Dennis Groenenboom oral history, 2014

Became Executive Director of Iowa Legal Aid,in 1992 after starting with the organization in 1978.

Oral history details

Storyteller: Dennis Groenenboom
Interviewer: Houseman, Alan
Date of interview: Nov 13, 2014
Where relates to: Iowa
Topics: Civil legal aid: General
Law type: Civil
Collection: NEJL
Georgetown Law Library link (possible video): http://hdl.handle.net/10822/1041073
Length: 0:41:39

Full text of transcript

Download PDF: Transcript

Summary
In the interview, Dennis Groenenboom recalls some of the earlier cases he worked on that focused on disability rights, senior citizens’ rights and Medicaid issues.

Dennis discusses the history and development of Iowa Legal Aid, which became a statewide program in 2003. In the early years, Iowa Legal Aid was funded almost exclusively by the LSC, but the organization started diversifying its funding in the 1980s. After Congress reduced LSC funding in 1995, Iowa was one of the first states that initiated new state support. Driven and supported by an extraordinary long-term staff, the work of Iowa Legal Aid has covered a wide range of issues and has impacted and improved many areas of law in the state, such as housing law, where Iowa Legal Aid helped to clarify notice provisions and rights and responsibilities of both landlords and tenants, domestic violence, disability rights, and consumer law. Iowa Legal Aid, which has received a number of technology innovation awards, has also managed to be very accessible on an equal basis for clients across the largely rural state. Special projects have included Iowa Legal Aid’s Health and Law Project, which connects patients of community health centers with lawyers to address underlying legal issues that are impacting the patients’ health, Iowa Legal Aid’s Low-Income Taxpayer clinic, a Foreclosure Defense Project, and coordination of legal services in response to flooding and other disasters in the state, among other special initiatives. Community outreach and education has always been an important part of the work of Iowa Legal Aid , and the organization distributes its quarterly newsletter, the Equal Justice Journal (previously Poor People’s Press), of which Groenenboom serves as the editor, to over 7,000 households.

Groenenboom has closely worked with the Iowa State Bar Association, where he served on the Health Law Section Council, and served on the Civil Policy Group of the NLADA, which he chaired from June 2012 – November 2014, He has been active in working on social justice issues in his church, Common Cause, and the Iowa Pride Network, among other organizations.

Reflecting on the significance and future direction of legal services work, he emphasizes that: “I think it is very important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that part of what we’re doing is trying to get people out of poverty and to have better lives.”

NEJL Oral History Interview with Dennis Groenenboom,
INTERVIEWEE: Dennis Groenenboom
INTERVIEWER: Alan Houseman
INTERVIEW DATE: Thursday, November 13, 2014
TRANSCRIPTION DATE: April 7, 2016
TRANSCRIBER: Carilyn Cipolla

Alan Houseman:
This is an interview with Dennis Groenenboom. It’s Thursday, November 13th, in Washington, D.C. and the interviewer is Alan Houseman. Dennis, tell me a little bit about your background — where you grew up, where you went to college and law school, and just that kind of background.

Dennis Groenenboom:
Well, I’m an Iowa farm boy. I grew up in rural Iowa, about an hour south of Des Moines. I graduated from Eddyville High School. There were 71 in the class of ‘71. I went to Central College, which is a private liberal arts college in Pella, Iowa. Then I went to the University of Iowa Law School, from which I graduated in 1978.

Alan Houseman:
After law school, just run through, you know, the sort of work you did, and then we’ll come back and talk about it in much more depth.

Dennis Groenenboom:
Well, I was really fortunate to get out of law school at the time that the Legal Services Corporation Act had been recently signed, and LSC was in the process of expanding around the country. In Iowa, they were expanding in 1977, and I graduated from law school in 1978. They were in a hiring mode, and I lucked out and was hired for a position in the North Central Iowa Regional Office of Iowa Legal Aid in Mason City, Iowa. I started there in July of 1978 and was there for a little over two years. I became the managing attorney — something that we would never do to anybody now, but after ten months, I became the managing attorney of the office. Then I transferred to our regional office in Cedar Rapids in 1980 and was there for about three years before moving to Des Moines and working out of our office in Des Moines, where I have been ever since.

