Indy Q&A: Legal Aid director and former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley
Life after legislative leadership has meant different things for the recent generations of Nevada political leaders, from running for a new office, to lobbying contracts with lucrative clients, to simply fading away into retirement or private life.
But that hasn’t been the case for Barbara Buckley. Despite her two terms as Assembly speaker and 17-year tenure in the Legislature, the 57-year-old Buckley has remained steadfast in a desire to stay out of the political sphere since leaving office in 2011, instead focusing on the same job she’s held since 1996: executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.
The center provides a wide swath of legal and advisory services for low-income children and adults in Clark County — everything from family law to guardianship programs for the elderly to immigration assistance. It reported helping more than 130,000 individuals in all program areas in 2017 and had more than 1.5 million users access their online self-help center last year.
Last week marked the 60th anniversary of the nonprofit’s founding, and Buckley wasn’t satisfied with merely reflecting on past successes in an interview with The Nevada Independent.
The organization has keyed in on a goal to provide legal representation to every child in Clark County foster care by January 2019, and Buckley said the group was still asking private attorneys for pro bono assistance to provide representation for the 230 remaining children by the end of the year.
Although the organization has seen tremendous growth, Buckley said she found the slow pace of growth in assistance programs for victims and abused populations frustrating, especially given Nevada’s rapid population growth over recent decades.
“We’re pleased at the progress we made, but you know, the cruel irony is that if you’re accused of a crime, you’re guaranteed a lawyer, but if you’re a victim of domestic violence and you’ve been working every day of your life doing everything right, we hope we’ll be able to find you an attorney, but our, you know, seven full-time attorneys are already full with cases,” she said. “So sometimes we struggle.”
But she was also hesitant on voicing support for Marsy’s Law, a 2018 ballot measure amending the state Constitution to include certain rights and privileges for victims of crime. Buckley said that while the state’s approach to victims rights and victims services “needs an overhaul,” she wasn’t sure the ballot measure would produce “radical” change for victims.
And as for running again? Buckley refused to outright rule it out, but said she had no strong desire to re-enter the public sphere.
“I’m glad I’m not in office right now,” she said. “I’m doing great things and I’m not longing for the dysfunction that is politics.”
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Q: What has changed in Nevada in the safety net structure, and in terms of all the services Legal Aid offers? The state has obviously changed tremendously in terms of demographics, in terms of just the general population growth over the last 30 years, but in terms of services for people who are in need of help, whether it’s through foster care, the many, many things you guys deal with, what have been the large changes that you can point to over the last 30 years?
A: Well in 1958, Legal Aid was created. At the time, it was the Clark County Legal Aid Society, and it was a couple lawyers. The Bar was very, very small, who said, “Wow, there are people in this community who can’t afford a lawyer. We need to kind of get together, volunteer to provide this help.” So that’s how it started 60 years ago, a couple lawyers helping a couple clients all volunteers. Well fast forward, I think those volunteers would have never imagined the growth our community would have, the civil legal aid issues people would have and kind of the legal aid structure that we were able to create.
So fast forward to today: We have 54 attorneys, a staff of 110 and we’ve developed innovative programs to help the most vulnerable in our community. The Children’s Attorneys Project, which was created in 1999 to provide independent legal representation to kids in foster care, to speak up for them, to make sure that they were not forgotten. Right now, we have an attorney battling to make sure a child can see his brother and sister. So that is a large project that’s serving a huge need.
Our Family Justice Project, serves victims of domestic violence. Nevada is ranked number one in homicides, intimate partner homicides due to domestic violence. So we have attorneys full time that will represent victims in TPO hearings, or in the custody and divorce trials to make sure the victim isn’t revictimized by their abuser in civil court. And then our Consumer Rights Project, which helps in fraud and everyday legal problems and has recently undertaken the guardianship representation once the widespread abuse and exploitation was revealed.
So the breadth of the offerings has just, you know, exploded in our last 60 years. The other thing that we have added of equal significance is the ability to provide a lifeline to people who may not be able to get one of our attorneys. Through the creation of the self-help centers, the legal emergency rooms, which serve 100,000 people a year, an unbelievable number, or our free legal classes or our free Ask-A-Lawyers or our new foray into creating, we have now four websites with legal forms and information.
