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.