DNA eyes possible budget cuts by GOP-led Congress

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Sept. 1, 2011

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In looking at the future of DNA-People's Legal Services, its director, Levon Henry, realizes that there may be hard times ahead.

As the Republican-controlled Congress looks to reduce the federal deficit without raising taxes, programs like DNA are struggling against the likelihood that big cuts are coming to programs like the Legal Services Corporation, which provides some 83 percent of the Navajo program's funding.

The talk is that Congress will cut legal services funding by as much as 25 percent in fiscal 2013, which begins Oct. 1, 2012. For DNA, that would be a decrease of close to a million dollars from last year's funding of $4.3 million.

"If that happens, we hope that we won't have to cut back to services to our clients," Henry said.

A big cut could force the service to shut one of its branch offices, but even at the current funding level, with 15 attorneys and 10 tribal advocates, DNA doesn't have the manpower to handle all the cases that come through its doors.

"For every client we accept, we have to turn one away," Henry said.

The talk of possible cutbacks comes at a time when demand for its services is growing as low-income families on and around the reservation face hard times.

For 44 years, DNA has been there for the Navajo people, fighting border town businesses that took advantage of non-English speaking customers and helping workers who were unjustly fired.

The agency has also been there for victims of domestic violence who want to get a restraining order or a divorce. Renters who get in disputes with their landlords also come to DNA for help.

A big area of the practice is people who come in with stories of how their lives have been ruined by predatory payday loan companies, Henry said.

Even though New Mexico has changed the laws to eliminate the worst abuses, Henry said these companies find ways around the laws so they can continue making hundreds of thousands of dollars off people who come to them for short-term loans and soon find themselves turning over most of their paychecks to the lender.

Congress has limited the kind of cases DNA can take, he noted.

"We don't take criminal cases," Henry said.

And despite its name, the service doesn't do DNA testing.

"We get letters from people on occasion who see our name and twit asking if we can do DNA testing to prove their innocence," Henry said.

Helping the people

For many Navajos, DNA has been the difference between barely surviving and having a decent quality of life.

One recent case concerned a mother who had been forced because of poverty to live with her children in shelters or occasionally with relatives.

Living in a shelter was stressful for all of the family but especially for one child who suffered from severe depression. The mother had sought help repeatedly from state agencies and had been turned down several times.

By the time she showed up at DNA, she was losing hope but a DNA attorney documented evidence of the child's medical problems and collected information from her teachers and took the case before a judge who approved providing the family with $600 a month in benefits plus back payments of more than $17,000.

In another case, DNA attorneys were called upon to do a little detecting to protect an 83-year-old Navajo man who did not speak English from being victimized in an insurance scam.

A woman claimed that the man had run into her with his car in the parking lot of a trading post. But the woman had set up the accident, getting behind his vehicle so he could not leave.

She then had an accomplice get into the Navajo man's car so they could get his insurance card and make a claim. The Navajo man, afraid of being hurt, gave up his card.

There were several witnesses to the event but the Navajo man could not talk to them because none spoke Navajo. His insurance company refused to believe him because he did not speak English and instead they were going to pay the false claim and penalize the Navajo man.

DNA attorneys stepped in and helped the man collect witness statements. They also managed to get hold of a video security tape from the trading post that showed the truth of the situation.

Best brains

Hard times in the legal profession have worked to DNA's advantage, making it easier to hire top quality lawyers.

The legal services field continues to attract the best brains money can't buy, and Henry said much of DNA's success has come through its ability to attract good attorneys, many from top law schools, willing to put in 70 hours a week for pay that ranges from $34,000 to $38,000 a year.

In fact, many are so dedicated that one of his duties is to make sure they don't take on more cases than they can handle.

"We have a couple of vacancies right now and have received numerous applications from lawyers wanting to work for us," he said.

Conditions outside the reservation are working to DNA's benefit - many corporate firms are outsourcing work instead of hiring young lawyers, and hiring of newly graduated lawyers is the slowest it's been in 15 years, according to a recent survey of law schools.

Many young lawyers are willing to come to the reservation "because they know they will be able to get a lot of experience in a short amount of time," Henry said.

And they are staying longer.

A decade ago, the average tenure of a DNA attorney was two or three years. Nowadays, it's almost five years.

The talk of possible cutbacks is hard for Henry and others in DNA to accept since the last couple of years have been good ones.

Funding rose slightly, which allowed the service to take advantage of a proposal from former tribal judge Louise Grant to set up a sub-office in Dilkon, Ariz.

"We're hoping to be able to continue keeping its doors open," Henry said.

The one thing that stays constant is DNA's commitment to serve the people in this area, he said.

"Every day we see the effects of the cycle of poverty," Henry said recently. "We see elders caught in a downward spiral of predatory lending, a woman facing another night of abuse, parents being caught in the bureaucratic nightmare of home eviction, and children trying to understand why they cannot have basic needs."

And every day, he said, DNA finds a way to meet their needs.

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