Elephant in the Room: #MeToo

The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism.

We are in the midst of a watershed moment in how we respond to sexual harassment at work. The #MeToo movement has created a demand for predators to be held accountable for their actions. Survivors are no longer overly-scrutinized and held to an unattainable standard, nor are the abuser’s actions ignored simply because they are good at their job. As we watch the dominoes fall in politics, media, and the entertainment industry, we will continue to see more and more outcry of sexual harassment in other industries, because as all women know—this happens everywhere. And while the focus has been on high-powered industries where the survivors are rich and glamourous women, we must not forget to listen to and defend low-wage workers. Because the truth is that the harassment that occurs on the casting couch is the same reprehensible harassment that happens in the back of the kitchen at your local restaurant.

Women make up the majority of the low-wage workforce in the U.S. and women of color are disproportionately represented in these jobs. These workers face rampant levels of harassment by coworkers, supervisors, and customers. Restaurant workers alone file the highest number of claims for sex harassment and retaliation with the EEOC than in any other field.

These workers face barriers in reporting their harassers at every turn:

  • An African-American housekeeper, hired through a temp-agency, may fear being attacked by a hotel guest, but is warned by others to not raise this issue to her manager as he may label her as “difficult,” which will result in the temp agency banning her.
  • A server receives lewd and graphic text messages by her coworker. When she approaches the manager he quickly dismisses her complaint because he is friends with the accused.
  • The farmworker, who picks the pumpkins for our thanksgiving pies, may decide not to report a sexual assault because she knows it will result in the loss of her work visa along with future prospects for jobs the following summer.

The common theme in the reluctance to report is not only the likelihood of being called a liar, but of how dependent the workers are on their jobs. Women working low-wage jobs aren’t able to simply find new employment the next day. Often the heads of households, they are charged with child-care, which requires flexible hours–something most jobs don’t offer. They may work paycheck to paycheck–a very real circumstance when women are rarely paid an equitable wage compared to their male counterparts; and face an even wider gap if they are women of color. And for immigrant workers, the language-barrier or lack of status, makes it seem impossible to find a job that is free of violence.

At LAF, we represent these clients; workers who have suffered workplace sexual violence and are attempting to enforce their rights. We fight to help them achieve justice. We are also proactive by training other worker rights’ advocates at our annual Modern Day American Worker conference. Most importantly, we believe women when they come to us for help.

It should then be no surprise that we celebrate Time’s person of the year selection and see glimmers of our clients’ faces–the dishwasher, the factory worker, the custodian–on the cover. We hope you see them as well and that you take a stand to believe and defend them.

Advertisements

Elephant in the Room: Who Is Worthy of an Education?

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.

kidsPop quiz: who should decide which children deserve access to special education assistance?

  1. A) Parents
  2. B) Teachers
  3. C) Medical professionals
  4. D) Process improvement experts

If you are in charge of the country’s third largest school district you opt for process improvement experts who have no experience in special education or the unique needs of Chicago Public School students. Recently, a WBEZ investigation revealed how Chicago Public Schools underwent a secretive process to overhaul their procedures on how students may access special education services. CPS, through its process improvement auditors, created a “Procedural Manual” aiming to equally distribute services with more standardization. However, the new procedures ultimately resulted in CPS providing less financial support for all schools along with higher burdens placed on parents who must advocate and fight for their children’s services. According to the WBEZ report, the auditors focused less on connecting students with needed services and more on identifying ways to reduce costs by cutting services the auditors deemed unnecessary. Worse yet, CPS did not inform most parents of the manual’s existence leaving them in the dark as to why their children’s essential services were denied. CPS students are primarily students of color, living in poverty. It’s common for poor minorities to be viewed with suspicion when they seek help, yet one would think that small children with disabilities would be excluded from this type of distrust. Sadly, they are not. CPS’ new process resulted in an increase of hurdles, requirements, and delays in desperately needed services. Students with disabilities and their families, already marginalized, suffered the brunt of this harmful new policy.

For those of us that practice in special education law the result is no surprise. Students of color, particularly black students, are frequently left out of the Special Ed equation. They are less likely to be referred to programs; less likely to be given modifications and accommodations; and schools with high populations of minority students are less likely to receive the funding necessary to provide for those students with special needs. The lack of access to appropriate special education services leads to more problems. For example, students with unidentified and unmet social-emotional needs are commonly subjected to discriminatory school disciplinary actions and exclusions. Others students simply fall behind academically and are unable to fully participate in their education.

