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HUMAN RIGHTS TAKES VICTIMS THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

Altheria Anderson is a patient woman.

She had to be.

Ms. Anderson stepped into a bureaucratic Twilight Zone. A place out of George Orwell's nightmares.

In Ms. Anderson's case, Big Brother wasn't watching. It was sleeping. Like Rip Van Winkle.

Seven years ago, Ms. Anderson -- who lives on Buffalo's East Side -- complained to the State Division of Human Rights. According to court papers, her landlord took her name off the mailbox, spat in her face and called her a "black bitch." He changed the locks on her apartment, leaving her homeless. Ms. Anderson's apparent "transgression" was occasionally having friends or her cousins -- ages 4 and 5 -- over for a visit.

Last month, she won her case and was awarded $20,000.

The news isn't so much that she won. It's how surrealistically long it took. That's the problem -- for her and thousands of others.

When Ms. Anderson filed her suit, she was childless.

She now has a 6-year-old son.

So it's easy to understand why Ms. Anderson -- a polite, high-strung woman who wrings her hands when she talks -- called the resolution "a miracle."

Stories like hers are the rule, not the exception. Another Buffalo woman, Janet Meiselman, filed a complaint after being told she was too young to rent a particular apartment. The landlord presumably wouldn't have a problem with Ms. Meiselman now, because she's nine years older.

She's still awaiting a decision.

The state's Division of Human Rights is supposed to give quick justice to victims of discrimination.

Instead, it's the place justice goes to grow mold. The dead-letter office of discrimination. An endless purgatory for the wronged. A beleaguered, underfunded excuse for justice.

No complaint is supposed to fester for more than a year. A year would be the blink of an eye for most victims.

The agency was created in the 1950s so people could avoid endless court battles and legal fees.

It was created for people like Ms. Anderson. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment near the Broadway Market. The water heater is in the kitchen and there aren't enough chairs to seat two guests.

Ms. Anderson is one of the lucky ones. She may never see the $20,000. But at least there was a decision.

Some complainants had landlords die while the case aged. A Buffalo State College professor waited seven years for a decision. By the time it came, she was living in Denver and the landlord had moved Florida.

Then there's the Catch-22: Cases dismissed -- Orwell would love this -- for "administrative convenience." In other words, because they've hung around too long.

The state brags that the case backlog shrunk from 16,000 to 10,000 under George Pataki. But a spokesperson couldn't say how many cases were "administratively convenienced" into oblivion.

Fair-housing activists recently sued the state for its Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

"The hope is to make the system work," said attorney Dan Kohane.

It's not that there are bad people in the agency. There's just not enough of them.

"It's gotten decimated in budget cuts," said Kohane. "There's one judge for all of Western New York."

A state spokesperson said damages awarded the wronged doubled in the past two years. But local advocates haven't noticed much change.

"It's gotten so bad," said Scott Gehl of HOME, a fair-housing agency, "that we hardly send any complaints their way."

Instead, most people go the "speedier" route through the courts. But others can't afford their own lawyer, or don't know the Division for Human Rights is a swamp.

Solution: Fund the thing so it works. Or get rid of it and stop sucking people into the muck.

Ms. Anderson was one of the lucky ones.

"I felt like an ornament that had been left on a shelf," said Ms. Anderson. "But I stuck to my guns."

And stuck. And stuck.

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