Ashly Ash is a legal assistant; her work supports all staff at Legal Aid of WV’s (LAWV) Morgantown Office and occasionally reaches beyond.
You can also find Ashly sitting with clients, listening to their stories and offering encouragement. She knows from personal experience that clients who walk through the doors are often at the lowest, darkest place they have known.
She was one of those clients herself 5 years ago.
Ashly has come a long way, but she admits it was a difficult journey.
“It took me a long time to realize I was being abused. I don’t think I would have had the strength to go through with leaving if I had to do it on my own. The only thing that made me leave was seeing the fear in my daughter’s face. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have left.”
She met her ex-husband at a luncheon for her college. They had both been previously married, and he pursued her persistently, was charming, and said all the right things.
About a year later, Ashly got pregnant with her daughter. They got married, and they lived with one of his stepsons full-time, and another stepson when Ashly’s husband had custody.
“Maybe there were little red flags but nothing big. I didn’t see the signs,” she says. “I just gotten home from the hospital; I had a c-section with my daughter.”
That’s when the physical abuse started. While she was an exhausted new mother, Ashly also had to manage the new danger in her own home. Her ex slowly got more abusive, choking her, spitting on her, and continuing to escalate his verbal abuse. He would yell at her for spending money and keep her away from her daughter by threatening consequences or physically holding her back.
He would yell and get physical with his stepson, and Ashly would step in to protect him, taking the abuse herself instead.
“I should have left then. I know that,” Ashly says. “He had me so broken. It’s hard to admit to yourself you’re being abused, and you get mad at yourself that you even got there. But it’s gradual, and I was so isolated.”
Ashly felt like she did not have it as bad as others. In many ways, she did not even recognize she was being abused because it had become her new normal. It was how it felt in her home—so it became home, and her ex-husband knew how to keep it that way.
It was four years before it came to a breaking point.
One night, her ex came home after a night of drinking, looking to pick a fight. This time, he chose to attack their daughter.
“He was grabbing her arm, pulling her,” says Ashly. “I could take it. But when he did it to my daughter, I thought, ‘That’s it.’ I left and never went back.”
Ashly and her daughter went to her parents’ house, where Ashly called the police. The officer who responded told her about the resources available and recommended that she file a Domestic Violence Protective Order (DVPO) as soon as possible.
The next day, Ashly went to the courthouse by herself and filed a DVPO against her husband.
“It was very emotional to file. It was scary. I loved this person.”
They asked if she wanted to press charges, and she said she did not want him to be arrested. “I didn’t know what would happen to my stepson,” she says.
Throughout the process, RDVIC (Rape and Domestic Violence Information) worked with Ashly and referred her to LAWV, where she was assigned an attorney for her case.
“At first, I thought, ‘Do I need a lawyer? It is going to make him mad?’ It took a while for me to trust others,” says Ashly. “But working with my attorney was really good. I had someone on my side. My ex knew exactly what to say to make me shut down, so I would not have kept going without their support. I would have done whatever I could not to rock the boat.”
RDVIC provided resources like counseling and support, and LAWV helped Ashly get a divorce.
During the pandemic, Ashly put herself through school and got a paralegal degree. She started looking for work and saw that LAWV was hiring a legal assistant and applied right away.
“I have a passion for this work,” she says. “It’s hard for attorneys; they don’t always have time to talk to clients, so I do. A lot of the time, they just need someone to listen, encourage, and validate them. It’s a process, and it’s a long one. The one thing I tell our clients is to be patient with themselves.
“Working at Legal Aid has really helped me heal. Being able to help others with my own experience—I know I don’t have to be a victim anymore, but it’s okay now to admit that I was. I was able to let go of the anger and bitterness I was holding onto toward myself, him, and other people for not seeing the abuse.”
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Ashly wants West Virginians to know: there is help. Resources like RDVIC and LAWV are available close to home. You do not have to be alone. Before Ashly was able to break out of her situation, she had no idea programs existed to help her or that what she was experiencing—being yelled at, threatened, and intentionally isolated—was abuse.
“What I want people to know is it’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to ask for help. And as much as you feel alone, you’re not.”
Richard Morris is the Lawyer in the School Project Manager. As the project manager, Richard supervises Lawyer in the School in all the counties that it serves across the state, as well as serving as an attorney to the program’s clients.
