Mid-Missouri Legal Services Appoints New Executive Director
Kirsten F. Dunham says she wants to build on her predecessor Susan Lutton’s legacy as executive director of Mid-Missouri Legal Services.
Dunham assumed the role on July 1 following Lutton’s retirement from the organization.
Lutton has served as director for the past 15 years.
“(Lutton) leaves (MMLS) in a very strong position, and we very much appreciate his hard work building and developing his training areas,” Dunham said. “I’m looking for more ways to be community-based in our approach, whether it’s more clinics or participating in more community events in our rural counties.”
A recent strategic planning process aims to further expand services, Dunham said.
After: How Mid-Missouri Legal Services plans to use the budget increase to help more low-income families
MMLS provides free legal assistance to low-income and vulnerable people in an 11-county service region, including Boone County.
Dunham joined MMLS in 2017 to develop its consumer law project for community redevelopment and foreclosure prevention. She was promoted to director of program development at the end of 2021 and now executive director.
The community redevelopment and foreclosure prevention project “aimed to remove legal barriers to employment, which involves many cases of consumerism,” Dunham said, adding that the project went after predatory lenders whose practices lead to the garnishment of wages or the repossession of the vehicle.
The focus was on stabilizing communities by preventing foreclosures and helping to modify loans.
“We wanted to cover a full range of legal assistance advice and help people keep their homes,” Dunham said.
Dunham wants to expand the organization’s ties to the University of Missouri Law School and ask students to help its housing and uncontested divorce clinics.
A recent $10 million state loan will help MMLS expand.
“We will have the funds to reach and serve more people and not cut services in the future. We could catch up legal services to where they were in the 90s,” Dunham said.
Lutton plans to move out of state. She will keep her hand in legal aid by volunteering at legal clinics, she wrote in an email to the Tribune. She also plans to volunteer at a local state park after moving, using her skills as a master naturalist.
From political adviser to a legal career
Dunham is a graduate of MU School of Law and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from Washington University in St. Louis.
“I began to realize the inequalities in our society, the disadvantages and barriers to economic opportunity,” Dunham said of her experience in her undergraduate and graduate programs at the University of Washington. “I became interested in social work to have an impact on these areas.”
It focused less on direct practice and more on community development and policy. Dunham participated in a program that allowed her to earn her bachelor’s and master’s almost simultaneously. She graduated in five years, and her first graduate job was with Paraquad, a St. Louis-based disability advocacy organization.
She stayed there for 16 years as a policy analyst, deputy policy director, and eventually director of policy and advocacy.
The work she did there had statewide impacts on disability and health care policy, such as the expansion of consumer-focused personal coaching programs. .
“Paraquad wasn’t about doing things for people with disabilities. It was about organizing people with disabilities so they had the opportunity to live independently and direct their own lives,” Dunham said.
Although Dunham was successful in getting lawmakers to change the policy, she began to realize that in some cases those changes weren’t being applied properly or people weren’t aware they had certain rights because of the policy updates.
“I started thinking about going back to law school as a non-traditional student,” she said.
Dunham graduated from MU Law School in 2015. She later served as a law clerk for the Missouri Supreme Court and an assistant attorney general in the Labor Division of the Missouri Attorney General’s Office before joining MMLS.
Removing Barriers to Lawful Access
Dunham focuses on removing barriers to lawful access, for example through technology.
The organization works with individuals and families regardless of their access image, including traditional methods of communication, she said.
“In order to increase access to services, we need resources, advocates and reception staff to support this work,” Dunham said. “One of my big goals is to hire and retain a diverse, skilled and talented workforce.”
Dunham wants to close the access to justice gap. The Legal Service Corp., she noted, released its Access to Justice Report in April, which found that “low-income Americans (did) not receive legal aid or enough legal aid for 92% of their significant civil legal problems”.
The report also found that people don’t always recognize what could be a legal issue, Dunham added. There are obvious examples like a will, but there are also consumer and health care issues that individuals can seek legal help for.
“Far fewer people sought help for substance use and health issues,” she said, although this was an area where more and more people were facing challenges. problems. “They’re not easily recognized as a legal issue and they have certain consumer rights. One of my hopes is to work with community partners and key messengers to help people recognize when they might have a legal issue (with which ) Mid-Missouri Legal Services can help.”
Charles Dunlap covers local government, community issues and other general topics for the Tribune. You can reach him at [email protected] or @CD_CDT on Twitter. Please consider subscribing to support vital local journalism.