In the latest edition of LAF’s Brownbag Roundtable series, LAF attorneys spoke yesterday about the Comprehensive Legal Assistance for Survivors Project (CLASP), a collaboration between LAF, Pillars, and YWCA Evanston/North Shore that offers comprehensive legal assistance to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.
“50% of sexual violence victims quit or are forced to leave their jobs in the year following their assault,” said Cynthia Sadkin, LAF’s Director of Client and Community Services. “A victim who knows her rights—and gets help to enforce them—has a better chance of keeping her job, her health insurance, and being able to pay the rent and keep utilities on.”
Sexual assault is traditionally addressed within a criminal context, or in the limited civil context of suing for damages—which is only viable if the perpetrator has money and the defendant has access to legal representation. But sexual assault is vastly underreported, undercharged, and rarely results in conviction—and when survivors do come forward, they’re too often left in limbo during a long investigatory process. In Cook County for example, it takes 4-6 months to get initial biological evidence results and a full year for the actual DNA analysis to be completed. In the meantime, survivors may be left with unaddressed safety concerns and trauma that impacts their stability—especially in cases of intimate partner sexual assault. “Given that upwards of 90% of victims know their abuser either intimately or casually, they have a whole other set of barriers when they’re looking for help,” explained Supervisory Attorney Neha Lall. “They’re less likely to report, more likely to blamed and more likely to be scrutinized.”
But through programs like CLASP, LAF is taking a more innovative approach: using civil legal remedies to keep survivors safe and address their needs. “This is a new conversation for civil legal service providers,” Neha said. “This has challenged us as a legal services agency to look beyond our traditional models that focused primarily on family law needs, and step up to address the many other civil legal needs of sexual assault victims.” Such needs range from access to Orders of Protection and safe housing, to time off work to address trauma through counseling.
“Our jobs as advocates is to help them understand that there are other forms of justice available on the civil legal side as well,” said Senior Attorney Nubia Willman. As part of LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, she works with sexual assault survivors who may be eligible for certain types of immigration relief like a U visa, available to victims of crimes that have cooperated with law enforcement. “These clients come to us in the midst of a crisis, concerned more about their immediate safety than their immigration status,” she noted. “My job is to present the big picture—to let them know they may be eligible for this remedy if they work with law enforcement. Because in the long term, getting stable immigration status will empower them to change the trajectory of their life in a substantial way.” With attorneys working together to help sexual assault survivors with such a wide range of legal matters, it’s clear where CLASP gets its name.
Staff Attorney Myka Held shared the story of former client Sarah, a high-school student who was sexually assaulted on her way home from school by a group of 13 boys, most of whom were classmates. After reporting the assault, she felt unsafe both at school and at home since some of her attackers lived nearby. Since Sarah lived in public housing, attorneys from LAF’s Housing Practice Group advocated for her family to be transferred to another neighborhood, while Myka and the Children & Families Practice Group focused on getting her back to school. They requested a safety transfer through the public school system and helped her get some accommodations in place, such as an escort between classes to make sure she feels safe. Unfortunately, Sarah’s new school failed to take her trauma or safety concerns seriously, so LAF advocated for her to be placed in a therapeutic day school that would better suit her needs. She was able to move into a new apartment and started at her new school earlier this year.
“But that wasn’t the end of our legal advocacy,” said Myka. “We felt the public school system had not handled her complaint with any sensitivity or care,” so LAF filed a Title IX complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which is now investigating Sarah’s former school district based on her case.
“One of the great things about CLASP is that we’re able to work closely not just with the attorneys we typically work, but also with attorneys from other practice groups,” said Staff Attorney Karen Doran. “It’s great to be able to collaborate that way.”
The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism. Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Recently the Sinai Urban Health Institute released the findings from its Sinai Community Health Survey 2.0. The study is the largest face-to-face public health survey ever conducted in Chicago. The Surveyors interviewed residents from nine different Chicago community areas, focusing on sixteen health-related topics, like obesity. The data revealed alarming and stark health inequities that exist between neighborhoods and demographic groups.
Researchers found health inequities in all sixteen health indicators, but non-Hispanic Black adults, as well as adults of Puerto Rican or Mexican origin, were most affected, with one in three reporting fair or poor health status. Females of Puerto Rican origin had the most physically unhealthy days in the past month at 8.4 days; adults of Puerto Rican origin reported an average of five or more mentally unhealthy days in the past month.
We often don’t realize that barriers to health are linked to other systemic and structural issues. For example, in North Lawndale, West Englewood, Humboldt Park, Chicago Lawn, and Gage Park, over half of female residents are obese. Those neighborhoods have fewer grocery stores that provide access to fresh, healthful food choices, and fewer parks and green spaces than the North Side neighborhood featured in the study. Residents in those neighborhoods have the highest levels of food insecurity, meaning they don’t have money for more expensive, perishable food choices.
Sinai also surveyed health insurance coverage and usage. Since insurance is the primary way people fund health care needs and expenses, the Affordable Care Act (2010) enabled millions of uninsured individuals to obtain coverage through the expansion of Medicaid and tax credits for marketplace plans. People with insurance are more likely to use health services for preventative care and more likely to have a “health care home”—a regular clinic or provider. This can lead to improved health outcomes and reduced overall health care costs. The study revealed a statistically significant difference in the percentage of adults without health insurance based on race or ethnic group. For example, adults of Mexican origin had an uninsured rate of 36%, compared to a rate of 8% for non-Hispanic White adults. The study also indicated that about one in six adults in Gage Park did not get needed medical care or surgery in the past year due to cost. The percentage by race shows that Non-Hispanic Black adults were most likely not to get medical care due to cost.
This kind of community-level data is valuable to get a snapshot of what is actually happening in the communities LAF serves, because City-wide data often masks the experience of people living in poverty in Chicago. Data like this helps us use our resources effectively and efficiently to address structural issues that keep people in poverty, and unhealthy, in Chicago.
For example, LAF participates in a Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP) with Erie Family Health Centers, which primarily serves Humboldt Park, West Town, and Lawndale, as well as the new Health Forward/Salud Adelante MLP, a collaboration with the Cook County Public Health System, which serves Garfield Park and Back of the Yards (adjacent to the surveyed neighborhoods). Many of our clients from these programs share demographic qualities with the subject of Sinai’s study: they are Puerto Rican or African-American, with physical disabilities and behavioral health challenges. Through these MLPs, where doctors refer clients with legal issues that affect their health, we are able to help treat their issues holistically. We help clients obtain medical insurance so they can get the full range of health care they need, enroll them in SNAP benefits so they can buy food, ensure they have adequate heat, and address hazardous living conditions that cause them and their children to suffer from asthma.
The work LAF is doing with our MLPs is targeting these very disparities and helping people get and stay healthy regardless of where they live.