So we’ve created a model to provide representation to the most vulnerable as well as ways to just help an everyday person who can’t afford a lawyer.
Q: Obviously the economy has improved tremendously since the dog days of the recession, and I know Legal Aid serves the population that’s under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Has the need for services fluctuated at all, or does it have any sort of correlation to macroeconomic levels like unemployment or like increasing employment at all or have you guys seen the need increase even as more people are going to work?
A: When there’s changes in the economy, it sometimes will change the people walking in the door, what issues they have. For example, we have never had as many foreclosure cases as we had when we hit bottom, you know, with the recession. Before that, we didn’t really focus on foreclosures much, and suddenly we have person after person who previously were middle class who now were losing their homes.
Our payday loan work at that time declined because people didn’t have paydays, but overall the rate of poverty and the number of people we have served is still incredibly large because the economy has improved, our demand for services has not declined. And the Nevada Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission is going to be releasing a report in a few weeks that shows kind of the effect of poverty and how it really is not declining.
Q: Part of the issue is, right, there have been no sort of large wholesale changes to safety net, I’m using that term kind of broadly, really made in Nevada in the last couple of decades. Is that frustrating for you as an advocate or are you hopeful for incremental changes to sort of broaden the base of people who can access this and can make it more easy to access these programs?
A: It is very frustrating to not have made more progress when you look at the faces of people in need, and that is definitely true in the legal system, and it’s also true in other sectors of the nonprofit world such as mental health services as an example. We, in the legal world, we are glad that now 85 percent of kids in foster care have a voice, and it is our goal by the first of the year to represent every child. We are glad that we are now representing, you know, maybe a fifth of the elderly and guardianship cases and look forward to expanding that further.
So we’re pleased at the progress we made, but you know, the cruel irony is that if you’re accused of a crime, you’re guaranteed a lawyer, but if you’re a victim of domestic violence and you’ve been working every day of your life doing everything right, we hope we’ll be able to find you an attorney, but our seven full-time attorneys are already full with cases.
So sometimes we struggle. That’s difficult. It’s the hardest thing about working here at Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, when you see someone and they deserve an attorney but you’re relying on grants and philanthropy to be able to provide it.
Q:. In terms of family law, the goal is to have 100 percent representation for kids in foster care. This might be kind of a dumb question, but what is the advantage and why do kids in foster care need attorneys of their own in family court courtrooms?
A: So in abuse and neglect proceedings prior to us setting up this project, the county welfare agency had a lawyer, sometimes the abuser had a lawyer, but the kid had no one. And there are situations where a child is not being treated well in the system. You may have a situation where children are separated because the county hasn’t found them a home together. Those kids deserve to be together, and so what we’ll do in a case like that is we’ll file a motion with the court to have the siblings be placed together, and usually the day before the hearing, the county will find them a home together.
It is amazing what advocacy accomplishes with kids in foster care. We had one young client go with us to Carson City last session when the Legislature passed legislation recognizing that kids deserve to have a lawyer. And this young lady told the legislative committee, “I was 10 the first time I was thrown down the stairs, and I was returned home even though I was scared and I didn’t want to go. And the next time I got a lawyer and I told my lawyer that I didn’t want to go home, she was there for me, and because she spoke up, I went to my grandmother’s instead. And now I can sleep in a real bed. I don’t have to sleep on the couch propped up against the door in a weekly motel afraid of what might happen to me. And when I walked out of that courtroom knowing I was going to be safe, it was my birthday and it was the best day of my life, and that’s because I had a lawyer.”
You know, she said it all to that committee. I couldn’t have put it any better.
Q: I wanted to ask about Marsy’s Law, as you’ve mentioned a lot about, getting representation for victims whether it’s for domestic violence or for kids. If that is approved in 2018, is that something that’s going to help Legal Aid in sort of this goal in helping out whether it’s foster kids or the communities that you serve?
A: I think that the state of victims rights and victims services needs an overhaul in the state of Nevada. I do not think that there is sufficient civil Legal Aid resources to help victims. We assist a number of victims here at Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, victims of domestic violence, the child victims of abuse and neglect, seniors who face exploitation, but – and then of course our work with the Resiliency Center providing legal assistance to the victims of the October 1 shooting.