Alan Houseman:
When did you become director?

Dennis Groenenboom:
One of the things that I think has served me well over the years is, I’ve been a staff attorney, a managing attorney, a senior staff attorney, a deputy director, and then I became the director in 1992. So I’ve been the director for a little over 22 years now.

Alan Houseman:
Tell us a little bit about the history of Iowa legal services, and then we’ll come back to some of your work there.

Dennis Groenenboom:
LSC came into Iowa with the idea of trying to put together a statewide program. In many states there were multiple programs, and LSC came in with the goal of a statewide program in Iowa. There were –one-county legal aid programs in several of the 99 counties that make up Iowa. And by ‘several’, I mean like seven or eight of them. The Corporation came in and had various meetings around the state, trying to put together a statewide program. In early 1977, articles of incorporation were filed for what was then called the Legal Services Corporation of Iowa, and it served 98 of Iowa’s 99 counties. So they almost got to be a statewide program but not quite. It became statewide in 2003 when there was a merger between what was then called the Legal Services Corporation of Iowa and the Legal Aid Society of Polk County. And that merger resulted in changing the name to Iowa Legal Aid.

Alan Houseman:
Okay. When you started, you were a staff attorney and then a managing attorney and stayed active in the practice for a while. Talk a little bit about some of the work you did and some of the cases you did.

Dennis Groenenboom:
Well, one that comes to mind very quickly is when we were contacted by some residents of what was at that time called a county home. Most of Iowa’s counties had what they called “county homes.” –Actually, they used to be called “poor farms.” They were the place where people who were identified as “misfits” were “placed.” Some were there as a result of a mental health commitment. But there were some times they were just put there because there was no place else to put them and there were no resources available to assist those individuals in other ways. We filed a class action lawsuit after being contacted by a number of residents of the Cerro Gordo County Care Facility, which is where Mason City is located, challenging that people were involuntarily there — now, they weren’t all committed. Some of these were people who really could walk away from the facility, legally, but there were no places to put them. So back in the days when legal services and LSC-funded programs could do class actions, we filed a class action to try to make sure that these clients and residents of this care facility had the types of services they needed and were able to get out if they had the wherewithal to be able to do that. That’s one of my early cases. My work was more in the area of working with people who had disabilities. There was a lot of Social Security work that I had done. Elderly clients as well; –issues involving substitute decision making. Those are kind of the issues that punched my buttons and I was most interested in handling.

Alan Houseman:
I recall, I think that you were involved in some Medicaid expansion case or Medicaid case.

Dennis Groenenboom:
There were a couple of Medicaid issues that I was involved in. One was also started in Mason City, but there were a lot of cases across the state. An issue that arose when one spouse moved into a nursing home, the state Department of Human Services took all of that spouse’s income. So, in many of the instances, it was the husband who moved into the nursing home, and they took all of the income that was in his name. We had a lot of low-income elderly women coming to us who were living on just a spouse’s allotment for SSI. I had clients who were living on $100 or less a month. We did a lot of appeals and a lot of work in that area. Another one involved a client who was transgender. She was asking for Medicaid payment for the surgery. The federal district court case was handled by my predecessor. The federal district court judge said the Medicaid program was required to cover those services. The state of Iowa appealed that case to the 8th Circuit, and I handled the case at the Circuit level. The 8th Circuit found that indeed the Medicaid program did have to pay for the surgery, because they concluded that the surgery was medically necessary. That case became very useful a few years later in the AIDS crisis with a new drug that was called AZT. There was a case out of Missouri that relied heavily on the case I had handled to say that the Medicaid program in Missouri had to pay for the AZT medication for individuals with HIV and AIDS.

Alan Houseman:
So you ultimately moved into the management of the program and ultimately the director. So what I’d like you to talk about is some of what — the challenges you faced and some of the things that you’ve done as a deputy director and director in the program.