We featured one of Richard’s clients in a recent client feature, and we talked to him a bit more about the work he does at Legal Aid of WV, the impact it has, and about the featured client family. You can see his brief take on our 20th Anniversary themes below.
What does Justice for All mean to you, and why is it important?
It means ensuring that everyone has access to the legal resources and help necessary for them to attain their goals. It’s important because without it, too many people would find themselves cut off from the court and the help they need.
How has Legal Aid changed your life, or your career?
Legal Aid of West Virginia has allowed me to grow not only as an attorney, but as a person and to become an asset to my community. By providing me with the opportunities to make an impact, Legal Aid of West Virginia has empowered me to help those in my community who otherwise may have fallen through the cracks of our justice system.
How has Legal Aid impacted West Virginia and West Virginians?
Legal Aid of West Virginia, as the predominant civil legal aid society of this state, has impacted the lives of so many West Virginians for the better. The services we provide to the most vulnerable ensure that the scales of justice are not so heavily weighted against the communities we serve and they can get the justice they seek.
How did Lawyer in the School/Legal Aid impact your adoption clients?
Working with this family was a pleasure and I was so thankful that I could assist them in achieving their goals. As clients who were being assisted under the Lawyer in the School program, we were able to help them in adopting their wonderful goddaughter, Gabby. Without this program, Richard and Dona would have had to come up with the money necessary to hire a private attorney or would have had to just forget about it altogether. But because the Lawyer in the School program was able to assist them, they finally gained the full legal recognition of their family that they had always wanted.
Jeremy Mitchell is a Legal Aid of WV ATLAS Attorney, where he works directly with our intake staff to provide advocacy services, including advice and information, to clients who apply for help from LAWV. He is also in the WV Army National Guard, and because May is Military Appreciation Month, we are featuring one of our own staffers who is active in service.
What does the phrase “Justice for all” mean to you, and why is it important? The phrase “Justice for all,” to me, means the opportunity to be heard. While the outcome may not be favorable, simply having the chance to assert ones claims or arguments is paramount to assisting those who otherwise may not have the ability to do so. And that’s exactly where I take pride in Legal Aid’s efforts- stepping in the position to assist individuals in civil matters wherein there is no default right to legal representation.
How has Legal Aid changed your life, or your career? I came to Legal Aid fresh out of law school. I was eager to take on the world and help those I could. I wanted a vast array of experience across multiple legal areas while also being able to give back to the State and community I cherish. Legal Aid has unequivocally provided these opportunities by way of trainings, mentorship, and of course, hands on experience with a variety of cases. I was not “cornered” into one are of the law- which has proved exciting and sometimes challenging as a younger attorney. However, there has not ever been any time during my career at Legal Aid in which I felt I was unable or unwelcomed to call upon others for advice and assistance. Teamwork and the unified goal of assisting West Virginia’s most vulnerable set Legal Aid of West Virginia apart.
How has Legal Aid impacted West Virginia and West Virginians? Without question, Legal Aid has positively impacted West Virginia. I’ve seen it firsthand with clients I have assisted, even if the assistance is limited to preparing clients for hearings or advising on applicable law. Frequently I see, and encounter myself, instances where clients simply armed with better understanding of their options or rights proves beneficial. Comparatively, there is genuine concern at the thought of the alternative wherein prospective clients do not have access to such a firm able to consistently provide access to legal aid services. I truly could not say enough kind words about Legal Aid of West Virginia. I strongly feel the work done here by the incredible staff across the state is a noble pursuit that must continue.
Tell us a bit about your military service and how it impacts your career.
I am a First Lieutenant (1LT) Judge Advocate (JA) with the West Virginia Army National Guard.
One of the army core values is selfless service. I find this core value relates both to military service for this state and country as well as legal service for vulnerable and often underrepresented West Virginians whom Legal Aid assists. I joined for similar reasons to joining Legal Aid of West Virginia—to give back to the local community and help as I can. My legal education and experience offer an avenue for selfless service both with Legal Aid of West Virginia and the West Virginia Army National Guard, particularly at a time where both institutions are tragically understaffed.
There is a massive shortage or attorneys, or Judge Advocates, across the army, specifically within the States’ national guard units. For example, there is only one full time Judge Advocate for the West Virginia National Guard that handles courts-martial or trying of cases in violation of the West Virginia Code of Military Justice (rules and laws specific for servicemembers). This is also indicative of the understaffed Judge Advocate position within the army as a whole, but more specifically, for the West Virginia National Guard. Similarly, many West Virginians find themselves in the unfortunate position of needing legal assistance while not being able to afford representation.
