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August 2010

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.

 

An Affinity for Community Service


Federal defenders spend every workday providing legal assistance to persons facing criminal charges who lack the resources to hire counsel. It seems to come naturally that they also voluntarily give weekends, holidays, and sometimes vacations, helping their neighbors.

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In addition to the assistance it offers local charities and organizations, the Federal Defender Office in the Middle District of Alabama filled relief packages for Haiti, following the devastating earthquake.

In addition to the assistance it offers local charities and organizations, the Federal Defender Office in the Middle District of Alabama filled relief packages for Haiti, following the devastating earthquake.

In lieu of their annual holiday party, staff from the Federal Defender Office in the Southern District of West Virginia worked on a Habitat for Humanity house under construction for a family with 11 children.

“The family had been living in deplorable conditions,” said Lou Newberger, Federal Public Defender, who described an old house without floors in some sections. With daylight waning and without overhead lights, the FPD crew painted and cleaned in the new home, shuffling floor lamps around to see what they were doing.

“We’re a bunch of over-achievers,” said Newberger, “and we just kept going. It was a real community effort to get them in safe, affordable housing.” Thanks to their efforts, the family was able to move in right after the holidays.

During its annual retreat, along with its usual workshops and group discussions, the Federal Defender Office in the Eastern District of Tennessee held a silent auction, raising several thousand dollars for the local Ronald McDonald House.

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Federal defenders in the Eastern District of Tennessee conducted a silent auction to benefit the local Ronald McDonald House

Federal defenders in the Eastern District of Tennessee conducted a silent auction to benefit the local Ronald McDonald House.

“Last year, one of our employees who has a child with a serious medical problem stayed at the Ronald McDonald House,” explained Beth Ford, Executive Director of the Federal Defender Services in the district, “and staff at our Chattanooga division occasionally prepares food for families there, so the idea to benefit the charity was popular.” The staff put together themed baskets and donated personal items for an auction to benefit the charity. “I’m so proud of everyone,” said Ford. “We deal everyday with people with few resources, and this was a wonderful opportunity to help the community.”

Over the past four years, the Federal Defender Office in Nevada has worked with a program that assists homeless veterans. Many of the vets, who are in various stages of recovery, have a trail of traffic tickets or child support obligations or warrants that may hinder employment and finding a place to live, according to Franny Forsman, Federal Defender in the District of Nevada. Although federal defenders cannot serve as counsel except in their own cases, “we can help straighten up the loose ends in a case, or help get an individual on a payment plan,” said Forsman. “We can track the problems and follow up on issues.”

Bowling fund-raisers for Big Brothers and Big Sisters, relief packages for Haiti, Thanksgiving dinners for the local domestic violence shelter, teams for the annual Race for the Cure, they are all ways federal defender organizations have found to help their communities.

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Homeless veterans are assisted through programs supported by the Federal Defender Office in Nevada

Homeless veterans are assisted through programs supported by the Federal Defender Office in Nevada.

“We’re helping community organizations that frequently benefit the people we defend,” said Christine Freeman, Executive Director of the Middle District of Alabama Federal Defender Program, Inc. “At the same time, partnering with local organizations helps them to understand the plight of our clients.”

Freeman’s office conducts a clothing drive for the local Aid to Inmate Mothers, which works with families of women in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections. The Federal Defender Office also stocks a clothes closet for clients to wear to job interviews. The U.S. district court recently helped this effort with a clothing drive.

Meanwhile, the office reaches out to high schools and prisoners; federal defenders speak monthly at and provide individual counseling for Alabama Department of Corrections inmate re-entry programs, and also coach and participate in moot courts in a local high school and speak at elementary schools.

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Thanksgiving food baskets are prepared by staff in the Federal Defender program, Middle District of Alabama.

Thanksgiving food baskets are prepared by staff in the Federal Defender program, Middle District of Alabama.

“We have people in our office from lots of different backgrounds, some of whom have been involved with fundraising, or serve on the boards of different community groups,” said Freeman. “They are highly motivated to work within their community.”

As a profession, federal defenders value helping people by means of the criminal defense function, and for some it’s a small step to extend that value system to their communities.

“I think those values spring from the same place: taking care of, and doing for those in our communities,” said Newberger. “We do it because there’s so much to be done, however we choose to define community.”