Dennis Groenenboom:
Well, I became the director in May of 1992, and the program had originally been 15 offices around the state of Iowa. That number had been reduced in the early 1980’s to ten offices because of the significant reductions that took place in 1982 and ’83 in the early years of the Reagan administration. At that time Iowa Legal Aid — and I’ll refer to it as Iowa Legal Aid, the current name, rather than what it was called then, was over 90% funded by LSC. A lesson we learned at that time was that you’ve got to diversify your funding; you’ve got to bring in other funding sources. So, when I first became the deputy director, one of my primary jobs was to help in the diversification of funding. Something that I have been working on since the mid-1980’s is looking at other funding sources. Initial ones were United Way and Area Agencies on Aging through 3-B funds — Title 3-B funds.
When I became director in May of 1992, the first challenge that jumps out was in June of 1993. There was major flooding in the state of Iowa, including in Des Moines, where the office that I worked out of was located. The result of the flooding included the fact that the Des Moines water system was flooded. There was no potable water in Des Moines for about ten days. Several other communities around the state were devastated as well. There was widespread flooding in Iowa. We were able to pull together a training for volunteer attorneys, staff and several Midwestern programs on disaster response. The training was actually held in our Cedar Rapids office because they had potable water in Cedar Rapids. One of the first challenges was trying to respond to that type of a natural disaster. Given that disasters seem to be occurring more frequently around the country, including in Iowa, that early lesson was one that has had impact throughout my time as director. There have been many instances since then when we have had flooding, tornados and other disasters. You have to be able to respond to emerging circumstances. Other ones that we talked about — the diversification of funding, continued to be an important part of our — of my work.
The election of the the Gingrich Congress and the Contract With America in 1994 resulted in another significant reduction in funding for LSC programs. For Iowa, it was about a million dollar reduction. We had not received state funding before that time. We made an effort to obtain state funding. Our first appropriation from the state of Iowa was $950,000. Iowa was one of the first states that started new state support for legal aid after the 1995 federal reductions. And we did that in large part because we were fortunate to have people on our Board of Directors who had key connections at that time. The president of the Iowa State Bar Association was somebody we had a relationship with. I’d actually worked in his law firm when I was in law school, so we knew each other. And the program had worked over the years, including with the private attorney involvement regulations, to build relationships with the bar. We had very strong relations with the Iowa State Bar Association and the legal community, which were critical to us in being able to obtain a state appropriation. I think it’s significant that at that time the Iowa political scenario was much like it is right now. It was actually Governor Terry Branstad, who was governor then and is now governor again. And the Iowa House of Representatives was controlled by Republicans, and the Iowa Senate was controlled by Democrats just as it is at the present time. We were able to get that appropriation. Funding for legal aid has really never been a partisan issue in the state of Iowa. Our state appropriation now is about $2.4 million. LSC funding makes up about 30% of our budget. State funding makes up about 30% of our budget. We have probably 70 other funding sources at this point.

Alan Houseman:
And what are some of the other funding sources fund?

Dennis Groenenboom:
We have a lot of other federal grants. We have a grant with the IRS for a low-income taxpayer clinic. We continue to have —