Any Legal Aid employee would explain that this is not a job taken for financial motivations. Rather, selfless service is illustrated daily by the hard-working team that makes up Legal Aid of West Virginia. I have been very fortunate to be a part of this team and consistently find myself proud of Legal Aid’s accomplishments.
Why is the concept of justice for all so important to our legal system?
When the legal system was first created, it was geared for the benefit of white men who owned property. This was not fair. Period. End of story. Justice for all is the great equalizer if followed as intended.
How did you come to work at Legal Aid?
I first came to Legal Aid as a PIA fellow during the summer of 2012. From the time I graduated law school until onboarding at Legal Aid, I worked various positions until I found the right fit for me. I taught elementary special education. I taught middle school alternative education. I worked as an associate attorney at a small law firm. I was a supervising attorney at the WVU College of Law Child and Family Advocacy Clinic. I volunteered as a pro bono attorney for Legal Aid. I even opened my own small firm. I tried many positions out until finally I landed as the part-time DV attorney in 2018 in the Clarksburg office, and I knew I had found the right fit for me. In 2019, I became a full-time employee at the Morgantown Office. At the end of 2021, I became the pro bono supervising attorney.
Describe how your work at LAWV has evolved.
With my new position as pro bono supervising attorney, my work has evolved from helping individual clients to expanding services to help as many West Virginians as possible.
What is the most important lesson you have learned through your advocacy at LAWV?
The most important lesson I have learned is to never give up if you think something is wrong. With Shelbi’s case, it ultimately took years to get through the legal process. But in the end, we have WV State Supreme Court decision that states, “No means no. “
What is the biggest way LAWV impacts West Virginians?
I think the best way LAWV impacts West Virginians is not through representation but by simply providing information. Clients come to us with legal problems; that is a given. But often they also come to us with questions about issues that are not legal. Like, what agency can I use to get my children clothing? When you foster the relationships with your clients, they know you are someone who will try to help them no matter what and in any way you can.
What would our communities and courts look like if Legal Aid of West Virginia did not exist?
I practice mainly with clients who have experienced domestic violence. I believe that without the partnerships between Legal Aid of West Virginia and domestic violence programs throughout the state, fewer survivors would come forward, fewer protective orders would be granted, and more people would stay in an unhealthy and dangerous situation.
When you think of Legal Aid of West Virginia, what words come to mind?
Heart. Everyone who works at Legal Aid has so much heart for what they do and for whom they help.
How do you explain Legal Aid to those who aren’t familiar with our work?
Legal Aid offers legal services to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get legal help.
What makes working at LAWV special for you?
My child was able to meet Shelbi for the first time as we worked on telling her story. They had a great time playing in the park and enjoying each other’s company. He woke up the next day and asked if we were going to go to the park again to see Shelbi. We help real people in our communities with whom we can connect and get to know.
When Tom and Grace Hurney are in the same room together, it’s easy to see these Jackson Kelly attorneys are cut from the same cloth. Both father and daughter share the ability to speak on topics as wide-ranging as their recent trip to see the Rolling Stones (they report that Mick and Keith still rock), to the fine points of constitutional law. They also share a love of their community and a commitment to doing their part to ensure the legal system in West Virginia serves all people. As Tom says, “As attorneys, I believe we all have an obligation to keep justice accessible to all people—whether that’s through sharing our time, our treasure, or both.”
Both he and Grace not only talk the talk, but they also walk the walk. Tom has supported LAWV since its inception in 2002 – not only as a donor, but also as a volunteer and fundraising chair. Following in her father’s footsteps, Grace is a donor, has worked closely with Legal Aid on pro bono activities, and she also serves as a Jackson Kelly Team Leader for Legal Aid’s “Just One” law firm fundraising challenge. Last year, she and fellow leaders Nick Presley and Nicole Johns raised over $40,000 from their firm colleagues to support Legal Aid. To her, this kind of leadership is a natural outgrowth of her family’s long tradition of service and the firm’s belief in giving back. She says, “At Jackson Kelly we expect people to not only be exceptional attorneys, but exceptional members of the community.”
