2009;  A work first program emphasizes the mandatory nature of the program, with penalties non-compliance; universal participation with limited exemptions; and a primary focus on rapid employment, as opposed to participation in education, training or job preparation.
 [9] Some of this decline is attributable to the overall drop in the number of welfare recipients, but the impact of PRWORA was clearly a major factor as well.  During this period, the welfare rolls declined by over 50%, but college participation declined by closer more than 80%.

Tags: TANF | welfare | welfare reform | prwora | snap | food stamps | work first | work rules | poverty | #TANFat20

Crime Victims Legal Network Project’s Needs Assessment Survey

We are looking for your help!  Please complete the Crime Victims’ Legal Network Needs Assessment Survey that will help crime victims seeking civil legal services.

You may have come across it already – a hard copy survey in the library or in the waiting room of a human service organization in your community.  Perhaps you’ve seen a poster or received a link to an online survey from a colleague on a professional listserv.  If you have, I hope you complete the survey and be a part of the Crime Victims Legal Network Project’s Needs Assessment.

The Crime Victims Legal Network Project is a federally funded partnership between the New York State Office of Victim Services, Empire Justice Center, the Center of Human Services Research at SUNY Albany and Pro Bono Net.  Together we are working to develop a statewide network using cutting edge technology that can make it easier for crime victims, especially those in rural & underserved regions, to access much needed civil legal services.

This broad-scale, multi-phase Needs Assessment will help us gain a better understanding of the non-criminal legal needs of crime victims in New York State.  We need to know how to improve access to civil legal services, and how those services can be improved - and we need your recommendations on how to do that – both from victims (en español) of crime and service providers.  We need to know:

  • Who informed you of your rights as a crime victim?
  • If you had a legal problem, would you use a virtual help program to video conference with an attorney?
  • Would you use an online web-based program to help you prepare court forms?
  • What are the most critical needs for civil legal services that are not being met?

The information we obtain will help us make sure that the technology solutions we develop are grounded in the real-life needs and preferences of crime victims.

I was a crime victim years ago.  I didn’t go to the police, I didn’t seek help, I didn’t tell anyone.  To be honest, at that time I don’t think I really knew that what happened to me was a crime.  I had no idea where to go for help, no clue what my legal rights were, and I certainly didn’t know that so many aspects of my life would be impacted.  As Project Leader, I don’t want anyone to be as isolated, as alone and as overwhelmed as I was.  By sharing your experiences with us, you’re helping us create a Network that can help thousands of New Yorkers connect to legal resources they didn’t have access to before, or to help they may not have even known about. Your voice is essential to making this Project meaningful and valuable.

  Remla Parthasarathy, Crime Victims Legal Network Project  

The surveys – one for people who have been victims of crime (en español), and one for service providers – are just the first part of the assessment.  Next steps include putting together focus groups – small group discussions led by facilitators – that will be conducted as part of the second phase of the assessment.  The focus groups will start in July and August in ten cities across New York including Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, Plattsburgh, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, Utica, Watertown and two on Long Island.  Additionally, the research team will be interviewing attorneys, staff at law clinics and legal professionals, looking to garner key insights that will help inform the network’s development.  So you have different opportunities to be involved.

Some of you may take a look at the hard copy survey, see the multiple pages and immediately say ugh, I’m not going to do this – it’s way too long and I don’t have the time. 

Please take another look.

We crafted the surveys to be as easy to complete as possible, and the information you provide will be invaluable as we work to assemble the Network.  I took both surveys myself and it didn’t take very long.  The survey is anonymous, and after completing one you can enter yourself into a lottery for a chance to win a $150 gift card.  We’re hoping for at least 500 people to complete a survey – that’s you & 499 others.

If you’re interested in being involved in a focus group, or would like a link to the survey, please contact the primary researcher Susan Erhard-Dietzel at or 518-591-8796.

Thanking you in advance for your participation in the Needs Assessment, and looking forward to sharing the results with you.

