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National Crime Victim Law Institute

Project Partner Profile: Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA)

May 01, 2020

Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) is a private, nonprofit law firm that provides free civil legal aid to empower low-income Montanans. Their mission is to protect and enhance the legal rights of, and promote systemic change for, Montanans living in poverty. MLSA houses the Montana Victim Legal Assistance Network (MT VLAN), a program designed to increase access to holistic civil legal aid to victims of crime, increase collaboration among crime victim service providers, and facilitate cross-training events throughout the state. MT VLAN is leading the state in advocating for victims’ rights within the legal system.

How did you get involved with NCVLI?

MLSA has partnered with NCVLI on a number of projects since 2015, including the Vision 21 Victim Legal Assistance Network / Wraparound grant projects, a Crime Victim Justice Corps Attorney Fellowship, and most recently the Increasing Rural Access through Technology subgrant from NCVLI. This two-year project has provided additional opportunities for collaboration between MLSA and NCVLI to develop innovative new tools and solutions to help rural crime victims access legal information and assistance, and to identify and develop emerging promising practices to enhance victims’ rights work, particularly in rural settings.

Tell us about a recent success/deliverable your clinic has achieved.

MLSA is excited to launch www.MTCrimeVictimHelp.org, a project resulting from a subgrant from NCVLI, provided by the US Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime. This new website will connect crime victims, family members, and service providers in Montana with legal help and supportive services. It is a one-stop-shop that collects all the useful information to help crime victims and service providers navigate the justice system and find resources, in a user-friendly format.

On www.MTCrimeVictimHelp.org, users can search a resource library, apply for legal assistance, chat online with a trained Crime Victim Navigator, or use a specially designed Help Tool to find what they need. The site was built with attention toward user safety, confidentiality, accessibility, and functionality for rural crime victims and service providers.

What motivates you to do the work you do with victims’ rights in your community?

The practice of dedicated attorneys enforcing crime victims’ rights, particularly within criminal proceedings, is an emerging practice in Montana. MLSA, with NCVLI’s support, has been at the forefront in recent years of educating attorneys, court staff, and judges throughout the state on the rights of crime victims— particularly within the context of criminal cases—but more work is needed.

Victims interfacing with the criminal justice face a number of challenges that are compounded when they do not have an attorney advocating for their legal rights. The lack of representation can lead to increased trauma and revictimization if survivors are not afforded their rights to fairness, safety, or the right to be heard.

We are motivated to fight for every individual victim who needs legal help, as well as to change the landscape for survivors across the state, so all voices can be heard.

Why should other individuals, clinics, and/or organizations interested in victims’ rights get involved with NCVLI?

MLSA is fortunate and honored to work so closely with NCVLI over the past five years, receiving ongoing, intensive training, technical assistance, and networking opportunities, with an ongoing focus on victims’ rights enforcement. NCLVI’s team responds to each request for help with expertise, experience, and genuine compassion, helping us to fight for the best possible outcome in each challenge we face together. For every new jurisdiction where NCVLI provides help, they take the time to research not only the relevant legal framework, but also the overall landscape for survivors and advocates alike, enabling us to provide truly comprehensive and holistic support to our clients and colleagues.

About MLSA’s Rural Team:

Mel Fisher has been with MLSA since 2015. She is the MLSA Victim Legal Assistance Project Coordinator. She earned her Master’s Degree in Public Administration and Nonprofit Management from the University of Washington in 2007. Mel has worked in the fields of victim advocacy, violence prevention, and community building for nearly 20 years.

Robyn Githui joined MLSA as the Rural Crime Victim Navigator in 2019 after serving as a JUstice for Montanans AmeriCorps Member at MLSA. Robyn received a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Notre Dame of Maryland University. A Baltimore native, Robyn loves to travel, cook, and dance.

Jain Walsh received her JD from the University of Montana School of Law in 2011. Prior to joinng MLSA in 2019, Jain operated her own family law practice in Missoula. Jain embraces the opportunity her position grants her to travel all over that great state of Montana. In her free time Jain enjoys music, fishing, travel, and DIY hands-on projects.

Learn more about the the Increasing Rural Access through Technology Project here.