BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. - Paternity, divorce, domestic violence are types of issues that are even harder to deal with when one can’t afford a lawyer to tackle the case.
Now, residents in Broward County have access to free legal advice and other services offered the new Broward County Courthouse building.
“Since our soft opening in February, we’ve had 982 people who have come to our office for guidance,” said Lisa Goldberg, supervising attorney with Coast To Coast Legal Aid of South Florida.
The office is a part of the new, expanded self-help center inside the courthouse.
“This is huge,” Goldberg said. “This is their space and they have given this to the community and allowed us to provide this service."
CCLA provides legal information and guidance for divorce, paternity, and other family law cases. Staff attorney Angela Fernandez said that guidance and empathy are important.
“I feel like the people that come through here, they're very appreciative that there's even someone to speak to," Fernandez said.
Room 4101 is not a large space, but Fernandez said the work being done within CCLA’s four walls is invaluable. Those seeking help are indigent, or “working poor”, she said. Some cannot afford legal representation. Others have hired lawyers, but cases and time have exhausted their resources. Many end up representing themselves, and that’s where CCLA steps in.
Goldberg said they show people what documents to file, how to fill them out, and educate them on the different legal processes associated with each individual case.
"We're, really, a full service organization, and we cost nothing," Goldberg said.
CCLA’s office is one of five different resource centers, now available to Broward County residents.
In Room 4106, Women in Distress of Broward helps victims of domestic violence.
If you take the elevator up to the fifth floor, you’ll find representatives with the South Florida Wellness Network (http://www.southfloridawellnessnetwork.org/), 211-Broward (http://211-broward.org/what-is-2-1-1/), and Henderson Behavioral Health (http://www.hendersonbh.org/), all offering their services and information free of charge.
"You have your financial assistance, mental health assistance, we have a wellness coach,” Fernandez said. "It's not just the law on its own, [but] everything else that you need to get through the legal process, or hurdles."
Broward Chief Judge Jack Tuter said positive feedback from the help centers has come from as far as the Florida Supreme Court.
Tuter recently hosted the official ribbon-cutting for the self-help centers.
"I think we're the only circuit in the entire state that has these centers in the courthouse," Tuter said.
"This is a gift," said Kris Ferraro with the South Florida Wellness Network.
Ferraro knows all too well what being “in the system” feels like.
"I couldn't stay sober, so my son was removed from me, eventually," she said. "Nobody walked me through it, and I had no idea what they were saying, they use these big $50 words. What do they mean?"
That was 12 years ago.
Ferraro is now sober (and) she’s been reunited with her son. She’s now an advocate with the Wellness Network.
"I've walked in their shoes, so I'm here to help them," she said.
Tuter said the centers hope to serve thousands more people in the years to come.
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