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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Repsonse to Proposed Federal Budget Cuts

The federal budget proposal released this morning by the President includes a complete defunding of the Legal Services Corporation. A mere 0.0001% of the overall federal budget, LSC funds the majority of civil legal aid agencies across the country. LSC funding is 46% of LAF’s budget. The budget proposal also includes the elimination of the AmeriCorps program, the Community Development Block Grant program, and several Department of Justice grants that fund LAF’s work with people living in poverty in our community. These cuts would be devastating to LAF and its clients across Chicagoland, so your contributions are more important than ever now.
The Legal Services Corporation, set up much like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (also eliminated in this budget proposal), is a nonprofit organization that distributes federal funding to grantees in every state and territory of the United States, to provide professional legal aid, at no cost, to people facing real emergencies. LAF got its start more than 50 years ago with funding from LSC’s predecessors to “provide equal access to the system of justice in our nation.” “Our aim,” President Lyndon Johnson declared, “is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it, and above all, to prevent it.”
The staff, Board, and family of LAF and I remain committed to that aim. We continue to believe that civil legal aid is the single most effective tool to combat poverty and bring families out of poverty for good. Without LSC and the other funding eliminated under the proposed budget, there will be more families made homeless by illegal evictions and unfair foreclosures, more victims of abuse and trafficking trapped in dangerous situations, more children denied special education services, more people denied healthcare and the public benefits to which they are entitled, more seniors taken advantage of by scheming contractors, more veterans whose service has cost them their health or their homes, and more immigrants without access to a fair shot at the American Dream. Without LSC, there will be many more people living in poverty denied their right to justice in the American court system.
I cannot say what LAF would look like without the funding and guidance from LSC and these other funding sources, but we will work to develop a plan if this budget is passed by Congress. Even with our other generous funders, no organization can absorb a cut of nearly half without having a smaller staff serving fewer clients. But LAF will not be shuttered by this. We are dedicated to our mission, our city, our clients, our practice, and the ideal that justice, fairness, equality, and representation should not depend on a person’s ability to pay. With your ongoing and increased financial support, LAF will remain the source of the best legal help money can’t buy.

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.

“This is Grassroots”

A Snapshot of the Woodlawn Legal Clinic and the Community that Made it Happen

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Working in civil legal aid, you become accustomed to limited resources and occasional setbacks. With only 15 minutes before the Woodlawn Legal Clinic opens for clients, the internet vanishes and the staff is hard-pressed to find it. While Haleigh Haffner, an AmeriCorps VISTA in LAF’s Children and Families Practice Group, makes calls for technical assistance, Regina Hernandez, a VISTA Attorney at LAF and the key figure behind the clinic, begins pondering Plans B and C out loud. No internet means squinting at the small screen of Regina’s cell phone and, once the clinic finishes, potential overtime creating client profiles in LAF’s case database. When Haleigh hangs up without good news, Regina plugs in a small desk fan (“It gets hot in here.”), and settles in at one of the tables in a secluded area that she calls the “war room.” With piles of advice on everything from eviction to domestic violence, a box of sandwiches, and plenty of chairs for attorneys to sit and strategize on behalf of their clients, it looks like the first line of defense on what will become a legal battlefield. “We can’t let this [setback] affect the people out there who need our help,” she gestures to those lining up in the waiting room. “The important thing is that the people here are seen and served. We’ll make it work.”

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AmeriCorps VISTAs, Haleigh Haffner and Kalin O’Connor

The Woodlawn Legal Clinic began 6 years ago through the partnership of LAF, DLA Piper, and the AKArama foundation, the oldest Greek-letter organization established by college educated African American women. On the second Wednesday of every month, attorneys and volunteers set up a low-budget mobile law firm at AKArama’s Theta Omega Chapter community center in Hyde Park and make their expertise available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Since its conception, Woodlawn has served 875 clients, an average of about 30 people each month.  However, this February’s clinic saw a record 50 clients. “This is the most we’ve ever had,” Regina is wide-eyed as Kalin O’Connor, the VISTA Volunteer Coordinator at LAF, delivers yet another pile of intake forms to her makeshift desk. She’s not entirely surprised though. There’s been a concerted effort to spread the word, an initiative that’s ramped up recently with partnerships with other community organizations.