But there needs to be a more comprehensive expanded effort. If you look at the most recent victims of crime audit that was done in the state of Nevada, it showed insufficient resources were being directed to help victims in Southern Nevada and we’re working on a couple initiatives to change that.
I think those have great potential to improve victim’s services in Nevada. So with regard to Marsy’s Law, you know, there’s a lot of controversy about whether, you know, it will withstand legal challenge. So I’m not as sure as – I’m not sure that that will produce radical change for victims.
Q: You mentioned a need of a radical overhaul for victims’ services. What would that look like? Is that something that would come through legislative change? Would that be more money for victims advocates, whether it’s in the D.A.’s office or public defender’s office? Obviously Legal Aid is fulfilling a very needed role, but is there more steps the state should take to sort of address some of those gaps where they might exist?
A: I think so. I think there needs to be a comprehensive examination of the gaps in services for victims. When I volunteered at the Victim Assistance Center following the October 1 shooting, one of the things that I felt was truly remarkable were the number of victim advocates that flew in from different parts of the country, how well trained they were and how they were ready to deploy in any sort of emergency. We didn’t have that.
So that’s one gap, for example. We’re discussing that gap with legislators and with the county, and how we might further the goals of the Resiliency Center by expanding that to become a one stop shop for victims in the community.
It’s in the very early stages of discussion, but it’s also been identified as the key critical need by the federal consultants that flew to Las Vegas following the tragedy, as well as the state of Nevada, as well as the county. Legislators have inquired about this, so I believe there’s going to be a blue ribbon committee put together to examine it, and I think it has so much potential to revolutionize victim services in our state.
Q: This would be victim advocates for any sort of crime, not just mass casualty events?
A: Exactly. Any sort of crime. We deal with victims either from October 1 or just someone who, for example, has been sexually assaulted and they want our assistance in getting out of a lease where the sexual assault occurred, for example. There’s no one-stop shop. What if that victim needs Victims of Crime Act compensation to pay for a hospital bill? You know, the services are just scattered and their not coordinated, and we can do better. We must do better. We should do better.
Q: Part of the issue is just accessing these sorts of services?
A: Yes, and knowing where to go. You know, who does what? Where do you go? I mean what if – you usually need a number of things right. You might need, as I said, victim help with the bills that weren’t anticipated because of the crime. How to get psychological services. How do you deploy whether in a mass casualty situation or just let folks know what behavioral health resources are available. When someone begins to get dinged by medical bills that they didn’t expect, Legal Aid can help, right, but making sure victims know right from the get go what services are available to help them probably at the worst time they’ve ever had in their life.
Q: This is probably an obvious question, but you know, we’re not going to have an October 1 shooting every year, but the overall number of victims, whether it’s domestic violence survivors or kids who have been abused or neglected, that’s going to – those numbers are larger than the people who were killed or injured during the shooting, and not to do like an apples to apples comparison, but there is still a need for that continuously even though it’s not as obvious like in front of our faces as that shooting was, right?
A: Absolutely. I mean crime happens every day, and we see – we see some victims who make it to our doors, victims of domestic violence, child victims of abuse and, you know – but the needs of these victims are enormous and the devastation that it can cause to someone’s life, you know, cannot be understated.
Q: Broadly speaking, on October 1, can you tell me what you were doing, you know, the night of when the first reports started coming in and what Legal Aid sort of did in the immediate aftermath to sort of set up the I guess necessary infrastructure for victims and for people who had been either injured or, you know, were in need of the services that I’m sure you guys knew they would need? Not only like in the immediate aftermath, but just down the line to pay for bills and all of those things.
A: Well, you know, we like the rest of the community were just horrified by the events of October 1, and I know that next day our minds went to what legal assistance the survivors might need, and it’s everything from, “Would anyone need help with the probate action? Would anyone who lost parent need a guardianship in order to get the kids back into school? Would survivors facing situations where they’re being billed by hospitals need assistance?”
Sometimes the medical bill issue and the creditor bill issue and folks lose income, it’s hard to handle on your best day for anyone, right?