The Crime Victims Legal Network Project has received the guidance of an amazing group of individuals who serve as its Advisory Committee members.  They have been instrumental in the development of the Needs Assessment questions, and their support has buoyed me in my work. These members are:

  • Philip Burse, In Our Own Voices
  • Tabitha Carter, The Safe Center, LI
  • Joseph Fazzary, Schuyler County District Attorney
  • Lisa Frisch, The Legal Project
  • Lisa Gerritse, Monroe County Sheriff’s Office
  • Rachel Halperin, Legal Service of the Hudson Valley
  • Rochelle Klempner, New York State Courts Access to Justice Program
  • Jennifer Nadler, Onondaga Community College
  • Karen Nicholson, Legal Services for the Elderly, Disabled, and Disadvantaged
  • Robin Marable, Legal Assistance of Western New York
  • Lew Papenfuse, Worker’s Justice Center
  • Susan Patnode, Rural Law Center of New York
  • Charlotte Watson, New York State Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts
  • David Young, Disability Rights New York

This article was produced by the Empire Justice Center & the New York State Office of Victims Services under Grant No. 2014-XV-BX-K009, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Working for Workers: Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow takes on wage theft, bolsters workers' rights

Don and Koo lobbying

Empire Justice Center is excited to welcome the 2015-17 Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellow Elizabeth Koo to the Workers’ Rights Project. Elizabeth, a community organizer-turned-community lawyer, credits the unjustifiable experiences and stories of our clients with energizing her passion for change.

Prior to earning her J.D. at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, Elizabeth served as a community organizer for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). During her five years at AALDEF, she was entrusted with personal, painful experiences—of stolen wages, working in extreme and unsafe conditions, and persistent barriers that kept her clients from asserting their legal rights. It’s this institutional injustice that motivated Elizabeth in her work as a Community Organizer for five years, and what inspired her to go to law school to gain more tools and skills, in order to bolster the movement for workers’ rights.

Now at Empire Justice for just over six months, she’s building relationships with local workers’ centers and community organizers. She’s also providing legal support to workers themselves, in order to empower them through litigation, education, and policy change.  And it’s this model—comprehensive legal advocacy and cooperation between organizers, lawyers and individuals—that Elizabeth believes in.

“The legal system can be a source of empowerment if a worker can access it, tell their story, and achieve their goals, but it can also be slow, rigid, and unfair,” she said, noting that together, organizers and attorneys are able to support the client in alternate ways.

In addition to representing low-income individuals in wage theft and discrimination cases and providing know-your-rights workshops and community legal education trainings throughout the Rochester community, Elizabeth is advocating on a statewide level. Namely, she is building coalition strength around the Securing Wages Earned Against Theft (SWEAT) bill (A.5501 [Rosenthal]/ S.2232 [Peralta]), which will provide essential tools to victims of wage theft and help workers collect on court-awarded judgments for stolen wages.

In wage theft cases, exploitative employers hide or transfer their assets to avoid paying wages they stole from their employees.  Even when workers win a court-awarded judgment, they are unlikely to collect the money owed to them.  And when they are unable to collect the wages they earned, the minimum wage and overtime laws are rendered useless.

This proposed legislation would prevent employers from simply refusing to participate in the legal process by defaulting and selling the business or shutting it down, thus effectively insulating themselves from liability.

“Even after a worker stands up for their rights, wins and gets a judgment against their employers, oftentimes they can’t collect the wages that were stolen at the end of the day because the employer has  filed for bankruptcy, transferred their assets, or closed down the business, only to operate a new one,” Elizabeth said.

This legislation will strengthen New York’s law, providing workers with legal tools to ensure payment of their earned wages once they are awarded a judgment. For example, the bill would allow workers to place a lien on the employers’ property if the employer refuses to comply with a court order to pay the  earned wages. Momentum has been growing around the SWEAT bill, as workers’ rights issues come to the fore. And in July of this year, Governor Cuomo created a Statewide Task Force to Combat Worker Exploitation and Abuse.

This is part of why Elizabeth believes it’s an exciting time in Western New York, as there are many people from this area on the Statewide Task Force. “It’s a good moment for us to build on recent attention to these issues and keep workers’ rights on the map.”