LAF has been at the forefront of this issue for years. In 2013, we sued CPS for discriminating against children with disabilities, seeking a court order to stop one of the 49 school closures that occurred that year. Those closures resulted in a disparate impact on students with disabilities, because the formula that CPS used to select schools for closure did not include a reasonable accommodation for schools that served large populations of students with disabilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Now students with disabilities face a new barrier to appropriate services.  Last school year, when CPS created the Procedural Manual, CPS parents began to call us to help their children, who suddenly were going without their much needed resources. We advocated for dozens of individual clients who were denied special education services due to the new goals set forth by this manual.  We also began fighting for transparency and systemic change. We collaborated with other local agencies including Access Living, Legal Council for Health Justice, Equip for Equality, and the Children’s Law Group. After months of advocacy, CPS amended their manual with some improvement. However, there is still a long fight ahead to ensure that our city’s most vulnerable youth are granted access to programs and assistance they so desperately need. LAF intends to continue our fight both for our individual clients and for larger systemic change — so that all CPS students with disabilities are given the services they are entitled to under the law.

The Intersection of Domestic Violence, Families, and the Law

IMG_1380Last week, the Young Professionals Boards of LAF and the Family Defense Center (FDC) co-hosted a panel discussion on domestic violence (DV) and family law at the University of Chicago Law School. Moderated by FDC Staff Attorney Líadan Donnelly, the panel included LAF Staff Attorney Teresa Sullivan, former LAF attorney Elise Tincher who now works as Chicago Pro Bono Counsel at Kirkland & Ellis, and Ashley Parr, an associate at Barnes & Thornburg who recently represented a survivor of domestic violence in an important pro bono case with FDC.

Ashley’s client was a young mother and survivor of DV charged with neglect for endangering her child by being in an abusive relationship. Their child had never been subjected to his abuse, but the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) found both parents equally responsible for creating a dangerous environment and charged them both with neglect. Ashley and FDC got involved and represented the mother in her appeals hearing. “DCFS argued their neglect finding was appropriate because she didn’t move out immediately, didn’t do enough to keep her child safe,” Ashley explains. But she had been looking for work, calling shelters, going to police stations to get information on obtaining an Order of Protection—all of which are measures she took to keep her child safe. “Their finding of neglect would just ensure she has a more difficult time providing for her child on her own,” says Ashley. The judge agreed, overturning DCFS’ finding of neglect and removing it from the young mom’s record. In her decision, the judge incorporated many of the actions their client took that Ashley’s team identified as precautionary measures, meaning survivors blamed for neglect can rely on them as evidence in future cases.

For most people with any understanding of DV issues, punishing the survivor for not being able to break free from abuse seems entirely backwards. “Something I hear a lot from clients is, ‘I was so happy when DCFS showed up at my door—I thought they were going to help me. But I’m never calling the police again because now I might lose custody of my kids’,” Líadan says. “If the judge doesn’t understand the dynamics of DV and the fact that it’s a cycle, they might say, ‘you should have left immediately’ or you should have done this or that—which is we we’re trying more and more to bring in DV experts who can explain these dynamics to the judges.”

That’s why private firms, legal aid organizations, and advocacy groups have been on the front lines fighting to change how we protect survivors. In fact, Illinois recently replaced a DCFS rule known as Allegation 60, which criminalized survivors to an even greater extent. Kirkland & Ellis was one group at the helm of that advocacy work. “We had close to 50 of our attorneys from 7 different offices working on a 50-state survey to assist with changing Allegation 60 and getting better support for survivors of DV through the DCFS process,” says Elise. The new rule took effect in 2014 and requires DCFS to demonstrate that a parent blatantly disregarded their duty to protect their child by failing to take “reasonable precautionary measures,” like those that Ashley’s client took while she was fighting to break free from abuse.

And while it’s easy to forget, the Illinois Domestic Violence Act is actually one of best DV laws in the country—it provides survivors exclusive possession of their residence and charges police officers with an “affirmative duty” to help them when presented with domestic violence situations. In fact, LAF recently filed an amicus brief for a case in which police officers failed to carry out that duty when a victim’s son called the police for help. “All the police did was ask one question: are you scared? She didn’t respond, so they didn’t offer to take her to get an OP or connect her with any resources,” Teresa explains. The trial court essentially held that because the son didn’t use the magic words ‘domestic violence,’ police didn’t have an affirmative duty to offer her help. “But that affirmative duty is set up because DV victims tend not to self-identify. They often don’t affirmatively seek help,” Teresa says. “We think the law is set up appropriately but are advocating it be applied more universally, to help victims and survivors get the resources they need.”

 

 

 

 

‘First Day of School’ at New McCutcheon Legal Clinic

 

12162_lg

LAF celebrated the inauguration of its third community legal clinic last week at McCutcheon Elementary School in Uptown. Similar to its predecessors in Woodlawn and Wicker Park, the new McCutcheon Legal Clinic will be held throughout the school year on the first Wednesday evening of each month.  Its location in Uptown, one of Chicago’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, will provide opportunities to better serve non-English speakers in need of legal help, in a location they already frequent and know well.

