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Agencies work in tandem to support clients

Chances are, you've heard the expression "living paycheck to paycheck," or "one paycheck away from disaster."

You've heard them because they're true, and they apply to more people than you might realize.

It's a reality that Jodi Wentland and her staff members see every day.

"Many of our families are working," said the division director for Olmsted County Child and Family Services , "but much of that income is going toward the cost of living. If they have a crisis in their life, they don't have the resources, and if it's not fixed, it becomes more of a crisis, affecting other areas."

That leads to a ripple effect that's felt throughout the community, Wentland said, and it underscores the need for Legal Assistance of Olmsted County . The staff attorneys represent low-income clients in civil legal matters such as family law, housing law and domestic abuse.


No criminal cases or fee-generating cases are accepted.

Though it depends on the situation, many LAOC clients landed first at OCCFS, looking for support with food, housing, health care, child care and more.

Wentland's staff, she said, provides suggestions based on the circumstances.

"Many of our families have court-related issues, but maybe they're just struggling to get the pieces sorted out," she said.

The matters don't always require a court appearance; sometimes, the client simply needs help understanding the language found on legal documents. Confusion surrounding a rental lease, for example, may jeopardize a client's housing.

Some sort of resolution "may allow us to move forward, or even close cases," Wentland said, which is where the legal assistance staff comes into play.

The two agencies have "an excellent partnership. I know when I refer someone, they quickly make contact," she said.

It's often a parallel process of parenting issues and legal rights, Wentland said. The LAOC can advocate for the client, advising them of their rights, "and they'll be real" about the chances of a preferable outcome.


"It's a savings for the community," she said. Loss of housing and family support is "costly in the long run. LAOC helps us prevent that, and provides stability to our clients, and that's critical."

Virginia Merritt, executive director and one of three staff attorneys at LAOC, said the overwhelming reaction from the people that come to them is "relief that someone is going to take on some of the problems."

She hears how people talk about her clients.

"This myth of people living on cash assistance forever is just untrue," Merritt said. Residents who qualify for Minnesota Family Investment Program funds are allowed to collect for five years.

Low-income doesn't mean "lazy," the homeless aren't always addicts or drunks and single moms aren't the problem.

Rachel Bowman, a volunteer at LAOC, saw it firsthand.

"I was raised by a single mother, and I know how challenging it can be," she said. "Seeing Virginia in action has been an honor and a privilege. She deserves recognition for what she does."

Bowman volunteers because "women face really tough issues, and I believe in supporting all women in Rochester."


As a volunteer, she's been trained to answer housing issues on the landlord-tenant hotline as well as handle some of the office duties.

In addition to the three lawyers on staff, the LAOC employs a paralegal /volunteer coordinator, two part-time receptionists and a part-time bookkeeper. Merritt also has the names of about 75 lawyers who help when needed, though she, Peter Foss and Michelle Dobson handle the majority of the cases.

"People get stuck in the legal system," she said. "We need to parse things out and get them moving forward in other areas."

Helping them navigate through a life in upheaval "sounds depressing," Merritt said, "but it's not, because you're able to help someone. You take what seems like a big mess and get some resolution to it.

"I couldn't imagine having no safety net except for the community," she said, "and no family to stay with, or $3,000 for a car. When you see how hard people work to change their lives, their situations, it gives you a whole new perspective."

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