As the night progresses, the chairs in the waiting room fill up and so do the stations in the interview space where clients discuss their legal problem with an attorney. The staff is always in motion, dashing back and forth between interviews and the war room, shaking hands with clients they’ve helped and calling the names of the next in line. To someone just stepping into the building it might look like chaos, but there’s a rhythm to it. Regina’s fan makes a lot of sense. The check-in table has become crowded with new clients, each guided through the check-in process by one of the dedicated volunteers. As the first point of contact for clients at the clinic, these volunteers answer initial questions and smooth out initial anxieties. “People come in with a lot of issues, some from a very emotional place. They represent out there,” Ruth Slaughter, Director of Corporate & Community Relations at AKArama’s Theta Omega Chapter, points outside. “We keep that in mind and work to meet them where they’re at.”

Meeting people where they’re at sums up Woodlawn Legal Clinic’s origin story. Its founders saw that people in legal need were often unable to make the trip to their offices for counsel, so they decided to bring the counsel to them. “For a few years now, pro bono resources have been shrinking,” Annie Geraghty Helms, DLA Piper’s Director and Counsel for Pro Bono Programs, told the ABA Journal. “We have a responsibility, a real call to action to work together.” Working with AKArama and LAF, Annie conceptualized the clinic as a project built from community. “More and more, what I’ve seen from the leadership of corporate clients and in the firm world is this recognition that we are all lawyers and in it together.”

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LAF Volunteer, Margaret Boyd, and Ruth Slaughter

She is not alone in her belief.  The volunteers dedicating their time to Woodlawn come from LAF and DLA Piper, as well as Chicago law schools and legal departments of companies like Hyatt and Discover Financial Services. This allows volunteers to serve clients in teams, each member contributing their own set of skills while also creating an educational experience for all. Often the legal intervention is brief (a sternly worded phone call from an attorney to an unfair landlord is sometimes all that’s needed to set things straight), but when the cases get more complex volunteers will establish a plan of action with LAF staff. In true legal aid fashion, the system is effective because no resource is left untapped. A volunteer attorney may practice divorce law by day, but at the clinic they may suddenly need to advise a client struggling to attain much-needed Public Benefits. “It’s really a testament to the fact that lawyers, no matter their legal field, are valuable as attorneys,” explains Gwen Hickey, a VISTA in the External Relations Department at LAF and first time volunteer at the clinic. “With the guidance of LAF staff, they can use their training and license to do great work for clients outside of their practice area.”

At the end of the evening, there are still clients being interviewed; one, who came in after the cut-off time, was given an appointment at the Jose de Diego Clinic, a partnership between LAF and Katten Muchin Rosenman. Dennericka Brooks, a senior attorney in LAF’s Housing Practice Group who’s been at Woodlawn since its beginning, is still discussing a case (“She’s notorious for taking on clients, even when she is already at her limit with case work,” Regina says.) and first time volunteers are already talking about next month. “This is grassroots,” Bertina Power-Stewart, President of the Theta Omega Chapter, grins and spreads her arms to show the bustling AKArama center. “This comes from the community.”

 

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.

Standing up to Bullies

LAF stands up to bullies.

Every day, the attorneys, paralegals, and staff at LAF work tirelessly to defend people living in poverty from those who would prey on them.  We have protected seniors from scheming contractors looking to take advantage of them.  We have faced down slumlords refusing to provide adequate and safe living conditions for their renters.  We have litigated against abusive spouses and murderous boyfriends trying to hurt or kill.  We have fought back against overworked government offices discriminating against the poor, the minority, and the disabled.  And we have stood with immigrants and victims of human trafficking as they have sought their fair share of the American Dream – and you can read more about one of those immigrants’ stories in our January eNewsletter here.

In a world where it may seem like the bullies are winning, LAF is still here to make it a fair fight.  We are committed to ensuring that justice doesn’t depend on financial influence.  We are committed to proving that the lives of people living in poverty matter.  We are committed to showing, every day, that standing up to bullies at every level is what makes America great.

Thank you for your standing up with us.