Alan Houseman:
What is that? Explain that —

Dennis Groenenboom:
The low-income taxpayer clinic helps low-income people who have problems with the IRS. Sometimes it’s related to the fact they just dropped out of the system; they stopped filing returns a few years ago. They now need to get right with the IRS and have their back returns filed. Many times they may not be able to make the payments, because they just don’t have the income to do it. So you’re helping people get either an agreement that certain amount of the money will be paid or that they can be put in “currently not collectible” status. There will be — particularly low-income women, victims of domestic violence, who may have innocent spouse claims with the IRS. So we first received a low-income taxpayer grant probably ten or 12 years ago. And it was really somewhat controversial in the program. You know, people said, “I went to law school not to do taxes. I wanted to work with low-income people. I didn’t want to do taxes. Taxes is not what I know anything about.” But over the past decade we have really gotten to the point where people understand that addressing those issues is an integral part of what we should be doing for our clients. So that’s one example.
We have a legal hotline for older Iowans, first funded by a grant from the Administration on Aging. And now others have come in — Area Agencies on Aging, the state’s Department on Aging — to keep the Legal Hotline for Older Iowans going now that the federal money for the Hotline has ended. We have a pension project. We have an AmeriCorps grant that funds ten AmeriCorps members serving in our offices throughout the state. So a variety of different funding sources.
One of the things that I have been working on particularly hard in the past few years is building partnerships. As the political climate changes, as communities and funders look at trying to address what they view as systemic problems in communities, there’s not a real understanding of what legal aid does and how we can address those problems. But we have been working at the state level to really build partnerships with others to address these systemic problems. As an example, United Way agencies are trying to address issues of income, education, and health. Well, they can’t really fix income issues for people if there isn’t a legal services component. Education legal issues, also have an impact. Whether children will succeed in education is impacted by whether they are going to have their family thrown out of the house because of an eviction issue, or whether the mom’s getting beaten up. I mean, all of those issues impact education. So we’ve worked with United Way agencies to demonstrate why access to the legal system is important to achieving those community priorities.
We now have a couple of subgrants under the Supportive Services to Veteran’s Families Project where we’re working with veterans who are either homeless or near homeless to try to make sure that their legal issues are addressed.
The past few years we’ve had significant funding to provide services to people facing loss of their homes as a result of the nationwide settlement between 9 attorneys general and five large banks. In fact Iowa’s attorney general, Tom Miller, who started as a legal aid lawyer in Maryland when he first got out of law school as a VISTA lawyer, has been a tremendous supporter of legal aid in Iowa. The state funding we receive is in fact a part of his budget from the state. Attorney General Miller led that settlement with the large banks. — Since that settlement with those banks, we’ve had a Foreclosure Defense Project where we work with the Mediation Service in Iowa and housing counseling agencies to make sure that people who are facing foreclosure, if they’ve got a legal notice, get referred to our office. These types of partnerships I think are just key to the long-term viability of legal aid. But probably even more importantly, they’re important to really addressing the legal problems that low-income people have and whether they can get out of poverty.

Alan Houseman:
You’re a program that has both rural — I think I’ve defined Des Moines as “urban” and a few other places in Iowa. How do you — how do you try to make sure that all Iowans get access to legal aid?

Dennis Groenenboom:
That’s something that we’ve really struggled with over the 35-plus years that I’ve been with the program. I think we’ve really made significant strides in recent years. It’s largely technology that has made many of the most recent advances possible. We have an intake system where staff in every office can be a part of this intake system. We have some staff who are just devoted to intake entirely, but then we also fill in with other folks. So we have basically a virtual intake system; it’s not all in one location. We went to that strategy in the mid-2000’s, because, again, funding reductions were happening. And we didn’t want to close another office. You know, it was very painful to close those offices in the early 1980’s. And so, what we did — as an example, we had an office where there were no support staff in the office. Far from ideal. But for a few months period of time, we didn’t have support staff there. But the phones were answered by people in other offices. That’s how the phone system worked. Our intake staff are able to take calls from anywhere. A client could be calling from a very rural part of the state, have the phone answered by somebody in our office in Dubuque, and talk to an intake attorney in Des Moines. We have toll-free telephone lines for folks. We are really very accessible to clients throughout the state on a relatively equal basis. Because the vast majority of the people we serve call instead of coming into our offices, our services are pretty equal around the state. We’ve looked for years and seen that we provide services to people in every one of Iowa’s 99 counties every year. People are aware of how to get to us and apply for services. The problem is that, you know, if somebody’s got a domestic abuse hearing two hours away, it’s a lot harder to get there and handle that than it is when it’s a five minute drive to the courthouse. But we’ve understood that from the beginning. That’s the commitment we’ve made to the program and to the clients we serve.

