As students across Chicago return to school amid uncertain funding and political turmoil, LAF’s Education Law Pro Bono Project continues to offer unwavering support for low-income students and their families. In fact, thanks to the Project’s new “clinical model” launched earlier this year, the team of 40 pro bono attorneys is a stronger force than ever before.
Originally designed as an email panel, LAF attorneys used to vet and interview potential clients, send out anonymous case summaries via email, and hope to get a response from volunteers that could take on cases that LAF’s limited staff couldn’t handle. The Project’s new model, launched earlier this year, replaced the email blast with an in-person, bi-monthly clinic that puts volunteer attorneys to work, and in touch with potential clients from the very beginning of each case.
“Meeting clients face-to-face and building a rapport with them upfront, volunteers are more likely to be willing to take on their case than they would reading a case summary over email,” says Calli Burnett, VISTA Attorney tasked with coordinating the Project and overseeing its transition.
The small but mighty team of volunteer attorneys are from private firms and solo practices throughout the city, and the cases they take on at the clinic range from discipline and expulsion to residency challenges, bullying, special education services, and even Title IX claims stemming from sexual assaults. “They come from all different types of practices but they all have this innate commitment to education or have personal experience dealing with education issues themselves,” Calli says.
Without legal representation, there are a number of barriers that tend to dissuade parents from demanding the services their children need, Calli explains. “If parents don’t know they can ask for certain services or don’t know the specific procedures in place they need to follow in order to get those services, then you end up with one more child not getting the services they need.”
And while they can’t take on every case that comes to the clinic, a large part of their work is simply educating parents on the rights associated with an Individualized Education Program, or IEP—a legally binding document that spells out the specific services an individual child needs. Getting a child an IEP, or making changes to an existing one, is by far the most common problem they see at the clinic.
Thanks to the Project’s new clinical model and its pro bono attorneys committed to helping parents get the services their children need, more Chicago students can reach their full potential than LAF ever could have handled alone. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback—volunteers like being face-to-face with clients and other attorneys, and they feel more supported by LAF. And that’s our goal.”
If you’re interested in volunteering at the Ed Law Pro Bono Clinic, please email Calli Burnett at email@example.com.
When Ralph came home from the hospital after a scheduled surgery, he was shocked to find he was being evicted from his nursing home. That nursing home was his home, and he had nowhere else to go if they kicked him out. With help from LAF’s ombudsman team who successfully argued that his “involuntary discharge” violated Medicaid regulations, he received a large settlement from the facility and was able to find another place to call home.
For people in long-term care, it can be a struggle just to understand what rights they have or where to go if they’ve been violated. “There’s a lot about the system that is difficult for anyone to understand, much less someone with mild dementia or someone recovering from a stroke,” says Suzanne Courtheoux, Regional Ombudsman for Lake County and Supervisory Attorney at LAF. That’s why her team includes 14 paralegals who spend at least three days each week visiting nursing homes and other long-term care facilities across Lake and Suburban Cook Counties to check in with residents, investigate complaints, and advocate on their behalf when necessary. “Even if some of what we do isn’t strictly ‘legal’ work, what we do as ombudsmen has a lot to do with what LAF as a whole does; we protect the rights of vulnerable residents,” she explains.
Since nursing homes represent one of the most heavily regulated industries, the job of ombudsmen often comes down to simply educating nursing home staff. For example, a nursing home might listen to the agent under Power of Attorney rather than the resident. “Just because you’re in a long-term care facility doesn’t mean you’ve lost the right to make your own decisions,” says Suzanne. “We have to come in and make sure they understand that the resident still gets to make that decision.”
They still deal with plenty of traditionally ‘legal’ issues, like Ralph’s involuntary discharge. In fact, nursing home evictions in Illinois have more than doubled in the last five years, and while there are perfectly good reasons for discharging a resident, understaffed facilities have been known to pressure residents—particularly those that require more staff time—to move, even if transferring facilities is not in their best interest. With a growing number of complaints that residents have been wrongly transferred to hospitals or homeless shelters and then refused readmission, ombudsmen are more important than ever in protecting residents’ rights, empowering them to make their own decisions, and assuring they receive the best possible quality of care and quality of life. Thanks to the efforts of Suzanne and LAF’s team of Ombudsmen, nursing home residents like Ralph are safer, more protected, and more in control of their lives.
Whether it’s living on food stamps while paying off law school debt, or expanding LAF’s Woodlawn Legal Clinic on Chicago’s south side, Regina Hernandez doesn’t shy away from a challenge.
When she first joined LAF through AmeriCorps VISTA–the domestic service program that connects idealists and change makers from all walks of life to nonprofits working to fight poverty–Woodlawn saw an average of 12-15 clients per clinic. Now one year later, the two-hour monthly clinic sees an average of almost 40 clients, largely thanks to Regina’s ingenuity.
