Jerry and LAF Wynn a big victory!

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.

BR1_0580A 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!

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September eNewsletter, ICJIA Grant, and Comprehensive Services

GPruz2When LAF secured a new $900,000 grant to fund comprehensive legal services for victims and survivors of abuse, there was a clear choice for who would lead the team: Gloria Pruzan. An attorney at LAF since 1979, she is now a Supervisory Attorney in LAF’s Public Benefits practice group.  Gloria will willingly explain, however, that the work she specializes in could just as easily fall into the Consumer practice group or the Children & Families group. Comprehensive services is what she’s been doing for years (proof: she is pictured here with the original sign from the southside neighborhood office from the ’70’s.).
This new Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) grant will enable LAF to assist victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking, and financial exploitation, many of whom have multiple interconnected legal issues. For example, leaving an abuser means more than getting an order of protection – to truly begin a new life a woman often needs a divorce, child support, and/or immigration help. She may also need food stamps and health insurance and special education services for her children. “We’re sort of a one-stop shop because clients can have more than one type of legal problem, and just a family law attorney can’t get them the public benefits help they need. But this grant allows us to really embrace that comprehensive work,” Gloria explains. This new grant funds 19 different LAF staff members across every Practice Group, to work together to provide those comprehensive services. It also helps LAF connect with 8 other Domestic Violence agencies around the county, which refer victims and survivors to LAF for help with their legal issues.
In addition to the new ICJIA grant-funded programs, Gloria also supervises the City Enrollment Paralegal Project. LAF staffs four paralegal desks in the offices of the City Department of Family Support Services. They help enroll people in Department of Human Services programs, like Medicaid, food stamps, and temporary cash assistance.  The paralegals also help people with their regular redeterminations of eligibility – a complicated paperwork renewal process, which you can read about in James’ story at right.  “That’s what’s so great about the enrollment paralegals,” Gloria explained.  “If you get a form to redetermine your enrollment and you don’t understand it, there’s someone there to help you understand, interpret it, fill it out, and fax it in for you.  Sometimes just that last challenge is the hardest one.” And these paralegals are on the ground, LAF’s eyes and ears into systemic problems – often as simple as correcting listed office hours or clarifying sign-in sheets and forms.
“People living in poverty face challenges in everyday life and don’t have the financial cushion that helps the rest of us with facing those challenges,” Gloria points out.  “If we can help someone with a challenge that’s threatening their food, health, or income, that’s a good thing.  Living in poverty doesn’t enable you to easily handle challenges that arise.”  This new grant, along with Gloria’s expertise, will help more people to handle all their legal challenges.

Ombudsmen Serve as Nursing Home Residents’ Best Allies

BR1_0522When 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.

 

 

Executive Director Introductions and June eNewsletter

At LAF’s Annual Luncheon two weeks ago, over 500 people celebrated the impact of LAF’s work in our community. We honored Kelly McNamara Corley of Discover Financial Services for her dedication to pro bono services for people living in poverty, and Dennericka Brooks for her passion and commitment to our clients. We also heard from Lynkisza Sweezy, a former client whose housing is now stable and whose children are able to excel because of LAF’s help. Finally, we recognized Executive Director Diana White’s retirement, after 20 years of dedicated service to LAF and to our clients. If you would like to make a contribution in Diana’s honor, you can donate to LAF here.
And now we move on to the future of LAF. Diana officially retired at the end of June, and I am humbled and honored to take the reins of LAF as Acting Executive Director until John Gallo can take over full time by October. You can read more about Diana and John in this month’s eNewsletter. The face of LAF may change, but our work, providing the highest-quality civil legal services to people living in poverty across Chicagoland, will remain the same as ever.
Best,
Katherine W. Shank
LAF Director of Volunteer Services
and Interim Executive Director

Celebrating Diana White

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Ask Diana White about her career and leadership at LAF, and she’ll regale you with stories of strategic plans, office moves, the world’s slowest PhD, labor strikes, broken bones, inspiring clients, book recommendations, and at least as many questions about your life as you can ask about hers.

It was early 1997 when Diana, then a partner at Jenner & Block, had been thinking about a career change and talking to people in various nonprofits, when she came across an ad in the National Law Journal seeking a new Deputy Director at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago. She sent her application to Sheldon Roodman, LAF’s Executive Director at the time. “He called me the day it hit his desk,” she quips.

When Diana started that March, she understood the urgency. Federal funding for legal aid had been cut by more than 25% the previous year, and a number of experienced poverty lawyers had left LAF. Only three weeks into the job, negotiations between LAF union and LAF management broke down. Diana’s job was to make sure that all LAF’s cases got covered during what became LAF’s biggest and longest strike to date. “I knew nothing about poverty law,” she admits. “I could just about keep Medicare and Medicaid straight, if I was reminded.”

But with help from her seasoned colleagues, she was a quick study. Charged with overseeing LAF’s special projects — which at the time included Housing, Immigration, Children, Adult SSI, Public Benefits, and Migrant Workers — Diana had to learn about a wide range of poverty-law issues. But she did know about writing briefs, organizing trial teams, and conducting discovery. And she quickly developed a deeper understanding of poverty and the systemic injustices that foster it.

