Last week, the Young Professionals Boards of LAF and the Family Defense Center (FDC) co-hosted a panel discussion on domestic violence (DV) and family law at the University of Chicago Law School. Moderated by FDC Staff Attorney Líadan Donnelly, the panel included LAF Staff Attorney Teresa Sullivan, former LAF attorney Elise Tincher who now works as Chicago Pro Bono Counsel at Kirkland & Ellis, and Ashley Parr, an associate at Barnes & Thornburg who recently represented a survivor of domestic violence in an important pro bono case with FDC.
Ashley’s client was a young mother and survivor of DV charged with neglect for endangering her child by being in an abusive relationship. Their child had never been subjected to his abuse, but the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) found both parents equally responsible for creating a dangerous environment and charged them both with neglect. Ashley and FDC got involved and represented the mother in her appeals hearing. “DCFS argued their neglect finding was appropriate because she didn’t move out immediately, didn’t do enough to keep her child safe,” Ashley explains. But she had been looking for work, calling shelters, going to police stations to get information on obtaining an Order of Protection—all of which are measures she took to keep her child safe. “Their finding of neglect would just ensure she has a more difficult time providing for her child on her own,” says Ashley. The judge agreed, overturning DCFS’ finding of neglect and removing it from the young mom’s record. In her decision, the judge incorporated many of the actions their client took that Ashley’s team identified as precautionary measures, meaning survivors blamed for neglect can rely on them as evidence in future cases.
For most people with any understanding of DV issues, punishing the survivor for not being able to break free from abuse seems entirely backwards. “Something I hear a lot from clients is, ‘I was so happy when DCFS showed up at my door—I thought they were going to help me. But I’m never calling the police again because now I might lose custody of my kids’,” Líadan says. “If the judge doesn’t understand the dynamics of DV and the fact that it’s a cycle, they might say, ‘you should have left immediately’ or you should have done this or that—which is we we’re trying more and more to bring in DV experts who can explain these dynamics to the judges.”
That’s why private firms, legal aid organizations, and advocacy groups have been on the front lines fighting to change how we protect survivors. In fact, Illinois recently replaced a DCFS rule known as Allegation 60, which criminalized survivors to an even greater extent. Kirkland & Ellis was one group at the helm of that advocacy work. “We had close to 50 of our attorneys from 7 different offices working on a 50-state survey to assist with changing Allegation 60 and getting better support for survivors of DV through the DCFS process,” says Elise. The new rule took effect in 2014 and requires DCFS to demonstrate that a parent blatantly disregarded their duty to protect their child by failing to take “reasonable precautionary measures,” like those that Ashley’s client took while she was fighting to break free from abuse.
And while it’s easy to forget, the Illinois Domestic Violence Act is actually one of best DV laws in the country—it provides survivors exclusive possession of their residence and charges police officers with an “affirmative duty” to help them when presented with domestic violence situations. In fact, LAF recently filed an amicus brief for a case in which police officers failed to carry out that duty when a victim’s son called the police for help. “All the police did was ask one question: are you scared? She didn’t respond, so they didn’t offer to take her to get an OP or connect her with any resources,” Teresa explains. The trial court essentially held that because the son didn’t use the magic words ‘domestic violence,’ police didn’t have an affirmative duty to offer her help. “But that affirmative duty is set up because DV victims tend not to self-identify. They often don’t affirmatively seek help,” Teresa says. “We think the law is set up appropriately but are advocating it be applied more universally, to help victims and survivors get the resources they need.”
Jerry Wynn had worked as a contractual program administrator with the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Chicago Healthy Start program for 13 years. During a routine audit of program funds, he uncovered a $100,000 payment he didn’t recognize, to a company where his boss had personal ties. He sent an email to the auditor and his superiors at the Department. His boss told him to stay quiet about it, but Jerry stuck to his guns and continued to work with the state auditors to investigate.
A few months later, Jerry’s boss unceremoniously terminated his contract. Jerry came to LAF, where a team of LAF attorneys and pro bono volunteers took his case. This team convinced the courts that Jerry’s firing was directly related to his reporting the improper payment to the auditor, and that he should be protected under whistleblower laws, which exist to ensure that employees can report wrongdoings without fearing retaliation.
The courts agreed, and Jerry was awarded a significant sum in back pay and interest, plus more than $160,000 in attorneys’ fees for LAF. “We’re pleased with the decision, which recognizes the importance of protecting whistleblowing employees from reprisal,” Miriam Hallbauer, an LAF attorney on Jerry’s team, told the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. This week, Jerry got his check.
Congratulations to Jerry, and to everyone at LAF (including Tim Huizenga and Matt Lango, pictured here with Jerry, as well as Jonathan DeLozano, Miriam Hallbauer, and volunteers Arthur Friedman and Susan Theiss) who helped fight for his protection and to clear his good name!
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.