UConn Law Alumni Say Pandemic Brings New Challenges to Legal Aid Work

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated challenges faced by lower-income people in Connecticut, say graduates of the UConn School of Law.

An entry sign at the UConn Law campus in Hartford on May 22, 2019. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Ramona Mercado-Espinoza ‘86 faced the heartbreaking limitations of legal work in a global pandemic when she spoke to a client at Greater Hartford Legal Aid who was trying to escape an abusive marriage. The courts are mostly closed, and it’s not possible to file for a contested divorce.

“Domestic violence does not stop in a pandemic,” Mercado-Espinoza says. “My client can’t initiate divorce proceedings, and she is scared to file for a restraining order. She has no options.”

The lawyers at Greater Hartford Legal Aid, many of them UConn Law graduates, say the pandemic has intensified the suffering of the state’s poorest residents. The crisis has created new legal problems on matters ranging from housing to education to health care, and it has simultaneously closed off potential sources of relief.

“We were all just humming along, and then out of the blue this happens,” says Lynn Cochrane ’82, a staff attorney who represents parents and students in special education. “Now everything is completely changed and we’re being forced to make it all up as we go.”

The agency has remained open, with attorneys and other staff working remotely. The workload is increasing. Scores of clients need help to litigate denied unemployment claims. Families need representation to ensure that virtual learning addresses children’s personalized learning plans or disabilities. Still more clients face delays in receiving SNAP assistance, commonly known as food stamps, and other badly needed benefits.

Ryan Powell ’18, who started work at Greater Hartford Legal Aid in January, said the sheer number of people in need has overwhelmed government agencies. “Unemployment claims have skyrocketed, and now there are tons of tech issues for those who want to file online,” he says. “The systems just weren’t built for this many people.”

Unequal access to technology exacerbates the challenges. If clients don’t have Internet service and access to certain technologies, working remotely to solve their legal problems becomes difficult or impossible, Cochrane says.

Cecil Thomas ‘06, a staff attorney who works on housing matters, says the pandemic has helped shed light on something he’s known for a long time. “Now, more than ever, housing is health care,” he says. “We are being told to stay in our homes, and people who don’t have somewhere to be are much more vulnerable.”

UConn School of Law alumni participate in a Zoom conference call about their work for Greater Hartford Legal Aid.
UConn School of Law alumni participate in a Zoom conference call about their work for Greater Hartford Legal Aid.

Thomas and other Greater Hartford Legal Aid staff were instrumental in lobbying Gov. Ned Lamont to stay evictions throughout Connecticut. On April 10, the governor signed an executive order halting all evictions for 60 days. Thomas says he hopes the stay will be extended.

“There is no question that whenever this eviction stay is over, there will be a massive surge in demand for our services,” he says. “It’s a sad reality, and it shows you just how close so many people are to homelessness.”

Attorney Lucy Potter ’84, says she was spending her day working on a case she was bringing against the state on behalf of SNAP recipients whose benefits were delayed.

“I have been doing this work for 35 years and there has been nothing close to this in terms of disruption and chaos,” she says. “Calling it ‘unprecedented’ feels like such an understatement.”

Like Thomas, Potter believes the crisis has helped expose systemic vulnerability and inequality, which, she says, have been around a lot longer than Covid-19.

“I think we forgot how vulnerable some of the people we generally see as ‘okay’ are,” Potter says.  “It’s a stark reminder of just how many people are one missed paycheck away from not being able to pay rent or a mortgage.”

Mercado-Espinoza says Greater Hartford Legal Aid has taken an all-hands-on-deck approach to the work. Since the pandemic began, the entire staff has met weekly with other legal aid organizations around the state to identify areas of need and coordinate services. All staff have access to a weekly session with a psychiatrist, where they can confidentially discuss their cases, with no names attached, and deal with anxiety and stress.

Not being able to tell clients when the disruption will end has been difficult, Mercado-Espinoza says. She recently received notice that a trial she was scheduled to argue in May has been continued indefinitely. Like her clients, she wonders how and when the situation will change and what it will look like when it does.

Kelsey Bannon ’18 was just five days into her career as an attorney at Greater Hartford Legal Aid when the organization decided its staff should work remotely. She says she has been thrown straight into the fire, but she’s proud to have started her career at such a time of need.

“Starting right before everything got really crazy was obviously chaotic,” Bannon says. “But I am so excited to be working with an organization that is doing such critical work right now.”

All the attorneys predicted a sharp increase in community need in the coming months. Although the future looks tough, Cochrane says, staff members are preparing for the long haul.

“I’m really happy that I’m able to work with such creative colleagues, many of whom graduated from UConn Law,” Cochrane says. “It’s amazing how creative and tenacious they have been in trying to anticipate this cascade of problems that are disproportionately affecting low-income people.”