As a newly minted Member in her firm, Grace is eager to see a younger generation of attorneys carry on the legacy of service and excellence that preceded them. When asked what she would say to attorneys of her generation and younger about fundraising for Legal Aid she responds, “Supporting Legal Aid is a perfect opportunity to lead by example, and to do something concrete and meaningful to ensure more West Virginians have access to the justice system. It’s our chance to step up.”
Tom agrees, adding, “Access to justice is so critical, because our system only works when the people believe in it, when they see that the idea of equal justice under the law is true for everyone. When we help people get that access, we’re also fostering belief in—and respect for—our system of law.”
Maureen Conley is an attorney at Legal Aid of WV (LAWV) who works on family law cases, especially those where domestic violence is a factor. In April 2022, Maureen will officially retire after decades of dedicated advocacy with LAWV. Ahead of her retirement, we asked her a few questions to give her an opportunity to share her work and wisdom, which we will miss dearly.
Why is the concept of justice for all so important to our legal system?
The concept of justice for all (our judicial system) is built on individuals having equal access to the courts, to unbiased treatment by the courts and the premise that we all have fundamental liberty and property rights, which we won’t lose without due process. This concept underlies our constitution and Bill of Rights.
If justice doesn’t work for the little person, then it is not justice.
How did you come to work at Legal Aid? (your background and then your decision and timeframe of working at LAWV)
I came to work at the Legal Aid Society of Charleston in June 1986, upon graduating from Law School at WVU. I had not planned to work for Legal Aid; I thought I would work in helping women with small businesses. But I worked at Appalred one summer and really liked the work. I had no experience with domestic violence prior to working at Legal Aid. I learned about it on the job, from clients, co-workers, shelter workers, and trainings. It was quite an awakening for me. I did not realize how many women and children were affected by domestic violence, or the difficulties they faced in getting away from violent relationships.
Describe your work with Legal Aid over the years.
In some ways, my job has not changed very much. I still do primarily Family Law cases in Kanawha and Boone Counties. But the world around this work has changed a lot. When I started, we had one computer in the office, and I didn’t have access to it. I had access to an IBM Selectric typewriter and had to do most of my own typing. When I first started, the Circuit Judges handled divorces. Magistrate Court handled final Protective Order hearings. Some Judges appointed Divorce Commissioners to hear divorces for them. Protective Orders only lasted for 30 days. You had to file a Motion in Circuit Court to obtain a restraining order when the Protective Order was about to expire. The Family Law Master system came into being after I started at Legal Aid. Family Law Masters heard cases but were not allowed to issue Final Orders. You had to get a Final Order from the Circuit Judge. The Family Court system came into effect later and did allow Judges to issue Final Orders. That system has expanded over the years as well—with Kanawha County now having 5 Family Court Judges, when it had only 2 Family Law Masters.
In terms of the work itself, we have seen the development of greater financial support for domestic violence shelters and for Legal Services offices through VAWA and VOCA funding. This money has provided more advocates to assist people filing for Protective Orders. Having Protective Orders last 90 or 180 days or longer has been enormously helpful to our clients who are typically transitioning to a new home and want to ensure that they have custody of their children, support, continued safety, etc.
There has also been significant changes in Family Law over the years. When I came in, we had the “primary caretaker” custody standard, which was set out in Garska v. McCoy. This case allowed the parent who was primarily providing day to day care for the children to be awarded custody. This custody standard really helped our clients. But the custody standard was changed by statute in 2001. Much of the Domestic Relations Code in chapter 48 was also changed around that time. The terms custody and visitation were both changed to “custodial responsibility.” Parents were awarded decision-making for the children, with a presumption for joint decision-making. Parents now had to submit Parenting Plans, and parents could be sent to mediation to help them work out a parenting plan.
What is the most important lesson you have learned through your advocacy at LAWV?
Family courts can have a significant effect on people’s lives, especially children’s lives. Family court cases can save lives and prevent abuse. It is most important to dignify your client’s experience by telling her story as truthfully, and with as much detail, as possible. If an advocate respects a client’s experience and communicates that respect, the Courts are more likely to understand.
As you come closer to retirement, what are some memories you look back fondly on during your time at Legal Aid of WV?
The people I have worked with at Legal Aid over the years have been really great in terms of their commitment to the work, their collegiality and helpfulness. I have really enjoyed working with Legal Aid staff over the years. We used to be allowed to have parties with alcoholic beverages, which got quite rowdy at times. I still remember a going away party for Mary Jarrell, where we sang some songs with lyrics altered for the occasion.
