Fleeing domestic violence? Seeking child support? Pursuing parental rights? Solutions to these problems and more are available at the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law (HBCFL).
HBCFL offers free legal assistance to eligible low-income families in L.A. County, specifically in the area of family law. Since its founding in 1982, the nonprofit has aided thousands of indigent victims facing challenges caused by extreme abuse, mental and physical disability, language barriers and legal complexity.
The primary way the Center delivers legal assistance is by having lawyers teach low-income individuals how to prepare their own cases and represent themselves in court.
“We offer free family law to low-income people, which means it has to do with custody of children, domestic violence, support, and property. We try to find out what legal problems they (people) have, give initial advice and decide if we can help them or refer them to other places,” said Betty L. Nordwind, HBCFL executive director.
Outlining the type of clients HBCFL assists, Nordwind explained, “You may be a woman, your husband left you, you’re 54-years-old, your income is $800 a month and you want to get half of your husband’s pension or perhaps you’re younger and your husband beats you and threatens to kill you if you try to leave. You may be a father who wants custody of your children although you weren’t married to their mother. We handle all things you may want to ask a lawyer about family situations.”
The organization began in South L.A. as a project of the Black Women Lawyers (BWL) and Women Lawyers Associations of Los Angeles (WLALA) and the LA County Bar. Under the leadership of then-BWL president Mablean Ephriam, the project received assistance from then-State Assemblymember Maxine Waters and a location to operate from Danny Bakewell, Sr., then-president of the Brotherhood Crusade. In 1984, the project was officially named after Harriett Buhai, a staunch supporter and advocate for poor women and disadvantaged persons.
The mission of HBCFL then and today remains the same, which is to utilize the services of 200+ volunteer legal professionals to “protect victims of domestic violence and improve the well-being of children living in poverty by assuring them meaningful access to the courts.”
The Center’s core legal aid program requires prospective clients to undertake an initial interview that can result in offering on-the-spot legal advice, referrals, or case acceptance for intensive legal analysis, ongoing case management, or full-scale legal representation. Last year, 837 individuals and their 645 children were served.
An additional 3,419 incarcerated women received help in 2016 through HBCFL’s Mothers Behind Bars program offered at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility and the Century Regional Detention Facility. The student inmates participated in interactive legal education courses on child welfare, child custody and domestic violence. Since its inception in 2004, the Mothers Behind Bars program has presented 1,783 classes to 30,086 attendees and has issued 6,770 certificates of achievement.
While HBCFL’s main office is in the Mid-Wilshire district, the Center also operates sites at six neighborhood centers and community colleges throughout L.A. County. The newest location will open Oct. 19, at the Rita Walters Learning Complex in South Los Angeles.
The new site, which is intended to increase availability of family law services to low-income African American families, is named in honor of Vera Brown Curtis, a member of the HBCFL, BWL and the Los Angeles Chapter of the Links, Inc. Brown Curtis was a teacher, then a lawyer, who spent her life championing the rights of disadvantaged persons.
Nordwind noted that the Vera Brown Curtis site is part of a new outreach collaborative with The Children’s Collective, Inc., (TCCI). “TCCI is a perfect partner for us,” said Nordwind, “because our essential missions are devoted to improving the lives of poor parents and those of their children and providing the structural supports they need to succeed.”
Sharing equal excitement, HBCFL Staff Attorney/Pro Bono Manager Rehema Rhodes Williams added, “We are helping people who come to us at one of the most vulnerable and personal times in their lives. Whether it is for a divorce, custody, or restraining order, people entrust us with their most private information and rely on us to help them rise above (sometimes horrific) situations with grace and dignity.
“The fact that we provide free legal services to the community and empower low-income individuals to navigate a very complicated court system, is what makes our organization so special.”
The Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law is located at 3250 Wilshire Blvd., in Los Angeles. To learn more, call (213) 388-7505 or visit hbcfl.org. Call (213) 388-7515 for client appointments.