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.
LAF has appointed its new Executive Director, following the retirement of Diana White this summer. John Gallo, currently head of litigation at Sidley Austin LLP and former Assistant U.S. Attorney, is active in civic work in the Chicago area. Throughout his illustrious career, John has demonstrated a deep commitment to providing pro bono counsel to indigent criminal defendants and others in need. He has also served on the board (most recently as chair) of Horizons for Youth, a nonprofit that helps children living in poverty become the first ones in their families to prepare for, attend, and graduate from college.
“When the opportunity to join LAF presented itself, I recognized immediately that it would allow me to follow my passion to provide a voice for those in need while helping an incredibly deserving organization continue to grow,” John said. “I’ve always felt that, as a lawyer, I have a responsibility to use my skills to provide services to individuals that otherwise could not afford legal representation. It is an honor to be selected to lead the city’s preeminent provider of legal services to people living in poverty and other vulnerable groups.”
Diana White, who will retire as Executive Director on June 30, 2017, says, “John is a great lawyer. He is also a real leader, helping people on his team do their best, and most satisfying, work. John is friendly, open-minded, enthusiastic, and empathetic. LAF is lucky to have found him.”
John will take office at LAF in the early fall, and will spend the summer getting to know us, our clients, and our work. Until John arrives, Kate Shank will be LAF’s Acting Executive Director. We are excited to welcome John to LAF and look forward to all he will bring to our work providing free civil legal aid to people living in poverty across Chicagoland – and getting them back on their feet.
A full press release is available here.
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.
The Atlantic recently published a poignant, but problematic article from author Alex Tizon that details how his family enslaved a Filipino woman, forcing her into domestic servitude, for decades. Tinzon struggles to understand how and why his parents mistreated this woman, known to him as Lola, for years. It is a shocking confession of modern-day slavery in the United States. For many readers, this article exposed them to the insidious nature of human trafficking. Lola is a figure that is ever-present and always working; outsiders find it odd that she is always cooking and cleaning, yet they never are able to name what is happening to her. Human trafficking is evasive like that–it is a crime that occurs in almost all industries, but we find it hard to identify it because it is easier to believe that slavery no longer occurs in the United States. But human trafficking isn’t just a global problem, it’s a local one.
At LAF we combat both sex and labor trafficking through our Trafficking Survivors’ Assistance Program (TSAP). TSAP provides legal representation to human trafficking survivors from all over the world, including U.S. citizens, in a variety of legal areas. While our client demographics are diverse, many clients come from similar circumstances that left them susceptible to traffickers. Human trafficking survivors come from vulnerable populations: runaways, homeless youth, domestic violence victims, impoverished migrants, and other marginalized communities that make them not only easy targets for traffickers, but easier still for the general population to dismiss as “real” victims. This is why one of TSAP’s biggest and recurrent responsibilities is to convince law enforcement officials that our clients are in fact survivors of human trafficking eligible for various forms of legal remedies.
Failing to recognize survivors of human trafficking is an overarching problem. While victims come from all walks of life, people often have a set idea of what a real victim looks like. They may imagine a young White woman forced into sex work. While White women are trafficked, they are not the only ones targeted by traffickers. Women of color are also preyed upon and coerced into prostitution, yet they are more likely to be ignored and dismissed by those in charge with protecting survivors. This problem is argued in great detail by law professor Cheryl Nelson Butler in her article, The Racial Roots of Human Trafficking. Professor Butler argues that a major reason why the justice system fails to see women of color as victims is due to long-held stereotypes that perpetuate myths about their sexuality. This results in women of color being punished more harshly for prostitution rather than being offered assistance as human trafficking survivors. At LAF, we see the barriers placed before our client/survivors when they fail to meet the sex trafficking survivor prototype. We fight right alongside them to educate law enforcement and obtain the legal relief available to our clients.
Beyond sex trafficking, deep-seeded racial stereotypes facilitate labor trafficking. Certain social groups are stereotyped with being hard workers or submissive, which allows traffickers to abuse people under the guise of hard work. The power of racial stereotypes became evident in a recent trafficking case involving Chinese buffet restaurant workers. We represented some of the trafficking survivors who were primarily from Latin America. Various temp agencies placed our clients in restaurants after advertising that they had “honest” Mexicans available for work. The restaurant owners then worked our clients to exhaustion through physical and emotional abuse.
So while racial stereotypes may seem disconnected from human trafficking, the truth is that traffickers use all tools at their disposal to further their crime. Relying on the public’s implicit bias that certain groups don’t mind being “worked hard” or that other groups are hypersexualized works to the traffickers’ advantage. It makes the public question and dismiss whether a survivor is a “true” victim because they fail to meet a stereotypical standard. With over 20 million people trafficked globally, we know that people are trafficked from all walks of life. Yet, when we envision only one type of victim we do a disservice to all other survivors of human trafficking. Further, we embolden the trafficker who opts to victimize certain types of people believing that no one will care about their wellbeing.
LAF cares, and through TSAP we ensure that traffickers are held accountable; law enforcement protects all people; and our communities gain awareness to fight this ever-present problem.