But add to it, the grief and the trauma that people are experiencing. We knew these issues would come up. So we reached out to the county right away and said, “You know, we’re happy to volunteer,” and our staff was just amazing. You know, we emailed saying, “Yes, the county would like us to come to the Victims Assistance Center to provide legal services. Would anyone like to volunteer? You know, the schedule is from noon to 9:00 PM,” and within five minutes it was filled with our lawyers wanting to volunteer.
And so we volunteered there however long it was opened, and then the county said, “You know, we never realized that there’s so much need for civil Legal Aid assistance. A lot of the follow-up involves bureaucracy or legal issues. Why don’t you become embedded in the Resiliency Center?” So we did, and we were very fortunate to be able to add one and a half attorneys and a couple legal advocates to provide legal assistance to survivors.
Q: Had Legal Aid ever sat down with anyone with the county or had you ever put any thought into like what’s the best way to sort of provide the infrastructure if an event like this happens, whether it is the shooting that happened or a terrorist attack or anything else that would result in a large number of victims and people who need access to legal services?
A: Yeah, I think that that is definitely a gap that now we are working with the state and the county on developing that. I think the state traditionally has been pretty good about establishing quality crisis response as it pertains to police, fire, ambulance, Red Cross. After that two days, you know, the crisis ends and that two day period elapses, there is no sustainable response for other resources, like behavioral health, you know, like providing Legal Aid. And I think that is something that is going to be re-examined and developed in the aftermath of this tragedy.
Q: For you and for Legal Aid, what are some of the legislative priorities that you’ve identified? Are you working with any specific legislators on any specific changes to the many areas of – that you guys covered?
A: Yeah, so every session our lawyers in each one of the departments create a little wish list that will see gaps in the law and they’ll say, “There ought to be a change.” So for example, the children’s lawyers will look at we need to tighten the presumptions that siblings should stay together or the guardianship attorneys will say, “Here’s a loophole that is being exploited.” So we I think currently have like two or three pages of different ideas that people are working on researching, refining and working with legislators.
Q: Obviously I don’t want to put any above others, but are there any you’re particularly excited about that you think the 2019 session could result in?
A: You know, spending almost 30 years here, it’s hard to pick, you know. When I see the impact that favorable legislative changes can make on the lives of people, whether it’s abused kids or seniors, I never choose. You know, they’re all – anytime someone can be helped is a good day.
Q: What were some of the biggest changes for Legal Aid that came out of that most recent legislative session?
A: I think that two most impactful thing was the recognition that children in foster care and the elderly and people in disabilities and guardianship deserved attorneys. You know, it was kind of a civil Gideon, you know, that kids and those facing exploitation deserve it. That we needed to level the playing field for them. So those were the two of my favorites, and you know, in general our work isn’t done, right. We have so much more that we need to accomplish in those areas and other areas. So, you know, here’s hoping the next 60 years continue to bring progress and change in the lives of the people we served. You know, our little tagline is, you know, that we, you know, right wrongs, change lives.
We do an incredible body of work here, but there are so many people still that we’re not able to serve, and that’s why we always make a pitch for volunteers. Lawyers, we have pro bono cases. We have 1,000 volunteers, but here’s another couple thousand lawyers out there who aren’t volunteering and donations, right. We have an incredible endowment campaign thanks to the Engelstad Family Foundation. For every dollar we raise, they’ll match it with two, up to $10 million. So if we raise $5, they’ll match it with $10, and we’re, you know, I think 70 percent of the way there. What an incredible way to ensure Legal Aid is here for another 60 years.
Q: In 2011 when you left the Legislature, you said you didn’t really have a desire to get back into the public life or run for office until your kids had gotten older. It’s been a while since 2011. Has that changed at all? Do you have any desire to run for office or any sort of itch to get back in the ring?
A: Once in a while I miss it, but I am accomplishing so much through this incredible team of lawyers that we have assembled, and I enjoy training the next generation of legal leaders. So I’ll tell you, if you’re asking me today would I run again, the answer is no.
Q: But if I ask in the future, the answer might be different?
A: You know, you never know, but you know, there are people who never get the political bug out of their system. I’m glad I’m not in office right now. I’m doing great things and I’m not longing for the dysfunction that is politics.