Coincidentally, Western New York is one place on the map that this Queens-native never thought she’d be living. That was until she was introduced to Jerry Wein, and thus the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship. She and Wein met at the Feerick Center for Social Justice of Fordham Law School, where Wein (Hanna Cohn’s husband) served in the emeritus attorney program and where Elizabeth interned after her first year in law school.

The Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship is a prestigious fellowship awarded every two years to a dynamic, new attorney. The fellowship was established in 2002 in memory of Cohn, who was the Executive Director of the Volunteer Legal Services Project (VLSP) in Rochester for 20 years. The fellowship allows the attorney to design and implement a project to increase legal advocacy for Greater Rochester’s low-income individuals and families.

The fellows are often already leaders in their field—Elizabeth won the esteemed Samuel M. Kaynard Memorial Law School Student Service Awards, presented by the New York State Bar Association in 2015. She was also presented with the Haywood Burns Graduate Fellowship in Civil and Human Rights while in law school.

But Elizabeth admits that when Wein first mentioned the Fellowship, she wasn’t sure it was for her. It was “the perfect opportunity and dream job,” she recalls, but not in the city that she loved to call home. She grew up both on Long Island and in Queens, raised by newly emigrated parents who owned their own small business.

But as she advanced her legal career through clinical work and internships, representing clients in Workers’ Rights, consumer rights, public benefits and housing justice cases, doing the work that she loved in a new city didn’t seem so far-fetched.

“I’m so grateful to the family members and friends of the Hanna Cohn Memorial Fund, for giving me this tremendous opportunity to do work that I love.  It’s been exciting to learn about and explore Rochester through social justice work with the community here.”

“To be in a position of learning is a really humbling experience and to be doing community lawyering work right out of law school is a tremendous privilege,” she said, keenly aware of the challenges that face her in navigating a new place—not just the physical layout of the city, but the “community landscape.”

Empire Justice is thrilled to bring on an attorney with such a commitment to empowering low-income individuals. Like many of the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellows, we believe her impact will be a great one.

Tags: Workers' Rights | Wage Theft | Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship

Bilingual Orders of Protection to be Issued on Long Island

Empire Justice Center and other advocacy groups that support domestic violence survivors were thrilled to learn that family courts on Long Island began issuing bilingual Orders of Protection in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, and Russian on January 4, 2016.  In response to a letter from a coalition of more than 10 Long Island based organizations, Office of Court Administration Executive Director Ronald Younkins announced the extension of a pilot project to issue Orders of Protection (OPs) in languages understood by limited English proficient (LEP) participants in family court proceedings in Nassau and Suffolk Counties.  The coalition of advocates had urged that bilingual OPs be made available on Long Island because of its large immigrant population and the potential dangers that arise when OPs are not understood by the people to whom they are directed. 

New York LEP residents have always been actively involved in family courts.  Victims of domestic violence will often petition in family court for OPs against abusers.  If a victim alleges that the abuser continues to represent a danger , the family court judge will issue a Temporary OP specifying what, if any, contact is permitted between the alleged victim and abuser prior to a hearing.  A temporary order will be extended if there is proof at a hearing that the abuser poses an active threat to the victim.

Until this year, however, OPs were only issued in English.  LEP domestic violence survivors often have access to language assistance and support from advocates, and interpreters are present in the courtroom.  However, when they return home with an order they are unable to read or understand, they will have difficulty if they need to seek its enforcement from the police or the court.  Additionally, it is problematic for the courts and law enforcement to insist on adherence to an order to stay away or refrain from certain activity if the order is in English and the LEP perpetrator cannot understand it.

New York began a pilot project in 2015 to issue bilingual OPs in English and Spanish in selected counties throughout the state.  The success of the pilot led the Office of Court Administration to expand the project to other counties and additional languages in 2016.  When Long Island advocacy groups realized that neither Suffolk nor Nassau County was included in the expansion despite the large LEP population in both counties, we wrote to OCA’s Executive Director and the Honorable C. Randall Hinrichs, the Tenth Judicial District Administrative Judge who oversees the administration of state courts in these counties, asking for reconsideration.  As a result, OCA determined to include Long Island in the 2016 expansion.