Alan Houseman:
So currently how large is Iowa Legal Aid? And how many attorneys do you have and paralegals and other staff? How many offices? And that kind of thing.

Dennis Groenenboom:
We have ten offices throughout the state. We have just under 100 total employees. That does not include our AmeriCorps members; they’re in a separate group. We have about 60 lawyers. That includes managing attorneys and staff attorneys and a couple of litigation directors. We have about 25 support staff, and the rest is a mix of legal assistants and other support personnel. Our budget is a little over $8 million presently. We have an 18-member Board of Directors that’s drawn from across the state. We really try to make sure that the board has good diversity from a standpoint of geography, the types of practices that the lawyers have, and the types of issues that the client members have come to the program with, so that they bring a variety of experience to the table.

Alan Houseman:
Well, let’s turn a little bit to some other work you’ve done. You’ve been active at the national level in the legal aid, and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that.

Dennis Groenenboom:
Well, Lillian Moy from New York called me six years ago and said there was an opening in the Midwest region for somebody on the NLADA civil policy group and asked me to consider running for it. I’ve always been a supporter of NLADA. I think it is extremely important for the legal services community to have a national voice. As a membership organization, I think it’s very important that there are good connections with the members around the country. I took Lillian up on her invitation to run, and then was a member of the civil policy group starting a little over six years ago. Then about 2.5 years ago, Don Saunders and Julie Clark called me up and said, “Well, we really need somebody to serve as the chair of the civil policy group.” And in a moment of weakness, I said “yes.” Some of the things that I’ve done as chair and the work that I’ve done with NLADA has been focused on trying to make sure that the structure of the organization is one that is responsive to its membership. I think that we need to make sure we communicate with members so they know what we’re doing as an entity and as a national voice and why it’s important to them that we are there. But equally, as a membership organization, I think it’s important that the members know that they have a role to play as well. And I’ll just give two examples of that. One of the initiatives that we undertook over the past 2.5 years was an education effort with members of Congress to explain to members of Congress what it is that legal aid programs do. In Iowa, it is not a partisan issue. And I know that at the national level, there’s a different dynamic there. But we have to try to change the frame that we are operating in. And the only way I think to do that is to make members of Congress more aware of what it is that we do. This isn’t lobbying; this is informing them about what we do, and what we can do for their constituents. So we worked with NLADA to try to get that initiative going around the country. A second one is the other federal funding initiative with the Department of Justice that has been undertaken during the current administration where they’re really working to try to make sure that other federal agencies understand what legal aid programs can do to help them meet their objectives — whether it’s HUD and homelessness issues, or whether it’s the Veteran’s Administration, the IRS, or a host of others. The Department of Justice and NLADA really have been working hard trying to make sure that, wherever possible, funding for legal aid is included as an option — at least as an option, in the grants and the requests for proposals that agencies send out. And that’s great, but it’s only going to really work at a state and local level if people are aware that this is out there now as an option, and if relationships are built to allow those types of partnerships to develop and for good results to happen. So that’s another area where I think it’s a perfect example of what NLADA does that’s so important at the national level, but bringing the membership along and getting the members involved is equally as important. And that’s really what I’ve tried to push for the 2.5 years that I’ve served as chair of the civil policy group.

Alan Houseman:
Okay. You’ve also been active in Iowa outside of legal aid. Maybe you view it inside. But I know — talk about some of the things you’ve done — some of the leadership roles you’ve had outside of legal aid in Iowa.

Dennis Groenenboom:
I was involved in Common Cause for many years. That’s been a few years ago now, but I served on the board of Iowa Common Cause and served as the state chair for a few years. I’m active in my church — which church I am active in has changed a few times over the years. But I’ve been active in that area of my life, working on social justice issues, particularly in my church. Justice is what legal aid is all about, but it’s what we’re about as a faith community as much as it is in the legal community. And more recently, I’ve been involved with a group called Iowa Pride Network, trying to work with youth who are gay and lesbian and trying to make sure that they aren’t bullied and get the types of services and support that they need. I’ve been active as a donor in lots of those types of organizations. And more recently, the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, who wrote the decision that made marriage equality possible in Iowa and made Iowa the third state to provide marriage to same sex couples, performed my own wedding ceremony with my own partner of 38 years. So I’ve been active in lots of LGBT issues in Iowa as well.