There have been a few occasions over the years when I have been able to get child back for a client, when the child had been snatched and taken to a different state. Those cases have felt very special. Sometimes you don’t know the ultimate outcome until you run into an old client at the grocery store years later.
I really liked the 2018 Statewide Staff Training dinner we had when everyone dressed up in costumes—those tutus were wonderful!
What are the beliefs or values that underpin your support (and employment with) Legal Aid of WV for so many years?
Individuals (including children) have a right to live without violence and to have their day in court.
What would our communities and courts look like if Legal Aid of West Virginia did not exist?
I think you would find a lot more frustrated people who have gone through the court system or didn’t know they could go through the court system and a lot more frustrated (burnt-out) court officials. In domestic violence cases, Legal Aid plays a critical role in ensuring safety of survivors by connecting them with shelters, shelter advocates, law enforcement and lawyers. So without Legal Aid, there would be fewer survivors getting the intervention they need to preserve their safety.
Having a lawyer or advocate explain legal concepts and rules to clients can reduce Judges’ hearing time and staff time in explaining forms, procedures, and evidence. Overloading judges and staff leads to burn out. Litigants are helped by being more prepared for hearings and by knowing when and how to access the courts. In the case of indigent litigants in many types of civil cases, Legal Aid is frequently the only option for legal help.
When you think of Legal aid of West Virginia what words come to mind?
Jeff Woods is a Legal Aid of WV pro bono volunteer and owner of The Law Office of Jeff C. Woods in Teays Valley, WV.
Why is the concept of “justice for all” so important in our legal system?
The concept of “justice for all” is immensely important in our legal system for the simple reason that we, as a society of diverse individuals, must ensure we adhere to and honor the promises of equality and fairness. One of the underlying goals of which lead to the founding of our nation was the elimination of the injustices tied to position and class. I am still moved by the fact that Thurgood Marshall, while arguing Brown v. Board of Education, passed beneath the inscription over the door of the United States Supreme Court which reads “Equal Justice Under the Law for All.” In short, without “justice for all” our system is and will be an absolute failure.
What are the beliefs or values that underpin your support for Legal Aid of WV?
The beliefs and values which underpin my support for Legal Aid of West Virginia are simple, personal, and immense in depth. First, I am grateful for all of the sacrifices so many made so that I could have a chance to develop the gifts with which some believe I have been endowed. Firmly believing that no one can survive and advance alone, I feel a need to “share with others that with which I have been entrusted.” Also, I have been taught to believe that we all have a duty to leave this world a little better than it was when we arrived. I have found that supporting Legal Aid of West Virginia helps to bring me closer to that goal.
What would our communities and courts look like if Legal Aid of WV didn’t exist?
I firmly believe our courts would “look like” an uncaring and unjust farce of a legal system, if Legal Aid of West Virginia did not exist. Legal Aid of West Virginia has and continues to ensure that the statement “equal justice under the law has meaning.” In order to meaningfully seek and acquire the same, individuals need legal representation. Thus, those who cannot afford a lawyer would be required to navigate a complex system alone. As we all know, one who represents themselves has a fool for a client and an idiot for a lawyer. Legal Aid helps to ensure all can have meaningful access to the courts!
When you think of Legal Aid of WV, what words or phrases come to your mind?
When I think of Legal Aid, the thoughts and phrases which come to my mind are “returns on social investments; justice regardless of economic status; opportunities to be meaningfully heard; pursuit of equality under the law; equal access to the courts; and fairness.”
You are one of Legal Aid of West Virginia’s longest serving and most loyal pro bono volunteers. Given that you’re a 28 year veteran, can you tell us why you’re so committed to pro bono service? Is there anything you think other WV attorneys should know about working as a Legal Aid pro bono volunteer?
Sincerely, it is my mother’s wisdom and statements which are the foundation of my commitment to Legal Aid of West Virginia. As I was reared in Greenbrier County, my mother reminded me that my legal education and abilities were “a gift from God.” She instilled in me the belief that any failure to properly use it, would result in God removing it from me and my life.” She made me promise to use this gift and my love for the law to help those who may find themselves in less fortunate situations. Listening to and honoring the promises she required me to make to her, continue to drive my life, ministry, and the practice of law. Legal Aid has proven to be a wonderful conduit for achieving the goals and standards my mother wisely set for me. I am one who believes that working as a Pro Bono volunteer is a great way to hone one’s skills while helping others and contributing to the growth of society. In the process, we can use our life experiences to ensure the goals of our legal system are advanced and achieved.