“I think most people have no real conception of what poverty does to people, or how completely constraining it is when you can’t see any way to improve your situation and there’s no one you can rely on to help you,” Diana says. She recalls a case she worked on with Rich Cozzola, now Director of the Children and Families Practice Group, during her first few years at LAF. Their client, who we’ll call ‘James,’ had a daughter with a woman who turned out to be a prostitute. The mother disappeared one day, having sold the baby to a crooked lawyer — now disbarred — who arranged her adoption by an affluent family in Florida. James was unemployed and living on the south side of Chicago, and the adoption had been done quickly and without his knowledge.  At trial, the judge concluded that James was a fine father, but that his child would have a much better life if she stayed with the family in Florida. LAF and James knew they had to appeal, but that process could take years — and James’ daughter might not even know him by the time the appeal was over.

“I remember thinking, how do we get him down there, so he can at least have visits? I didn’t know what to do,” Diana recounts. But James was determined to be with his daughter, and managed to save up enough money for a bus ticket to Florida where he stayed with his uncle and got a job working the night shift at a factory. They won the appeal, and James was able to be part of his daughter’s early childhood and eventually bring her home, thanks to his hard work and tenacity and Diana’s inexhaustible dedication to his case.

“Those are the sorts of things people don’t realize — the impossible choices people in poverty are faced with.  They’ll say, how could someone have made that decision which, in hindsight, looks like a mistake?  How could you have spent your rent money on textbooks for your oldest child, the first in the family to go to college? Well… how can you not?”

After ten years of working with remarkable clients like James, Diana began her decade-long tenure as LAF’s Executive Director in 2007. “There were so many things I wanted to do — not glamorous, but practical things. And this was my chance to do them,” she explains.

One of her first acts in her new role was to enlist a consultant to develop a strategic plan for LAF. At the time, LAF had a central office, but most staff worked in offices located in various neighborhoods throughout the city. After surveying staff from each of the neighborhood offices, it became clear that LAF needed to centralize its intake. “Because the neighborhood offices were so small, if someone wasn’t there, they just didn’t function. And staff from different offices weren’t communicating much with each other,” Diana explains. “So I thought, here’s a piece I can fix.”  At the end of 2011 LAF moved to a central office and restructured into the five practice groups we have today. “Once people got down here, they enjoyed the chance to brainstorm and collaborate. The quality of the practice improved a lot.” Under Diana’s leadership, LAF also formed the Community Engagement Unit, which helps LAF maintain its presence within various communities after the neighborhood offices closed.

Another challenge Diana faced head on was the changing nature of legal aid funding.  Because of recurrent cuts in government funding for legal aid — at the local, state and federal levels —LAF needed financial support from individuals, law firms, and corporations in order to keep its doors open. Thanks to Diana’s leadership, LAF has built a strong donor base, particularly in the Chicago legal community. “Chicago has this amazing civic pride,” she says. “I’ve lived in a lot of cities, but it’s really something here.” She sees LAF’s next big challenge as reaching people outside the legal community — helping them understand civil legal aid and its importance in fighting poverty and building stronger communities everywhere.

After 20 years of dedicated service at LAF, Diana looks forward to retirement with enthusiasm and welcomes incoming Executive Director John Gallo. Up next for Diana? Gardening, reading, volunteering at LAF’s Woodlawn Legal Clinic, traveling, and maybe even taking up the piano again. We are deeply grateful for Diana’s leadership and wish her a stress-free, well-deserved retirement.

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day

Today, the UN recognizes World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. According to their research, as many as 10% of older people globally may experience some kind of financial exploitation. Such abuse often goes unreported, due to shame and embarrassment on the part of the victims or their inability to report it. Advocates at LAF work every day on behalf of senior clients who have been taken advantage of, by family members, scheming contractors, or others, to protect their safety, homes, and savings. Many of those clients are like Francisco and Margareta.

Francisco and his wife Margareta are in their late 70’s and speak very little English. Last winter, they called a company to repair their furnace. A man named Jake from the company came out and agreed to fix the furnace for a price of $1,000. He had Francisco, who is nearly blind, sign a document that offered him a discount to the $1,000 rate. Francisco gave his credit card number, but Jake said that the credit card would not work, so Francisco gave a second credit card number. The next day, Jake and a few workers from his company came back out. They brought more documents and, folding the paper over so that only part was visible, insisted that Francisco sign again. This time the amount was blank. Francisco signed, and the workers went downstairs to begin work. A few minutes later, Margareta went downstairs to demand a copy of the document that her husband had signed. She was given a copy which showed a charge of $13,500. A few minutes later, she looked out the window and saw the workers loading their central AC unit onto their truck. This made no sense since the contract was merely to fix the heater. They also loaded the furnace on their truck. Frantic, Margareta called her daughter, who got on the phone with Jake and demanded that he stop all work. While Jake was on the phone with her, his workers drove off with the AC unit and furnace. They also charged $6,000.00 onto Francisco’s credit cards, and recorded a mechanics lien on the home for $13,500.

That’s when Margareta and Francisco came to LAF. LAF prepared for a serious legal battle, but Margareta and Francisco convinced LAF and Jake to settle before they went to court. They just wanted their house adequately heated. In the end, they received new heating and central AC units and repayments of most of the fraudulent credit card charges. Jake’s company was also forced to release the mechanic’s lien, so that Francisco and Margareta own their home again outright. Finally, their heat has been restored and, because of LAF’s help, all of the other trouble Jake’s company gave them is over.

Sometimes justice isn’t a long-fought legal battle. Sometimes it’s just holding contractors to the promises they make to their customers. LAF is here to make sure vulnerable seniors are protected and their homes, savings, and health are safe.