Alan Houseman:
And have you been active in the state bar activity?

Dennis Groenenboom:
I have. The state bar has been very important to us, and our relationship with the bar has been key. First of all, they appoint the attorneys to our Board of Directors, and we’ve had wonderful boards. I always talk about how blessed I’ve been over the 22 years I’ve been director to have boards of directors who really understand, support and will work for what we do. Part of why that works is that I also — and not just “I,” but our staff and program most of our staff or a good share of our staff — are members of the Iowa State Bar Association and are active in committees. I served on their long range strategic planning committee. I’ve served on various committees of the Iowa State Bar Association: their health and law section, their professionalism committee. And we’ve got other staff who are either serving on sections or committees or even chairing those. It’s a give and take with the bar. They certainly support us, but we also support them by providing them assistance in many areas. Another area where there’s been some work with the bar has been in legislative — and you know, the regulations that impact legal aid programs have changed over the years. And there are more severe limitations or more strict limitations on what we can do in that area. But the bar has also been key in trying to make sure that, if legislators have issues and questions about what impact those laws will have on low-income constituents, that they know that we can come and talk to them if there’s a written request. That’s another way we’ve been active with the bar. But the bar also supports our state funding. I mean, part of the reason we get $2.4 million currently is it’s always on the bar’s association’s affirmative legislative agenda.

Alan Houseman:
You’ve had two key people in the U.S. Congress that have played a critical role in legal aid. And why don’t you just talk briefly about both of them. I’m not sure we’ve covered this in any other overview. They were distinct and major players.

Dennis Groenenboom:
Well, the first is Neal Smith. Neal was a member of Congress for 30 some years from Iowa. His last in 1994 was when he was — I’m not sure I’ve got that year right on when he was no longer in the Congress, but I think that may be right. Neal was in Congress from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. He is a lawyer. His wife is a lawyer. He’s currently 94 years old. He is still a great supporter of legal aid programs. When the LSC board meeting was held in Des Moines this past July, Neal Smith addressed the board and talked about the role he had played. And more importantly, he talked about a woman he had interacted with at a fast food place recently who had talked about the help that had been provided by — in this case, a legal aid clinic, a law school clinic, because Neal was also very supportive of clinical education and having that as a part of student’s educational process to make them more supportive of legal aid after they got out of law school. But he was critical particularly in the 1980’s when the Reagan administration was interested in zeroing out funding for legal aid. Congressman Smith was just a great supporter, worked with lots of his colleagues to make sure that we stayed in there and minimized the restrictions on what it is that we can do. And he did that, again, really throughout his career.

Alan Houseman:
He was, by the way, the chair of the subcommittee on the appropriations committee that oversaw the Legal Services Corporation.

Dennis Groenenboom:
Exactly. And he was key in those discussions. The other one is Tom Harkin, Senator Harkin, who will be leaving, unfortunately, the Senate in January of next year; he’s retiring. Senator Harkin started as a legal aid lawyer. He always liked to talk about that. He worked at the Legal Aid Society of Polk County, one of the entities that merged with us — or the entity that merged with us in 2003. He talks about that experience as really formative in his understanding of some of the issues that low-income people have. It also, I think, led him to be a really staunch supporter of our work. Both in Iowa and at the national level, he’s been a real hero to us, and he’s great.

Alan Houseman:
And Tom was chair of the Senate Health Committee, which oversees legal services.

Dennis Groenenboom:
And also chair of the — no, not the appropriations committee for us, but yeah — you’re right — the oversight committee.

Alan Houseman:
The oversight.