The availability of bilingual OPs will improve the safety of Long Island residents and may save lives.  Empire Justice and other advocates will continue to press for translation of bilingual OPs and other vital court documents into Haitian Creole, Korean, Polish, and other widely used languages to offer greater protection to as many people as possible.  But for today, we can celebrate that the family courts are poised to take an important step in safeguarding our communities.

Bringing awareness to the many civil legal needs of crime victims


When you hear the words “crime victim,” what images immediately come to mind?  Someone who was mugged or assaulted, or who had their property stolen or damaged?  Someone who sustained injuries – physically or emotionally – because of the crime? Someone going through the criminal court process “Law & Order” style, the complaining witness in the District Attorney’s case against the defendant, waiting anxiously in court for a “guilty” verdict?

If that’s what you pictured, you wouldn’t be alone. Nowadays, there is an assumption that crime victims will have access to the help and assistance they need through the police and the criminal court system.

But many victims have non-criminal legal needs that are not addressed by these support systems. Yet these related issues have the same power to upend a victim’s life.

Picture this:  Someone is attacked and assaulted in their neighborhood, a couple of blocks from where they live. They are beaten up badly, and their wallet with cash, credit cards, and I.D. is stolen from them. Although the attack did not occur in their apartment building, they may no longer want to live there --- they may feel uneasy walking in the neighborhood and they are constantly reminded of what happened to them.  They can’t sleep, not just because they are now hyper-vigilant, but they are also in pain from injuries that are still healing. They can’t make it to work because of the injuries, even though not working means not getting paid, which in turn may impact their ability to pay child support, rent, or their medical bills. They think of moving, but that means breaking the lease to the apartment and incurring financial penalties.

That crime victim may have medical, landlord-tenant, employment, child-support, and possible identity theft issues to worry about, in addition to any criminal court matter.

Overwhelming? Yes.
But where can they go for help?

Fortunately, the recently-created NYS Crime Victims Legal Network Project will bring awareness to the many civil legal needs of crime victims while also helping victims access civil legal assistance. 

The Project, a partnership between Empire Justice Center, the NYS Office of Victim Services, the University at Albany’s Center for Human Services Research, and Pro Bono Net, will focus on the on the 57 counties outside of New York City.  It is funded by the federal Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs.

The Crime Victims Legal Network Project will commence in two phases. During the first 18-month phase, we will conduct a needs assessment to determine the civil legal needs of crime victims, and the availability of those services. In the second 12-month phase, we will develop a new online resource that allows victims of crime to easily find the legal help and services they require. Critical to the Project is an Advisory Committee comprised of victim advocates, attorneys and social workers from community based organizations, district attorneys, court personnel, and crime victims. Their knowledge and expertise will guide the needs assessment and, ultimately, the implementation of the online tool.

NYS is one of four sites selected in 2014 to form a legal network; six other sites were selected in 2012.  We’re fortunate to be one of only 10 sites across the nation that received OVC funding to create this network, and we’re excited to work with colleagues around the country who can support our efforts and from whom we can learn. Each of the ten sites is building a network to meet the specific civil legal needs of crime victims in their community. We plan to create a technology-based tool to meet the diverse needs of residents living in areas outside New York City – areas that are typically under-resourced.

From my vantage as the Project Leader, I can say how great it is to get the Project off the ground and start the needs assessment. Having worked for over two decades with victims of domestic and sexual violence, I have an acute awareness of civil-legal concerns faced by that population of crime victims, and I’m excited to see if the empirical evidence matches our experiential knowledge. For me, the best part of the Project is that we’re working to provide resources and build capacity in areas where there are little or none, and that soon this underserved, vulnerable population will have access to the legal services they need. To make justice accessible to all – it’s one of the reasons I became a lawyer in the first place.

The goal stated in OVC’s “Vision 21: Transforming Victim Services” report is a simple one: to permanently alter the way we treat victims of crime in America. That’s what the mission of the Crime Victims Legal Network Project aims to do in New York State – to develop new technology solutions to connect victims of crime with the appropriate trauma-informed, culturally competent legal services they need. Keep your eye on us in these next few years, while we work to make positive transformations.

This report was produced by the Empire Justice Center & the New York State Office of Victims Services under Grant No. 2014-XV-BX-K009, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.