Furthermore, pro bono is something I like doing, and I feel obligated to do it. There are some debts that you can’t pay with money.
How did your relationship with Legal Aid of WV begin, and how has it continued?
I was at Jackson Kelly at the time I took my first case with Legal Aid of WV.
John McClaugherty at Jackson Kelly did a lot of community work, and through him, I learned a very simple concept: if you take care of your community, your community will take care of you.
I am not sure how exactly it came to be, but I was asked to do a pro bono case, and I got the approval from the firm. I worked that case, and I realized that would satisfy that need I had to give back to others. It was a real, personal need for me because my mother had always made me promise I would use what she called my God-given gift to help other people.
Once I started doing it, I just kept doing it. I had an agreement with the Pro Bono staff at LAWV that they would only send me a case or two at a time, and that agreement started a regular flow of cases I handled. I had a great time doing it and learned a lot in the process.
In addition to cases straight from Legal Aid, I oftentimes ran across people that needed an attorney, and I would say to them, “Go to Legal Aid of WV. If you qualify, just tell them I’ll take your case.”
Legal Aid approved many of those cases and sent them my way, and it felt good all the way around. I really appreciated that Legal Aid was willing to allow me to help our community in that way.
Andrew S. Nason is the current Legal Aid of WV Board of Directors President.
Why is the concept of justice for all so important to our legal system?
The United States Constitution as well as the West Virginia Constitution guarantees access to a lawyer when someone is accused of a crime. The West Virginia Constitution grants all West Virginians the right to access the court system. However, there is no constitutional right to an attorney when someone seeks a civil remedy, needs to use the court system, or is brought into court to protect a right, to enforce their rights, or to prevent a wrong. The Legal Services Corporation was created in 1974 to ensure that low-income individuals and families have access to justice and due process and an advocate to provide assistance. Those are lofty goals but utilizing the court system is not like going to Lowe’s or Home Depot or a hardware store and buying a kit to fix a leaky toilet. Filling out forms and understanding the language used in the court system can create barriers. Justice for all requires that the scales of justice are weighed in an impartial manner. In order to do so, individuals need access, not only to the court system but to advocates who can help them advance their best shot to achieve that goal.
What are the beliefs or values that underpin your support for Legal Aid?
John F. Kennedy famously stated, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Here in West Virginia, we have a tradition of neighbors helping neighbors and communities coming together to assist those in need. As a lawyer, my support for Legal Aid is exactly that, being part of a community of advocates who help those who cannot help themselves in the judicial system. On a very personal level, I was fortunate enough to begin my legal career as a Legal Aid attorney. I learned how to practice law and how to be an attorney as a Legal Aid attorney. I had the benefit of observing experienced Legal Aid lawyers and learned how to act, how to interact with clients, and other lawyers, how to think through problems, and how to prepare. Giving back to Legal Aid, so others can continue with the noble process of helping the disadvantaged is a small down payment on what I gained as a young attorney.
What would our communities and court’s look like if Legal Aid of West Virginia did not exist?
The legal services programs advocate in West Virginia have impacted rights for our client base. Without Legal Aid there probably would have been no Teller v. McCoy decision, which created the warranty of habitability in rental property which was later codified. Without Legal Aid there might not have been an attorney to push the passage of legislation which prohibited employers from polygraphing employees. Without Legal Aid there might not have been the Medley litigation which impacted treatment of mental health patients. Without Legal Aid there may have been no litigation challenging the procedures that the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services used in abuse and neglect cases. Without Legal Aid there would be no advocates to protect poor West Virginians and require that all guidelines be met in administrating public benefits. Without Legal Aid there would not have been an organization to provide emergency legal advice after flooding. Without Legal Aid there would be no clinics for assisting individuals to file their own bankruptcy cases or to pursue their own domestic relations cases. Sometimes people just need someone to talk to and help them work out a reasonable solution and offer a sympathetic ear or tell them they just have to do the best they can; without Legal Aid’s Atlas Intake Program that would not exist.
When you think of Legal Aid of West Virginia what words come to mind?
