It’s 4 PM, and the students at Jose De Diego Community Academy have gone home for the day. LAF staff and pro bono volunteers gather in a small cluster of rooms in the school’s basement, in what used to be the nurses office. On the third Wednesday of each month, this tight space serves as headquarters for the Katten De Diego Legal Clinic, a partnership between Katten Muchin Rosenman and LAF that provides free legal services to low-income residents of surrounding west Wicker Park (or east Humboldt Park, depending on who you ask).
But tonight is particularly special, as the clinic will be closing its doors for the summer months and reopening in September. The hearty team of volunteers from Katten include two new faces, but most are the usual suspects—like Alyse Sagalchik, an Associate at Katten and a winner of LAF’s 2017 volunteer of the year award. “It’s a unique opportunity to do what I see as a moral obligation as lawyers—to dedicate our time and resources to help people who otherwise wouldn’t have legal representation,” she says. “It’s doing good for other people, but I also feel good doing it.”
The thermostat reads 83° and with only eight chairs, the waiting room is full before the clinic officially opens at 4:30. Keith Forrest, Litigation Paralegal Supervisor at Katten and one of the volunteers who helped open the clinic in April 2013, assigns volunteers to each of the four small offices (formerly examination rooms) where they meet one-on-one with clients. “The volume of clients we’re seeing has gone up. But we’ve learned to be more efficient, and gotten better at knowing what questions to ask,” says Jonathan Baum, Katten’s Director of Pro Bono Services and long-time volunteer at the clinic. “It’s my home away from home—I love this place.”
In another small room just off the waiting room area, volunteers process intake forms and consult with each other on cases. “It’s neat to see attorneys from the private sector come out to do this kind of work—not because they have to, but because they want to,” says Dana Harbaugh, AmeriCorps VISTA Attorney in charge of coordinating LAF’s legal clinics. Jared Heck, a Partner at Katten who specializes in healthcare litigation and a longtime member of LAF’s Young Professionals Board, is a prime example. “You can actually see and feel the difference that you’re making,” he says.
By 7 PM, the flurry of activity has slowed and the group prepares to close up shop for the season. The steadfast team of volunteers saw 16 clients in total. Katten will be taking on a number of their cases pro bono, even as the clinic is dark over the summer. With Katten’s pro bono volunteers and financial support, LAF will continue to provide the families of the Jose De Diego Academy and their neighbors with legal solutions to their civil problems.
Imagine you’re unemployed and get your driver’s license suspended due to parking tickets you can’t afford to pay—will you be able to find another job without a valid license? What if your credit score tanked from a fraudulent car loan? How about if you were arrested back in high school, but don’t know how to get it expunged—will that prevent you from finding employment? For job seekers living in poverty, finding work is about more than just availability of jobs. “There are a number of legal issues that undermine people’s ability to support themselves and lead stable, productive lives,” says Miguel Keberlein, Director of LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group. “It’s hard to tell people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, if they don’t even have any boots.”
In partnership with National Able Network, LAF‘s Ready to Work (R2W) program is a newly funded initiative by the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois that helps remove legal barriers that keep people from getting and keeping a job, with the goal of helping them get back to work. LAF’s R2W team consists of attorneys, paralegals, and a social worker who connects clients with resources outside of LAF that may help them find further stability. “We’re trying to provide a holistic approach in how we serve our clients,” said Lilian Lepe, LAF’s lead paralegal for R2W.
LAF staff are stationed at the Chicago Workforce Center in Pilsen—home to National Able, Easter Seals and a number of other workforce development agencies—on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. To help caseworkers identify legal issues their clients may be facing, LAF developed a comprehensive screening tool and provided a number of trainings about the legal issues that lead to employment instability. As an established community workforce center that already offers a wide range of employment services, it’s the perfect home for R2W. “Creating job stability is a mosaic,” says Jonathan DeLozano, LAF’s lead attorney for R2W. “Legal aid is just one tile in that mosaic.”
Moving forward, LAF hopes to expand R2W by partnering with other workforce development agencies throughout Chicago. “By expanding the breadth of our work so we can reach more populations in more areas of the city, we hope to be able to reach as many people as we can,” Jonathan says.
In 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.”
LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group hosted its 2nd Annual Modern-Day American Worker Conference: Enforcing Workers’ Rights in Changing Times held at Chicago-Kent College of Law on Friday, March 24. For the second year, the Conference was generously sponsored by the Polk Bros Foundation and hosted close to 70 participants. A variety of attorneys and advocates discussed a wide range of topics affecting low-wage workers and immigrants in Illinois, including discrimination in temporary work agencies, the psycho-social impacts of wage theft and sexual assault, and document abuse. With LAF attorneys as moderators, panelists included legal experts such as Pablo Godoy, Trial Attorney with the US Department of Justice’s Immigrant and Employee Rights Section, and Healing to Action Co-Founder Sheerine Alemzadeh. Attendees included officials from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, in addition to immigration and employment law attorneys, law students, and community-based organizations assisting victims of human trafficking and low-wage workers.
Speakers throughout the day touched on some of the key legal issues impacting migrant workers’ rights in Illinois, as well as how they manifest in our modern legal system. The Conference’s opening lecturer was Sheila Maddali, the Co-Director of Restaurant Opportunities Center, who discussed the legal rights of restaurant workers and her agency’s work on their behalf. Ms. Alemzadeh, along with Professor Jacob Lesniewski of Dominican University and Arturo Carillo of St. Anthony’s Wellness Program discussed recent research on the psycho-social impact of wage theft on workers. In the afternoon, LAF’s Miguel Keberlein, Director of the Immigration and Workers’ Rights Practice Group, discussed vulnerabilities of low-wage agricultural workers, who have explaining how these workers have always been exempt from overtime pay standards, unlike all other sectors. Another panel, with attorney Godoy, the Regional Director of the NLRB, attorney Kalman Resnick and Raise the Floor Director Lydia Colunga discussed document abuse discrimination and remedies for workers. As the closing panelists, Miguel and former LAF attorney Jose Alonso, shared googlemapping tools they use to identify and track places where migrant workers live and work in order to create effective outreach to workers in rural Illinois. These tools make it easier to find and keep track of migrant workers, who are often socially and geographically isolated, in order to intervene and advocate on behalf of exploited and vulnerable workers throughout Illinois.
Thanks to everyone who was able to join LAF for these enlightening discussions. Special thanks to our community partners for coming together to share information and resources. These efforts will continue to build collaborative relationships between LAF and other stakeholders in the effort to enforce workers’ rights in our communities.