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.

LAF Represents at Legal Aid Conference

 Earlier this month, most of LAF’s staff attended the 2017 Illinois Legal Aid Advocates Conference hosted by the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois. The two-day event is only put on every three years, and this year it was held at the McCormick Place in downtown Chicago. The conference gave our staff the chance to learn new things, meet new colleagues and reconnect with old ones, and renew their commitment to serving our most vulnerable populations. The guest speakers encouraged attendees to recognize inherent racial biases and remember the importance of the work. Many LAF attorneys led break out sessions and were featured panel speakers, which covered all legal areas our organization handles.

LAF Advocates for Survivors of Domestic Violence, Propelling Supreme Court Victory

Fifteen years ago, Matthew Gray was dating a woman. Four years ago, after having been broken up for over a decade, he stabbed her, and was found guilty of domestic battery. On appeal, he successfully challenged the constitutionality of the Illinois Domestic Violence Act (IDVA) as it applied to his relationship with the victim, since they hadn’t dated for a number of years and were “just friends” at the time he attacked her. In essence, his argument was that because they were not currently dating, he should only be guilty of battery, not domestic battery, which is a more serious charge.

illinoisWhen the case made its way to the Illinois Supreme Court, LAF authored an amicus brief in partnership with pro bono attorneys from Dentons LLP, arguing that the Illinois legislature has intentionally continued to broaden the scope of protection for domestic violence survivors under the IDVA over the past 30 years, and that “the definition of a dating relationship under the IDVA should not be construed to restrict access to the legal system.”

The Illinois Supreme Court agreed in a unanimous decision issued on Friday, reversing the appellate court’s judgment and upholding the current, broad definition of a dating relationship. “This is an important decision because it upholds the constitutionality of the IDVA and protects survivors of domestic violence seeking Orders of Protection from former intimate partners, regardless of when the dating relationship ended,” says Jennifer Payne, Supervisory Attorney in LAF’s Children and Families Practice Group.

Whether it’s representing individual clients or advocacy on a broader scale, LAF is proud to be on the front lines fighting for survivors of domestic violence.

Racial Justice and August eNewsletter

In the wake of Ferguson and Flint, many people struggled with how to respond to systemic racial issues in our society.  At LAF, however, the Civil Rights task force had already begun those conversations. LAF has several task forces which bring together attorneys, paralegals, and other staff from across the organization to ensure that the work of LAF touches on issues wider than that of each practice group, and that discussions of issues that affect our clients are ongoing in all areas of our work.
$RWTSE7TThe Civil Rights task force focuses on many issues, including racial justice. “You can look at all our work as race equity work,” Alice Setrini explained.  “All poverty law is racial justice work.” Alice was a member of the second cohort of the Racial Justice Training Institute through the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. There, she learned from her peers about using civil legal aid to combat racism, and looking at poverty law through a lens of racial justice. From those trainings, she and the task force developed initiatives at LAF to train the rest of the staff on racial justice issues.
They worked to build a safe space group that looks internally at LAF and our organization culture, to build a space where people can be comfortable asking difficult questions, really connecting with people from different backgrounds, and grappling with their own internalized racism.  These issues come up all the time in the work of legal aid, and it’s important to Alice to know that the place she works is trying to combat racism. “It’s not enough to be just race-neutral. We have to be actively engaging with the struggle.”  They also developed a series of trainings for LAF’s staff, from attorneys and paralegals to computer specialists and accountants, on implicit bias and structural racism. They worked to educate everyone on staff about how their day-to-day work aligns with the organization’s mission and goals, and how that mission fits into a wider social context. The next training Alice and the task force hope to create will help LAF’s staff think critically about LAF’s intake and case acceptance process, how we interact with clients, and taking accountability for what we represent to the community.  Alice hopes it opens people up to the work they’re doing from a different perspective.
The Civil Rights Task Force doesn’t want all of their efforts to be internal, however, so they’ve also begun a recurring series on LAF’s blog, about systemic racism and its impact.  You can read their The Elephant in the Room series here.
Alice’s work with medical-legal partnerships, which you can learn more about in this month’s eNewsletter, is another tool in her arsenal to help her approach this work, and allows her to engage with the systems that keep people in poverty. “The way poverty has been so racialized in this country, it all becomes racial justice issue,” she explained. “I wish people would challenge that and think about the messages they hear and sometimes repeat.”

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