Legal Aid is one of the largest law firms in the State of West Virginia. It has 68 lawyers and a total staff of 156. Legal Aid represents individuals going to court on a myriad of issues, which are very important to the individuals which involve basic needs of housing, benefits, income, family relations and safe precedence’s and policies that benefit all West Virginians. Protecting the rights of the little guy and disadvantaged. Legal Aid is a noble calling. Legal Aid advocates assist those who otherwise would not have an advocate to protect their interests. Helping someone who needs assistance within your knowledge and experience benefits both parties. It is an opportunity to give back to your community and the legal profession.
Jennifer Taylor is the Lead Financial Exploitation Attorney at Legal Aid of WV (LAWV), a position that developed directly from the observation that West Virginia’s elderly were in need of advocacy against financial exploitation, often called the fastest growing silent crime of the 21st century.
Jennifer has been working in the legal community since she was just 19 years old in Fairmont, WV. Her legal career led to frequent interaction with LAWV’s Ombudsmen, who serve as advocates for those living in long-term care facilities. When a position as Ombudsman Attorney was created at LAWV, Jennifer jumped at the chance to work alongside the Ombudsmen, handing the cases they referred for more in-depth representation.
“Clients needed everything from powers of attorney to representation in mental hygiene proceedings to assistance in recovering assets taken by their family members,” says Jennifer. “It did not take long for me to realize that many of the problems faced by these clients were the result of financial exploitation. As more and more of these cases came through the door, we realized there was an entirely new area of law that needed developed, both legislatively and through the formation of a Financial Exploitation Unit at LAWV.”
Since its creation in 2016, the Financial Exploitation Unit has grown to include three attorneys and a paralegal who have represented 165 victims of financial exploitation and have recovered over $2.5 million in assets for clients. Jennifer became an active member of the West Virginia Financial Exploitation Task Force, which brings together community organizations who work with the elderly and vulnerable across the state to identify opportunities to educate and protect against financial abuse.
In addition to their impressive record for clients, the consistent advocacy of the unit and their partnerships contributed to West Virginia becoming a leader in financial exploitation protection; West Virginia was one of the first states in the country to pass significant financial exploitation legislation.
“I reported about legislation to the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, DC,” Jennifer says. “And I was bursting with pride when the FTC Chair commented that West Virginia and LAWV were leaders in the country fighting financial exploitation.”
Jennifer serves as the Co-chair for WV WINGS (Working Interdisciplinary Network of Guardianship Stakeholders), a volunteer-run group that that she first created as a roundtable discussion opportunity for various advocates. The group later began working in conjunction with the American Bar Association and WINGS groups nationwide who gather to address guardianship issues. WV WINGS is made up of advocates, Ombudsman, financial exploitation staff, DHHR agencies, mental hygiene commissioners, WV Supreme Court of Appeals personnel, AARP, WV Disability Rights Council members, nursing home administrators, and others who have an interest in the issues.
WV WINGS is one of about 25 groups across the country who work through “collective impact” by coordinating actions of individuals and organizations with the same goals. Some of the work has focused on recommendations to the Supreme Court for new forms and rules or rolling out widespread education for courts, clerks, commissioners, and facilities.
Education is a particular passion for Jennifer, who admits she gives many “impromptu seminars, wanted or not” on topics like the difference between medical and legal capacity.
“Education and training are extremely important in all aspects of what I do. It is crucial to train the general public, facilities, social workers, the clergy, and the business community so they can recognize elder abuse, help prevent it, and know there are remedies available.”
During her tenure at LAWV, Jennifer has built the Financial Exploitation Unit into a group of strong litigators who are skilled, passionate, and excellent partners to the rest of the organization. Her mentorship has been mutually fulfilling—and at times entertaining.
“I was sitting beside our Morgantown attorney, James Lindsay, at counsel table during a trial,” she recalls. “He got so excited and passionate during his closing arguments that I had to keep ducking to avoid his waiving arms. It must have worked; we won!”
She has also found herself in situations she did not expect like narrowly avoiding being arrested alongside an Ombudsman when a person opposed to the client’s actions called the State Police on them. But precarious situations come second to the work, and the impact cannot be understated, as Jennifer says:
“Legal Aid is a voice for those who normally would not have one. Especially for financial exploitation victims, who have often gone from being independently wealthy to living on public assistance and could never afford to hire an attorney. LAWV is a means to offer resources, remedies, and closure for so very many.”
It may not sound like it, but Jennifer finds plenty of time outside of her work to spend time with her family, including her husband, Steve, son Jonathan, and her grandchildren, or as she calls them, “those beautiful, perfect little creatures that have me wrapped around each of their little fingers and still think that Grandmama hung the moon.”
