Caron Smith, a longtime NLSLA advocate and a fixture in the San Fernando Valley legal services community, passed away Monday after experiencing complications from a previous surgical procedure. She was 60 years old, and anyone who knew her well knew that she was far from finished with her work expanding access to justice.
For Caron, the work was personal. The child of a social worker who raised five children on her own, Caron grew up in poverty. There were times she had to wear slippers to school because her mother couldn’t afford another pair of shoes. Caron watched as her mother struggled to navigate the systems that were supposed to help her. When she tried to receive support through the court for her five children, she was overwhelmed by forms she did not understand and a process that seemed designed to set her up for failure. These experiences would stay with Caron, and ultimately lead her to a career in the public interest.
Caron was the first member of her family to graduate from college, earning a degree in theater arts from the California State University of Northridge. She worked as a high school English teacher for a few years and then applied to law school, with an eye towards public interest law. To put herself through law school she worked as a cocktail waitress and a school bus driver, while also taking frequent night shifts at MacDonald’s. As a student, she advocated for workers’ rights and assisted low-wage workers filing petitions with the California Labor Commissioner seeking unpaid wages from unscrupulous employers.
Her first job after graduation was with NLSLA, which was called San Fernando Valley Legal Services in 1990, when she joined as a family law attorney. She developed and implemented paternity and dissolution workshops, and created domestic violence clinics based in four courthouses. She was a prolific writer, and developed much of the domestic violence training and education materials for the program. She also was instrumental in establishing the first pro bono program for NLSLA, developing trainings for pro bono attorneys and law students who assisted in the clinics.
In the mid-1990s through early 2000s, Caron led NLSLA’s first ventures into community economic development. Her legacy is visible on a particular stretch of Sherman Way in Canoga Park, where a renovated community theater is one of many projects she spearheaded, and throughout Pacoima, where a sign on Van Nuys welcoming people to the city is the result of her hard work. At San Fernando Gardens, a low-income housing complex run by the city’s housing authority, Caron pushed for the funding and construction of a tenant center.
“She wanted to leave a legacy – it was all really to honor her mother,” said her niece Jamie.
That legacy is most apparent in NLSLA’s Self Help Legal Access Centers. Caron brought to fruition Neal’s vision for a network of centers that would give people living in poverty a sense of empowerment as they navigate complex court procedures. The first center, based at Monroe High School in Mission Hills, later became the first courthouse-based self-help center at the Van Nuys Courthouse in 2001. Today, NLSLA leads a network of nine courthouse-based centers that have served as a model across the country. The centers have assisted more than 1.6 million people since those early years. Last year, the centers assisted litigants in 60% of all Family Law/DV cases and 40% of all eviction actions filed in L.A. County, providing guidance to litigants requiring protection from domestic violence, resolving child custody disputes, seeking a divorce, and halting an eviction to avoid homelessness.
In 2008, Caron left NLSLA to become a Family Law Case Coordinator Attorney for the Ventura County Superior Court. While there she created local rules, forms and processes for family law case management, and was instrumental in creating a smooth and efficient system for the court. She presided over family law case management hearings, but had a hard time sticking to her role. “She was terrible at being a judge,” her niece joked. “She kept wanting to get off the bench.” She was an advocate, and she felt that her allegiance was to those people unable to afford a lawyer.
She returned to NLSLA in 2012, directing a variety of program-wide systems for delivery of legal services. She also led and implemented technological advancements for NLSLA, and was instrumental in securing grants that brought millions to the program. She was known to be in the office late at night, working with Neal and Yvonne on a proposal or report due the following morning. On these nights, Caron’s sharp wit and dark sense of humor were as critical as her ability to produce quality work under the gun.
“To say she will be missed is an understatement—it’s hard to imagine NLSLA without her,” said Yvonne Mariajimenez, NLSLA President & CEO. “She was a significant contributor to making a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable among us. We honor her by continuing to fight for justice for all.”
Caron was immensely proud of her work, but not nearly as proud as she was of her family. She is survived by her children – Samuel, 16, and Adrianna, 12 – as well as her niece Jamie and her family – her husband and two sons, Benjamin, 8 and Jaxon, 3. She is also survived by her three older brothers Ralph, Danny, Brodie, and younger sister Cheryl.
Caron was a self-described terrible cook. She didn’t have much time for hobbies, but she loved to read. Her niece often caught her pulling down books from the shelf and sniffing them – she loved the smell of the printed word. But most of all she was an advocate, whose childhood was a powerful motivator for her life’s work.
“Her work here was not done.” Her niece said. “And she would want anyone who wants to honor her to keep working for access to justice for people living in poverty.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the family will not hold in-person services for Caron at this time. But her niece has organized a memorial via Zoom on Sunday, March 29th at 2pm HERE for anyone who wants to join. She said she looks forward to the day this pandemic is under control, and she can invite everyone to a big celebration of Caron’s life.