A Snapshot of the Woodlawn Legal Clinic and the Community that Made it Happen
Working in civil legal aid, you become accustomed to limited resources and occasional setbacks. With only 15 minutes before the Woodlawn Legal Clinic opens for clients, the internet vanishes and the staff is hard-pressed to find it. While Haleigh Haffner, an AmeriCorps VISTA in LAF’s Children and Families Practice Group, makes calls for technical assistance, Regina Hernandez, a VISTA Attorney at LAF and the key figure behind the clinic, begins pondering Plans B and C out loud. No internet means squinting at the small screen of Regina’s cell phone and, once the clinic finishes, potential overtime creating client profiles in LAF’s case database. When Haleigh hangs up without good news, Regina plugs in a small desk fan (“It gets hot in here.”), and settles in at one of the tables in a secluded area that she calls the “war room.” With piles of advice on everything from eviction to domestic violence, a box of sandwiches, and plenty of chairs for attorneys to sit and strategize on behalf of their clients, it looks like the first line of defense on what will become a legal battlefield. “We can’t let this [setback] affect the people out there who need our help,” she gestures to those lining up in the waiting room. “The important thing is that the people here are seen and served. We’ll make it work.”
The Woodlawn Legal Clinic began 6 years ago through the partnership of LAF, DLA Piper, and the AKArama foundation, the oldest Greek-letter organization established by college educated African American women. On the second Wednesday of every month, attorneys and volunteers set up a low-budget mobile law firm at AKArama’s Theta Omega Chapter community center in Hyde Park and make their expertise available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Since its conception, Woodlawn has served 875 clients, an average of about 30 people each month. However, this February’s clinic saw a record 50 clients. “This is the most we’ve ever had,” Regina is wide-eyed as Kalin O’Connor, the VISTA Volunteer Coordinator at LAF, delivers yet another pile of intake forms to her makeshift desk. She’s not entirely surprised though. There’s been a concerted effort to spread the word, an initiative that’s ramped up recently with partnerships with other community organizations.
As the night progresses, the chairs in the waiting room fill up and so do the stations in the interview space where clients discuss their legal problem with an attorney. The staff is always in motion, dashing back and forth between interviews and the war room, shaking hands with clients they’ve helped and calling the names of the next in line. To someone just stepping into the building it might look like chaos, but there’s a rhythm to it. Regina’s fan makes a lot of sense. The check-in table has become crowded with new clients, each guided through the check-in process by one of the dedicated volunteers. As the first point of contact for clients at the clinic, these volunteers answer initial questions and smooth out initial anxieties. “People come in with a lot of issues, some from a very emotional place. They represent out there,” Ruth Slaughter, Director of Corporate & Community Relations at AKArama’s Theta Omega Chapter, points outside. “We keep that in mind and work to meet them where they’re at.”
Meeting people where they’re at sums up Woodlawn Legal Clinic’s origin story. Its founders saw that people in legal need were often unable to make the trip to their offices for counsel, so they decided to bring the counsel to them. “For a few years now, pro bono resources have been shrinking,” Annie Geraghty Helms, DLA Piper’s Director and Counsel for Pro Bono Programs, told the ABA Journal. “We have a responsibility, a real call to action to work together.” Working with AKArama and LAF, Annie conceptualized the clinic as a project built from community. “More and more, what I’ve seen from the leadership of corporate clients and in the firm world is this recognition that we are all lawyers and in it together.”
She is not alone in her belief. The volunteers dedicating their time to Woodlawn come from LAF and DLA Piper, as well as Chicago law schools and legal departments of companies like Hyatt and Discover Financial Services. This allows volunteers to serve clients in teams, each member contributing their own set of skills while also creating an educational experience for all. Often the legal intervention is brief (a sternly worded phone call from an attorney to an unfair landlord is sometimes all that’s needed to set things straight), but when the cases get more complex volunteers will establish a plan of action with LAF staff. In true legal aid fashion, the system is effective because no resource is left untapped. A volunteer attorney may practice divorce law by day, but at the clinic they may suddenly need to advise a client struggling to attain much-needed Public Benefits. “It’s really a testament to the fact that lawyers, no matter their legal field, are valuable as attorneys,” explains Gwen Hickey, a VISTA in the External Relations Department at LAF and first time volunteer at the clinic. “With the guidance of LAF staff, they can use their training and license to do great work for clients outside of their practice area.”