After eight years of dedicated work at Legal Aid of WV, Jennifer Taylor is moving on to what we know will be great continued service to West Virginians. We will miss her profoundly but are proud to count her as a Legal Aid supporter going forward.
This time of year, many of us give thanks and reflect on our blessings. It may be a cliché, but it’s also an undertaking that I believe is very important. So, as we near the end of another year driven by the difficulties and sadness of the COVID-19 pandemic, I want to especially emphasize my sources of gratitude at Legal Aid of West Virginia. I am grateful for…
Our Staff I am continuously amazed by the resilience and dedication of our incredible staff working across our 15 advocacy sites. Over the past COVID year, the stress of increased need among our client community, paired with the uncertainty around appointments, hearings and overall planning, has made service provision especially challenging. Yet our dedicated staff has been especially creative and solutions-oriented over the last year and for that I am grateful.
Our staff’s honesty is also something I value. I get questions from staff regularly, and they are not afraid to challenge the decisions we make as an organization. I see this kind of discourse as a privilege because our employees are invested in how our work affects our clients, our community, and their co-workers.
As the year ends and I count my blessings, I am especially grateful and appreciative of my Legal Aid of West Virginia colleagues for their hard work and commitment to our mission.
Our Clients Not all clients with whom we work have stories that end happily. And not all clients are happy with us. But so many, many clients tell us that our work has changed their lives, affording them dignity, justice and a way to look forward to a better future. However, regardless of who they are, I am grateful to our clients for sharing their struggles and allowing us to be a part of ensuring that the “justice for all” promise in our country’s Pledge of Allegiance is not forgotten!
Our Supporters In these times of difficulty, we have been fortunate to see our supporters’ generosity hold fast and, in many cases, grow.
I simply cannot say enough about how much we value our supporters: Board members, donors, community partner organizations, volunteers, funders, and all those who share their time, treasure or support our work in some way.
Below, you will see featured quotes from some of those supporters about their relationship with Legal Aid of West Virginia. We simply could not do the work we do without a network of people and groups who so generously help magnify our work in the name of bettering West Virginia. Our supporters are a source of pride and gratitude every day for me and our staff.
I encourage you to count YOUR blessings and know that you are part of OURS. Thank you for reading and Happy Thanksgiving!
-Adrienne Worthy, Executive Director of Legal Aid of WV
Quotes from our Pro Bono Volunteers
“Words cannot describe the impact that Legal Aid’s Pro Bono Program has on West Virginians. I have seen first hand the difference it has made in the lives of people who are in the middle of experiencing one of the most stressful periods in their lives. It is life changing.” -Tiffany Kent, Pro Bono Volunteer
“I’m thankful for the opportunity to give back to a community that has given so much for me. This community has raised me, taught me, and cared for me throughout all phases of my life. Being able to give back to those that need help they would not otherwise be able to afford permits me the honor of repaying some of the gifts this community has helped me achieve. I am proud to be able to work with LAWV and the fine members of our community I am honored to represent.” -Ronald N. Walters, Jr., Pro Bono Volunteer
Quotes from our Donors
“Legal Aid is critical to not only the fabric of the legal community but larger West Virginia community. The dedicated and talented individuals at LAWV do incredible work.” -Booth Goodwin, Donor
“We believe in your mission, and we appreciate your efforts for your clientele.” -David Webb, Donor
Quotes from our Community Partners
“Working with Legal Aid has given us a unique opportunity to provide a host of services neither of us could provide as individual organizations. By communicating and working together, we are working toward a better community with more access to life-changing services.” -Stephanie Moore, Executive Director of Family Refuge Center, Lewisburg
“The services and support our patients receive from Legal Aid are literally lifechanging. Patients we refer to Legal Aid have been able to overcome barriers from their past and begin a life of true recovery.” -Lois Vance, MAT Care Manager at Cabin Creek Health Systems
“We are thankful Legal aid helps victims of abuse by being there for them. Whether starting with a divorce or custody hearing, any time you can go in with legal representation, that’s an advantage.” -Lt. Tony Craigo, Putnam County Sheriff’s Office
Quotes from our Clients
“I don’t know how to say thank you enough. For once, I’m actually speechless.” – LAWV Client
“I appreciate all your hard efforts. Thank you for helping us through this divorce. My son and I are ready to have a better life.” – LAWV Client