The needs of low-income families in our community are basic to survival: shelter, food, income and protection from abuse. While there is a constitutional right to representation in criminal cases, the same does not apply in civil actions. MidPenn Legal Services is the only provider of free civil legal services for low-income individuals and survivors of domestic violence in Centre County.
Throughout the county, our advocates assist low-income individuals to resolve their legal problems. Our advocacy is aimed at assisting these individuals with core survival issues such as personal safety, housing, food, income and access to medical care. Successful resolution of problems in these areas helps our clients secure the basic necessities of life. Domestic violence, child custody, consumer, landlord/tenant, mortgage foreclosure and denial of government benefits are our primary areas of practice.
A government benefit such as Social Security disability can help people with disabilities live independently and meet their basic needs. Without these benefits, they would have no income or health benefits to provide life-sustaining medical treatments. This is the case with Beth. She is a disabled mother of two, and access to a lawyer was the only way she could successfully obtain benefits that would help her survive. She applied for Social Security disability benefits and her claim was initially denied. She filed an appeal and had to wait 10 months before she had a hearing before an administrative law judge. Two months later, she received the judge’s decision in the mail. The judge also denied her claim.
The process in applying for disability benefits is particularly difficult, challenging and lengthy. Applications for disability benefits can take three to five months to process. About 70 percent of initial claims are denied. Claimants must then undergo an onerous appeal process that can sometimes take up to four years without any certainty of success. Beth thought she should give up on her disability application. She attempted part-time employment, but her disability prevented her from doing the work required. She filed a second application. This time she was referred to MidPenn Legal Services. The attorney ensured that all paperwork and medical evidence were properly submitted, preventing any unnecessary delays or rejections. With experienced representation at the hearing, Beth was found eligible for benefits and her life was stabilized.
Court and administrative rules are not easy for a lay person to understand. It is often wise to at least have a consultation with an attorney when dealing with any legal issues. To see if you qualify for MidPenn Legal Services, call 800-326-9177 or visit www.midpenn.org for more information.
Susan M. Michalik is a staff attorney for MidPenn Legal Services.