County expands legal aid for veterans to Rome

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Oneida County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. announced Thursday the expansion of legal aid services to local veterans through a partnership with the Syracuse University College of Law. Picente said the county has made a three-year commitment totaling $150,000 that will be used for the SU Law School to operate its Wohl Family Veterans Legal Clinic from the County Office Building in Utica and a location in Rome.

“The Wohl Family Veterans Legal Clinic provides essential legal services to local veterans in need, helping them navigate many complex issues and obtain the benefits they deserve,” said Picente. “I am happy that we are strengthening our valuable partnership with the Syracuse University College of Law and expanding our ability to assist those who have sacrificed so much on our behalf.”

Founded in 2015 by two Syracuse University College of Law students, the clinic is believed to be first comprehensive one for veterans in New York. It provides free legal aid to veterans as they apply for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, appeal VA decisions and attempt to upgrade military discharges.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are 18,168 veterans in Oneida County.

Students who work for the clinic conduct research, investigations and advocacy on behalf of clinic clients. In addition to client representation, the clinic engages in community outreach in Syracuse, Utica and now Rome, and partners with social services agencies to connect clients to available resources to support veterans and families.

“Through the Wohl Family Veterans Legal Clinic, Oneida County veterans will have access to the specialized legal representation needed to navigate the VA so they can receive the benefits they have earned and discharge upgrades they deserve,” said Yelena Duterte, the clinic’s director. “The clinic will also continue to train the next generation of veteran advocates with the skills they need to serve our veterans in their practices or in pro bono service.”

In the two years the law clinic operated from the Veterans Outreach Center in Utica, it received 160 requests for legal assistance and 80 cases were accepted across the county. Twenty-two cases were brought to closure, 32 were referred to the legal clinic’s network of partners and 80 cases were referred to outside legal services providers.

This effort resulted in more than $31,700 in back pay awards, an average benefits increase of nearly $19,000, 960 hours of student pro bono work and 36 College of Law students received training as veterans advocates.  

“Since its founding by two College of Law students, the clinic has impacted the lives of hundreds of veterans,” said SU College of Law Dean Craig Boise. “I am proud of what Oneida County and the college has achieved thus far, and thanks to our renewed partnership with the county, and the generosity of Oneida County-based donors and our alumni, we can make a real difference in the lives of many more veterans.”

Led by the efforts of Linda, John and Jackie Romano and Rob Esche, more than $100,000 was also raised recently to support the clinic’s work of providing free legal services to Oneida County veterans and their families, training local attorneys, and educating the next generation of veterans advocates.

“My family and I have been honored to be a part of the development and opening of a Veterans Legal Clinic at Syracuse University with a presence here in Oneida County,” said Linda Romano. “I cannot think of a more deserving group than the veterans who put their lives at stake to ensure that our way of life and freedoms are protected. They deserve to have their rights protected as well.”

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