Dennis Groenenboom:
Yeah. Another one, I’ll just mention quickly, George Wittgraf was another Iowan who was very important to legal services and legal aid throughout the country. He was the chair of the George H.W. Bush campaign in Iowa in 1988. And, when the first President Bush was elected, George’s either reward or punishment, depending on your perspective, was that President Bush asked him to — or nominated him for the Legal Services Corporation Board, and he was then elected as chair of that Board. And after eight very contentious years with LSC under the Reagan Administration, George Wittgraf, who had been a volunteer lawyer in Iowa, and just — he liked to describe himself as just a county seat lawyer from Cherokee, Iowa, which is in far northwest Iowa- brought a new civility and a new dialogue. Actually, I think, he got some of the highest funding that LSC has ever received under his tenure. One of the things I’ll always remember about George is that he said, “You know, Dennis, if we portray ourselves in a partisan way, we’re always going to lose some time. Access to legal services should not be partisan. It’s a nonpartisan issue.” And that’s a lesson that we’ve learned in Iowa, and I think has served us well as we worked in Iowa to make sure that there is support on both sides of the aisle for the work that we do. He’s a giant in the community as well.

Alan Houseman:
Well, my final sets of questions — and you may have some things to add — are, you’ve run this program for many years. You’ve been a national leader. You’ve been an innovator in Iowa in technology and in other things. What do you see — maybe the question is, “What would you like to see? Or what do you see, and what would you like to see in the future of civil legal aid after you and I are long out?”

Dennis Groenenboom:
Long gone? I think that the work that the Voices For Civil Justice group is doing now is of critical importance, because people don’t — people don’t understand what lawyers do generally. They certainly don’t understand what lawyers do for poor people. And I think that there has got to be a broader discussion and work done by lots of people to try to make sure there’s a better understanding of why what we do is critical not just for the clients who we are helping every day have better lives, but we’re helping the community, the court system — I mean, many people have a stake in this. And I don’t think people understand that stake. So I think one of the things that we need to do, and what I’d like to see, is a better understanding of that.
I also — I worry about the fact that many people go to the court systems and they represent themselves. That’s a problem that we’ve got to be thinking about. But we also can’t get away from the fact that we have to be providing representation to people who have critical problems that are unique, that are challenging, that are complicated, and we’ve got to make sure that our staff have the resources and the support to know that they can challenge inequities that are complex and that really impact not just the one client who is sitting before them, but bunches of others. I think it’s very important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that part of what we’re doing is trying to get people out of poverty and to have better lives. We do that every day, but I think that’s something that we can’t lose sight of as an overall goal.

Alan Houseman:
Well, are there any other thoughts you have as we near a conclusion on this? If we’re near a conclusion?

Dennis Groenenboom:
I don’t think so. I think we’ve probably covered what comes to my mind as things that we’ve done in Iowa and that I think are important at the national level.

Alan Houseman:
Great. Well, thank you a lot.

Dennis Groenenboom:
Thank you.
>> [end of first audio file].

Alan Houseman:
This is a continuation of an interview with Dennis, and we had some more reflections that we wanted to add to the interview. So Dennis, talk a little bit about the impact of Iowa Legal Aid on the law in Iowa.