There were already five clients by the time the clinic opened—two of whom were Spanish speakers. Volunteer attorneys paired with law students and posted up in the teachers’ lounge, the counselor’s office, and other available rooms where they met with clients. LAF attorneys built a makeshift “war room” where they were available to volunteers to provide expertise in their specific areas of public interest law as needed.

The catalyst behind the launch of the new clinic is private firm Baker McKenzie LLP, which has supported the McCutcheon school community for more than a decade by holding coat drives, helping with the debate team, and visiting classrooms to teach constitutional law. The firm was looking to get more involved in the school and the greater community, attorneys from Baker McKenzie explained. In partnership with LAF, they will staff the clinic each month and even take on some of its clients for full representation.

Take Two Lawyers and Call Me in the Morning

A child in public housing may be able to get treatment for her asthma, but her doctor can’t force her landlord to remove the black mold that’s causing it. Likewise, a lawyer can’t provide treatment for a senior living with cystic fibrosis, but she can fight to ensure his utilities stay on so he can keep his medications refrigerated. For people in poverty, legal issues can exacerbate health problems, and health issues can trigger legal problems.

To improve health outcomes and legal outcomes, both sides need to connect health care with patients’ broader social needs. To that end, health care providers and social service providers are teaming up to address the social determinants of health and poverty – such as income, housing, education, and employment, with Medical-legal partnerships. MLPs — the topic of LAF’s latest Brownbag Roundtable—are a prime example. In addition to helping patients and communities become healthier, MLPs reduce healthcare spending for high-need, high-use patients and improve reimbursement rates for clinical services, meaning that medical providers have more resources to help more people.

“As lawyers, we’re often frustrated that despite the best legal outcomes we can accomplish, our clients are still trapped in poverty because of chronic illness. Physicians and other medical providers we’ve talked to share that same frustration—that despite their best efforts, their patients are trapped in poor health because of factors beyond their control,” Trey Daly, Director of LAF’s Public Benefits Practice Group, explained at the Brownbag Roundtable last week. “MLPs bring together those two important roles in the lives of low-income Chicagoans, to find creative solutions that deal with both their legal and medical problems.”

The Health Justice Project, LAF’s flagship MLP, is a partnership between LAF, Erie Family Health Center, and Loyola University School of Law. “The providers at Erie understand social determinants of health, which makes them good at spotting legal issues, especially when a patient maybe didn’t even know their problem was a legal issue,” says Amelia Piazza, LAF’s MLP Project Coordinator. About half of the referrals come from doctors; while the rest come from a variety of other providers, including nurses, case managers, and behavioral health specialists. “We work to identify health-harming legal issues early, before they become critical. That way we can engage in preventative lawyering to help people stabilize their situation before they seek help through traditional means, after they’ve already lost their utilities or are facing eviction,” explains Alice Setrini, LAF’s MLP Supervisory Attorney.

Another perk of these partnerships is they enable LAF to reach populations that are harder to reach through traditional avenues. Of the clients that went through LAF’s regular intake process so far this year, only 7% speak Spanish as their preferred language—far less than the actual proportion of Spanish-speaking residents of Cook County. But since a large portion of Erie patients are Spanish speakers, more than 40% of patients they’ve referred this year speak Spanish as their preferred language.

LAF also hosts MLPs with Rush’s Road Home Program, a partnership with Rush’s Center for Veterans and their Families that aims to increase patient access to Veteran-specific public benefit, and partners with Howard Brown Health Clinic and Provident Hospital in efforts to bring legal aid to the traditionally underserved HIV/AIDS community on Chicago’s south side. LAF’s newest MLP, Health Forward/Salud Adelante, launched just this year. It’s an innovative partnership is with Cook County Health and Hospitals System and the Chicago Department of Public Health, and it started taking referrals in March.

Thanks to all who joined us for this informative presentation on MLPs at LAF, and how they are closing the health justice gap, one patient of a time.

May eNewsletter and LAF Awards

President Trump’s 2018 proposed budget, published last week, again proposes to defund the Legal Services Corporation, the source of 45% of LAF’s annual funding. While this would have a devastating impact on LAF, we’ve doubled down on proving how important LAF is by working harder than ever at making sure that people living in poverty have a fair shot at justice. And people seem to have noticed! Just this month, our own Dolores Cole and the Community Engagement Unit were surprised with a Program Champion award from the Rush Generations program, for their work educating older adults on their rights. Volunteer John Held received the Federal Bar Association and the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois’ Excellence in Pro Bono and Public Interest Service Award. And Executive Director Diana White was honored by the Rotary Club of Chicago among their outstanding Women of the Year.
You can read about these awards, and much more, in LAF’s May eNewsletter, out now.
On behalf of everyone at LAF, as well as our and clients and communities, thank you for your continued support. Your gifts of time and money are our most steadfast and reliable source of income and they ensure that LAF will remain strong even as political winds blow.