At the end of the evening, there are still clients being interviewed; one, who came in after the cut-off time, was given an appointment at the Jose de Diego Clinic, a partnership between LAF and Katten Muchin Rosenman. Dennericka Brooks, a senior attorney in LAF’s Housing Practice Group who’s been at Woodlawn since its beginning, is still discussing a case (“She’s notorious for taking on clients, even when she is already at her limit with case work,” Regina says.) and first time volunteers are already talking about next month. “This is grassroots,” Bertina Power-Stewart, President of the Theta Omega Chapter, grins and spreads her arms to show the bustling AKArama center. “This comes from the community.”
Earlier this week, LAF hosted its first Brownbag Roundtable of 2017, featuring Staff Attorney Amy Martin and Supervisory Attorney Lisa Palumbo from LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group. With sixty minutes and an attentive crowd, they shed light on the global issue of human trafficking—a form of modern slavery that can include sexual exploitation, forced labor, or both.
Through force, fraud, and coercion, traffickers prey on the socially and economically vulnerable. In the United States, false promises of employment or citizenship lure immigrants on temporary visas—though many trafficking victims are U.S. citizens. “One of the common misconceptions is that they’ve been brought from abroad,” Lisa explains. “But that’s not always the case.”
The number of labor trafficking cases reported in the United States increased last year, likely due to outreach efforts and a rising level of public awareness. Still, human trafficking remains a vastly underreported crime. Those particularly vulnerable often lack a social safety net and familiarity with their legal rights. Moreover, they’re often socially and geographically isolated, living in fear of retaliation from their traffickers.
LAF launched the Trafficking Survivors’ Assistance Program (TSAP) in 2014 to combat human trafficking in Illinois. Through TSAP, LAF provides comprehensive legal services—including assistance with issues like immigration, employment, public benefits, and housing—to about 200 trafficking survivors each year.
Amy described one such former client named James, a talented athlete who was recruited in Nigeria at the age of 14 to play basketball in the United States. Upon James’ arrival, his trafficker forced him to sleep on the floor of this garage, withheld food and water as a means to control him, and refused to let him tell his family about what was really going on. Unbeknownst to James, his trafficker was meanwhile accepting thousands of dollars in gifts from athletic recruiters on his behalf. When James found LAF, they were able to help him obtain a T visa—a type of visa reserved for victims of trafficking—empowering him to reclaim his autonomy and get his life back on track.
Thanks to all who were able to join us for this illuminating discussion. For those who weren’t, feel free send any questions or requests for more information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
LAF’s Education Law team are a quiet group, but they are dedicated champions for the rights of children. They work every day to demand that children in Chicago’s public schools – including charter schools – receive the quality education they deserve. Members of the Ed Law team recently shared the story of Isaiah, a student for whom LAF’s services ensured he can succeed in a supportive school environment.
After his kindergarten year, Isaiah’s neighborhood public school was closed by the district. His mother enrolled him in a charter school for the next year, and requested an evaluation for special education services to help with some emerging behavioral issues related to his diagnosis of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). She received no response. In a new environment and with no support, six-year-old Isaiah’s behavior only got more disruptive and dangerous. The school held multiple conferences with his mother, but never began an evaluation for special education services for the first grader. The charter school ignored every warning sign that Isaiah had a disability and needed special education help. Instead, the school repeatedly called emergency mental health support services from the State, which ended up sending him to three different psychiatric hospitals in four months, and they refused to let him return to school.
That’s when Isaiah’s family came to LAF for help. LAF’s attorneys filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which sided with Isaiah on every count: the charter school had failed to identify Isaiah’s need for special education services, and failed to provide the special education services that Isaiah had every right to receive due to his disability. OCR ordered a full independent evaluation that resulted in a robust individualized education program (IEP) for Isaiah and required that he attend a specialized special education school focused on emotional disabilities. OCR also required the staff at his old charter school be educated on the laws surrounding special education..
Two years later, Isaiah is in third grade at his specialized school. Just last week, Isaiah’s mom called LAF and shared that he made the honor roll. He is doing well in school, his behavioral issues are under control, and he is thriving. Hopefully, he will be able to transition to a neighborhood school soon. LAF is proud of the progress Isaiah has made in the new supportive environment he is entitled to have. We are committed to standing up for the rights of all students with disabilities in our education system, and to ensuring that everyone has a fair chance to succeed in school.