Civil Legal Assistance for Survivors of Sexual Assault

Blog Post photo - SA BBRTIn 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.”

Heartwarming Card from Client

In this charged political climate, it’s hard sometimes to remember the everyday impact of our work at LAF.  We can get caught up talking about the impact proposed funding cuts would have on our agency or the impact proposed policies would have on our clients.  But what LAF does every day has nothing to do with politics.  Every day we work to make a difference in peoples’ lives, one client at a time.

And often, it’s those clients who break through that fog of distractions and remind us about the core of our mission.  A few days ago, Karen Doran, a Staff Attorney in our Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, got a card from a client that did just that.  The client had been unfairly denied unemployment benefits and was facing all sorts of financial problems.  Karen’s advocacy won her the benefits to which she was entitled.  Karen was just doing her job, but the client’s effusive gratitude is a ringing reminder of the real impact LAF’s work can have in a client’s life.  She sent the following note in a card to Karen:

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February eNewsletter

The winds of political change have swept over the country, and word of massive change in programs like Medicaid, Food Stamps, and the Affordable Care Act is in the air.  Immigrant families are terrified of being caught up in mass deportations.  Funding for even the Legal Service Corporation itself is at risk – which would slash LAF’s budget nearly in half.
No one can predict the outcome of the political debate, but it certainly looks as if, in the words of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, “a hard rain’s gonna fall” on people who have very little shelter from the storm.

Let’s Do Lunch: “Understanding Human Trafficking”

trafficking-brownbagEarlier 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 tsap@lafchicago.org.

A Right to Education for Isaiah

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.

Amy Martin Stands for…Stability

This year, we’re celebrating LAF’s 50th anniversary! To wrap up our big year, we’re celebrating our outstanding staff and volunteers. Keep up with our blog throughout the month of December to get a look at some of the dedicated people who make up LAF and all that it stands for.

“Without a safety net to rely on if something goes wrong, your life can become very chaotic and start to unravel,” says Amy Martin, a Staff Attorney in LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group. “LAF helps maintain a safety net for individuals and families in difficult situations – whether it’s representing a domestic violence survivor seeking protection, defending low wage workers experiencing wage theft or other workplace abuse, preventing an eviction that would result in homelessness, or preventing the loss of public benefits or utility services that keep families afloat.  These are just a few examples.”

She recalls a married couple she worked with who came to the US with temporary visas. They accepted jobs at a local restaurant under their employer’s false promise to help them obtain permanent citizenship. For several months, they worked long hours for almost nothing, experienced constant threats and verbal abuse, and were forced to live in a crowded, dirty apartment with other workers from the restaurant. They felt trapped because their employer had taken their passport and other immigrant documents. As the expiration of their temporary visas drew closer, their anxiety levels intensified. When the husband ultimately confronted their employer, he was badly assaulted. With LAF on their side, they were able to obtain visas allowing them to remain in the U.S. legally and eventually pursue a green card. LAF also helped them report the trafficking crime to law enforcement and connect them with a pro bono attorney to pursue a case for civil damages.

“It was a very traumatic situation for them, but because we were able to get them legal status, they’ve become a lot more stable. They’ve been able to access health insurance, find work and permanent housing, and now have the means to better care for their young daughter, Amy says. Their legal status also empowered them to work with law enforcement in its investigation of their trafficker, thereby supporting nationwide efforts to combat human trafficking. Even with dedicated attorneys like Amy on the case, Cook County remains a national hub for human trafficking, including both U.S. citizen and foreign national victims. With the added uncertainty surrounding immigration policy in the years to come, LAF’s immigrant clients may face even greater  challenges. “There’s a lot of fear out there right now and a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen… We’re moving forward with our cases and telling clients that we just have to wait and see what happens. But it’s hard—it’s not an easy thing to do.”

Individual contributions enable LAF attorneys to fight for exploited immigrants and migrant workers, providing some stability to those who need it most. Make your tax-deductible donation for 2016 to LAF at www.lafchicago.org.