Letter to the LA Times: “State Convicts Arrive in L.A. County with Costly Mental Illnesses”

On Monday January 9th, the Los Angeles Times ran the below article on issues surrounding mental illness and substance abuse with realignment. Wtih two projects that meet at the center of these needs, the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law is a valuable resource in the current Los Angeles reentry landscape.

To read the full LA Times article follow this link:,0,4970554.story

Below is a letter written to the LA Times by Harriett Buhai Staff Attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow Katherine Ojeda Stewart regarding the Center’s Family Reunification Reentry Project and The Family and Mental Health Law Project, which address the needs outlined in the article:

“Dear Ms. Gorman:

I am writing in response to your article on the L.A. Times website regarding the return of California state prisoners with mental illnesses to L.A. County. The article stood out to me as I work at the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law here in Los Angeles, which is a non-profit that provides free family law services to low-income persons. From September 2009 through the end of 2010, the Center provided direct legal assistance to 1,554 families with critical family law problems including domestic violence, which is an issue that arises in eighty (80%) of the Center’s cases. Women of color comprised the majority of clients and the families served included over 2,000 children. Included in these statistics are parents who are impacted by the criminal justice system and/or parents who have mental health illnesses or mental disabilities. These parents come to our Center seeking legal assistance with maintaining or reestablishing legal relationships with their children.

We were particularly interested in your article as it highlights the relationship between incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and their need for mental health services. I was happy to see that you specifically addressed the fact that people living with mental health illness often have a more difficult time linking to the services they desperately need. In our own practice, we see that family law legal services and legal education can make a dramatic impact on a formerly incarcerated parent’s life and the life of a parent living with a mental illness. Moreover, as studies demonstrate, maintaining family ties is concretely linked to lowered rates of recidivism and a successful reentry experience overall.

As I stated above, we have two specially designated projects at the Harriett Buhai Center that address the family law legal needs of parents who are impacted by incarceration and realignment, as well as parents with mental health illnesses or disabilities. Our practice consistently shows that parents who are impacted by incarceration are also living with mental health illnesses, mental disabilities, drug addictions, and histories of trauma.

Our first project, which is led by myself, the Family Reunification Reentry Project, is a direct legal services and community legal education program that works with formerly incarcerated women. Through this project, the Center provides legal education workshops on custody and visitation principles to formerly incarcerated women. The workshop is designed to address the barriers that many of these women face to maintaining and re-building legal relationships with their children as a result of their incarceration. The program also provides direct legal services, including case assessment, advice and counsel, preparation of legal documents and papers, representation in court, and case management. These services are available to formerly incarcerated women with custody and visitation disputes in family court (divorce, paternity, restraining order, and custody/visitation modification cases) and probate court (guardianship cases).

Our second project, which is led by Jackie Klein, The Family and Mental Health Law Project, provides family law assistance to parents with mental health illnesses and disabilities in cases involving custody and visitation. The project aims to dispel stigma by both focusing on a parent’s abilities and assisting parents with demonstrating to the Court that custody or visitation with that parent is in the child’s best interests.

What is unique about the Center is that these two projects aim to specialize in working with these two – and often overlapping –specific parent populations, whose needs are often greater in many aspects of their lives, and, the two projects are able to work in concert with one another. Through these two projects we are working to fill a critical gap in family law legal services in Los Angeles for parents impacted by incarceration and/or mental illness.

Thank you for your work on bringing attention to this very important issue. At the Harriett Buhai Center, our dedicated team faces the challenge to provide quality and empowering legal services and education to parents who are the most underserved and at the farthest margins of our society each day. We would be happy to provide you with more information as to either project. I run the Family Reunification Reentry Project and can be reached via email at Jackie Klein, who heads the Family and Mental Health Law Project, can also be reached at


Katherine Ojeda Stewart

Equal Justice Works Fellow/Staff Attorney

Family Reunification Reentry Project

Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law”