Dennis Groenenboom:
Well, the LSC board met in Des Moines for a quarterly meeting this past July. One of the things that all the programs do when there’s a meeting in their state is they get to talk a little bit about the work that they’ve done. And that allowed me to talk to some of the other people in the program and reflect on really how different the law is in Iowa today than what it would have been had LSC not existed and had there not been a statewide program in Iowa. And that’s really true in many areas. Domestic violence cases and family law cases make up about a third of our caseload. It’s been something we’ve worked on for many years, but there was a law that was adopted in the Iowa legislature in the early 1990’s, that was a domestic abuse statute. Whenever laws are enacted, there are uncertainties in it and things that aren’t clear. We’ve had many cases before the Iowa Supreme Court and the Iowa Court of Appeals that have clarified the law, including a decision that people don’t have to be very specific and follow a particular pattern in their pleadings when they go in and file these on their own. They can do it and just put the court on notice about what’s going on. They don’t have to stay in the county where they’ve been abused and aren’t safe and file it there. They can file it in a new county. Issues related to, you know, fleeing the state because of a fear of violence and whether they can still get a protection order. So a lot of issues in the area of domestic violence.
Landlord tenant and housing makes up another third, historically, of the work Iowa Legal Aid does for clients in the cases that we close. That’s another area where many changes have been made in the law. The most recent and most significant was that the Iowa Supreme Court, in a case that we had handled, declared that the notice provisions that were intended to put tenants on notice that their tenancy was at risk, was unconstitutional, because it did not effectively make sure that they got actually got notice. What was happening is that people would find out that they were being evicted at the point that the sheriff showed up to put their stuff on the street, because they had been sent a certified letter that they didn’t receive. So, they never had notice of the eviction. The court said, “No, that’s not really effective notice,” and declared it unconstitutional. The legislature then had to redo the statute. So lots of different types of notice provisions and rights and responsibilities of tenants were clarified in cases that we’ve handled.
Another area is persons with disabilities. There was a very general guardianship statute in Iowa. As a result of a case that we handled, the Iowa Supreme Court declared that statute unconstitutional and decided that the courts really had to assess whether there were less restrictive means than a full guardianship that would be effective for the person in their particular circumstances with the disabilities that they had.
Consumer law is another area where there’s been a lot of work we’ve done over the years that has impacted financial issues for low-income people. What we’re working on now is an issue that’s getting a lot of attention at the national level that courts and cities are funding their budgets in part by the fines that they impose on clients. We’re working on court debt collection practices in Iowa and how the procedures that the courts follow really make it harder for people to pay their debts and to get out of poverty. So there’s just a lot of areas where the law is very different. And it’s not just for our clients, but for everyone. They don’t have to be low income to be advantaged and have different rights because of these changes in the law.

Alan Houseman:
You’ve been at Iowa Legal Services for many years, but you had an extraordinary staff. Talk a little bit about that.

Dennis Groenenboom:
I’ve been blessed, not just as I mentioned earlier about having tremendous board members, but we have an administrative staff that, probably the five people who are most responsible for running the organization have collectively over 175 years of experience with the agency. And that includes our program administrator, Pat McClintock, who’s been around for over 40 years. He was a paralegal, and in the budget cuts of the 80’s, ended up becoming the program administrator, picking up responsibilities that he’d never had before. He has really led us in technology. A few years ago Iowa Legal Aid was recognized by NLADA with the Technology Innovations Award. That’s largely because of Pat’s leadership in those issues. Chris Luzzie is a litigation director. She’s been with us since 1980. In most of these cases I just described, Chris’ name won’t be on them, but her fingerprints will be all over those briefs and those decisions and the impact that they’ve had on people. I have an assistant who’s been with us for longer than I’ve been there, and I’ve been there for over 36 years. So I think that collectively this staff has brought, you know, some real stability to the program and an ability to see what the larger issues are and how best to address them. So it’s been a great pleasure to be able to work with such talented and committed people as well.

Alan Houseman:
And is there any other thoughts or reflections you want to add?

Dennis Groenenboom:
I guess the only other thing I’d add, Alan, is that — and we talked a little bit about this — as a program we had a commitment not just to the type of advocacy that would result in systemic changes, but also a community education component. We have always had a commitment to informing low-income people about what their rights and what their responsibilities are. So we’ve had what was originally called the “Poor People’s Press,” and is now called the “Equal Justice Journal,” that we’ve sent off quarterly to low-income households and others interested in it for probably over three decades now. Our website has just an incredible amount of information for people that the public can access. So it really is providing information to people generally in Iowa. And I think it’s a part of the commitment that we’ve had since we were organized in 1977 to both address systemic issues and maintain an educational component.

Alan Houseman:
Well, thank you. This has been terrific.

Dennis Groenenboom:
Thank you.


END