BANGOR, Maine — The foreclosure letter that came in the mail last year “scared the living daylights” out of Patricia Dice.
The 74-year-old retiree was unsure of where to turn or what to do. She knew Legal Services for the Elderly existed but she was not sure they could help her stay in the Dexter home she purchased 10 years ago.
“Legal Services took over and did everything for me,” Rice said Tuesday. “I didn’t have to do a thing. The whole process took about a year. I would have lost my home if it weren’t for Julie Mallett.”
Mallett’s work as an attorney in the Bangor office of Legal Services for the Elderly earned her the 25th annual Downing Award in September. The award was created to recognize one legal aid staff person each year who has made significant contributions to low-income individuals, according to Diana Scully, director of the Office of Elder Services and the widow of Tom Downing, for whom the award is named.
Mallett, 38, of Dover-Foxcroft did not leave law school seeking a career in legal services. The graduate of Foxcroft Academy, Colby College and the University of Maine School of Law worked in private practice for several years before going to work for the legal aid agency in 2000.
“This isn’t something I expected to do in law school,” she said in a recent interview at her office, located at the Eastern Maine Area Agency on Aging on Essex Street. “I just wanted a change. I didn’t realize it would be such a good fit for me.”
Mallett picked up a lot of good skills in private practice but wasn’t dealing with clients daily. For the past 10 years, she has met with them nearly every day and has served more than 2,500 over the decade.
“When I have a client who is just hopeless, who has been to a million places but gotten no help and then we are able to get a positive result for them — that’s what I find most rewarding about the job,” she said. “The hardest thing is not being able to take a case, because we can’t take them all.”
The geographic area she serves includes Hancock, Washington, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.
A recent study by the University of Maine Center on Aging about the legal needs of aging Mainers has confirmed what Mallett has learned firsthand — the number of older people needing legal services will outweigh available resources in the near future.
Up to half of all older adults in the state will need legal assistance in the next five to 10 years, the study found. Among low-income elderly Mainers, the percentage is higher, with 45 percent to 86 percent of residents in their 60s projected to need legal intervention to help solve problems, the report said.
Help with health insurance, including Medicare Part D, was the No. 1 category nationally and in Maine, and constituted 25 percent of the services provided by Legal Services for the Elderly. Other categories included bankruptcy, housing, foreclosure and estate planning, including writing or changing wills.
The study also concluded that elders are not seeking help with issues of abuse or exploitation. According to statistics provided by Legal Services for the Elderly, only 2.5 percent of its cases involve abuse or exploitation. The report estimated that more than five times that number likely need help in that area.
“It is our hope this study will help to guide us in directing our limited resources to those most in need and identify areas of unmet or growing needs,” Jaye Martin, executive director of Legal Services for the Elderly, said recently.
Legal Services for the Elderly is supported by a variety of funding sources, including federal, state and private foundation grants as well as private donations, according to Mallett. Funders in Maine include the Maine Bar Foundation, the Maine Civil Legal Services Fund Commission, the Office of Elder Services, the five area agencies on aging and five United Ways.
It also receives financial support from the private bar and law firms in Maine through the Campaign for Justice, a joint annual fundraising effort conducted in conjunction with other legal services providers in Maine.
For information about Legal Service for the Elderly, call 800-750-5353.