“At first, I was a little nervous to change things. I was more concerned with making sure I was following everything the previous VISTA had set in place,” Regina says. But as she settled into her new role, she learned how to make it her own. “I stopped asking and started doing—and then asking, what do you think? How could it be improved? It just felt better to be proactive.”
And her enthusiasm paid off. For instance, one of LAF’s biggest struggles is its congested phone system, partly due to funding shortages that have cut the number of intake specialists by almost half. Help desks and clinics like Woodlawn help free up the phone lines, but the phone menu used vague language to describe them (something like, “If you’d like to hear about our community clinics, press 9”). Realizing many clients aren’t familiar with ‘clinics’ outside of a medical context, she worked to change the language to something more widely understood.
That small change led to an explosion of calls—from 10-15 a week to more than 200 in a month. “Always be respectful, always work within the parameters you’re given, but at the same time, if you think something could be improved and you’re willing to take that on, go for it,” she says.
She also changed a question about domestic violence on the clinic’s intake form. “We’d get a lot of clients at Woodlawn who’d come in for help with some other issue like help with their utilities. They may not be ready or able to address the domestic violence, but might want to address it in the future,” Regina explains. She added the definition of domestic violence in italics next to the question, along with a domestic violence hotline they could call in case they wanted to address the issue at another time or in a different setting.
Along with managing the Woodlawn clinic, she oversaw the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk, which has also seen considerable growth in recent months thanks to expanded hours, increased staffing, as well as Regina’s outreach efforts.
As her year of service came to a close last month, she accepted a permanent position as Staff Attorney in LAF’s Volunteer Services Unit. Thanks to Regina for her dedicated service as VISTA Attorney, and congratulations on her new position!
A child in public housing may be able to get treatment for her asthma, but her doctor can’t force her landlord to remove the black mold that’s causing it. Likewise, a lawyer can’t provide treatment for a senior living with cystic fibrosis, but she can fight to ensure his utilities stay on so he can keep his medications refrigerated. For people in poverty, legal issues can exacerbate health problems, and health issues can trigger legal problems.
To improve health outcomes and legal outcomes, both sides need to connect health care with patients’ broader social needs. To that end, health care providers and social service providers are teaming up to address the social determinants of health and poverty – such as income, housing, education, and employment, with Medical-legal partnerships. MLPs — the topic of LAF’s latest Brownbag Roundtable—are a prime example. In addition to helping patients and communities become healthier, MLPs reduce healthcare spending for high-need, high-use patients and improve reimbursement rates for clinical services, meaning that medical providers have more resources to help more people.
“As lawyers, we’re often frustrated that despite the best legal outcomes we can accomplish, our clients are still trapped in poverty because of chronic illness. Physicians and other medical providers we’ve talked to share that same frustration—that despite their best efforts, their patients are trapped in poor health because of factors beyond their control,” Trey Daly, Director of LAF’s Public Benefits Practice Group, explained at the Brownbag Roundtable last week. “MLPs bring together those two important roles in the lives of low-income Chicagoans, to find creative solutions that deal with both their legal and medical problems.”
The Health Justice Project, LAF’s flagship MLP, is a partnership between LAF, Erie Family Health Center, and Loyola University School of Law. “The providers at Erie understand social determinants of health, which makes them good at spotting legal issues, especially when a patient maybe didn’t even know their problem was a legal issue,” says Amelia Piazza, LAF’s MLP Project Coordinator. About half of the referrals come from doctors; while the rest come from a variety of other providers, including nurses, case managers, and behavioral health specialists. “We work to identify health-harming legal issues early, before they become critical. That way we can engage in preventative lawyering to help people stabilize their situation before they seek help through traditional means, after they’ve already lost their utilities or are facing eviction,” explains Alice Setrini, LAF’s MLP Supervisory Attorney.
Another perk of these partnerships is they enable LAF to reach populations that are harder to reach through traditional avenues. Of the clients that went through LAF’s regular intake process so far this year, only 7% speak Spanish as their preferred language—far less than the actual proportion of Spanish-speaking residents of Cook County. But since a large portion of Erie patients are Spanish speakers, more than 40% of patients they’ve referred this year speak Spanish as their preferred language.
LAF also hosts MLPs with Rush’s Road Home Program, a partnership with Rush’s Center for Veterans and their Families that aims to increase patient access to Veteran-specific public benefit, and partners with Howard Brown Health Clinic and Provident Hospital in efforts to bring legal aid to the traditionally underserved HIV/AIDS community on Chicago’s south side. LAF’s newest MLP, Health Forward/Salud Adelante, launched just this year. It’s an innovative partnership is with Cook County Health and Hospitals System and the Chicago Department of Public Health, and it started taking referrals in March.
Thanks to all who joined us for this informative presentation on MLPs at LAF, and how they are closing the health justice gap, one patient of a time.