Lawyer seeks public benefits for Tri-Cities citizens

In News by david.landis

Published: October 30, 2009

By LUZ LAZO
When citizens are denied public benefits like food stamps or unemployment insurance, they rarely seek legal council, said Geraldine M. Doetzer, the only public-benefits attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Petersburg.

“If they apply and are turned down, they feel that it is something they didn’t deserve, so they don’t pursue a legal avenue even though they have a right to those benefits,” she said. “An attorney could be crucial for them to get the benefits.”

Doetzer, a 2008 graduate of the College of William and Mary Law School, started the center’s public-benefits law practice in October 2008, as part of a two-year postgraduate fellowship with Equal Justice America.

Since then, the 25-year-old has been helping low-income residents from the Tri-Cities. Cases have included appeals of Medicaid denials, representing people at unemployment hearings and representing a state employee who believes he was wrongfully terminated.

Doetzer said she has found that many people are unaware about the help an attorney can give them to obtain benefits. The Legal Aid Justice Center offers free counsel to individuals, especially those in need because of income, age and disabilities.

Midlothian-based Equal Justice America has in the past three years put 55 law students, mostly from Virginia, to work throughout the state on behalf of the poor, Executive Director Dan Ruben said.

Doetzer’s work alone has generated more than $50,000 in benefits ranging from retroactive food stamps to thousands of dollars in unemployment insurance, he said. She is currently handling about 50 cases, but she said the need in the area is greater.

“Our practice area is home to some of the state’s poorest residents, but since at least 2005, there has not been a legal-aid attorney in the area dedicated to providing advice and representation in cases involving public-benefits programs,” Doetzer said. “There are a lot of families who could really benefit from additional services.”

Contact Luz Lazo at (804) 649-6058 or llazo@timesdispatch.com.