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!

BR1_0610

Advertisements

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 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.”

‘Back to School’ at the Ed Law Pro Bono Clinic

As students across Chicago return to school amid uncertain funding and political turmoil, LAF’s Education Law Pro Bono Project continues to offer unwavering support for low-income students and their families. In fact, thanks to the Project’s new “clinical model” launched earlier this year, the team of 40 pro bono attorneys is a stronger force than ever before.

bus-1319360_640

Originally designed as an email panel, LAF attorneys used to vet and interview potential clients, send out anonymous case summaries via email, and hope to get a response from volunteers that could take on cases that LAF’s limited staff couldn’t handle. The Project’s new model, launched earlier this year, replaced the email blast with an in-person, bi-monthly clinic that puts volunteer attorneys to work, and in touch with potential clients from the very beginning of each case.

“Meeting clients face-to-face and building a rapport with them upfront, volunteers are more likely to be willing to take on their case than they would reading a case summary over email,” says Calli Burnett, VISTA Attorney tasked with coordinating the Project and overseeing its transition.

The small but mighty team of volunteer attorneys are from private firms and solo practices throughout the city, and the cases they take on at the clinic range from discipline and expulsion to residency challenges, bullying, special education services, and even Title IX claims stemming from sexual assaults. “They come from all different types of practices but they all have this innate commitment to education or have personal experience dealing with education issues themselves,” Calli says.

Without legal representation, there are a number of barriers that tend to dissuade parents from demanding the services their children need, Calli explains. “If parents don’t know they can ask for certain services or don’t know the specific procedures in place they need to follow in order to get those services, then you end up with one more child not getting the services they need.”

And while they can’t take on every case that comes to the clinic, a large part of their work is simply educating parents on the rights associated with an Individualized Education Program, or IEP—a legally binding document that spells out the specific services an individual child needs. Getting a child an IEP, or making changes to an existing one, is by far the most common problem they see at the clinic.

Thanks to the Project’s new clinical model and its pro bono attorneys committed to helping parents get the services their children need, more Chicago students can reach their full potential than LAF ever could have handled alone. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback—volunteers like being face-to-face with clients and other attorneys, and they feel more supported by LAF. And that’s our goal.”

If you’re interested in volunteering at the Ed Law Pro Bono Clinic, please email Calli Burnett at cburnett@lafchicago.org.

Ombudsmen Serve as Nursing Home Residents’ Best Allies

BR1_0522When Ralph came home from the hospital after a scheduled surgery, he was shocked to find he was being evicted from his nursing home. That nursing home was his home, and he had nowhere else to go if they kicked him out. With help from LAF’s ombudsman team who successfully argued that his “involuntary discharge” violated Medicaid regulations, he received a large settlement from the facility and was able to find another place to call home.

For people in long-term care, it can be a struggle just to understand what rights they have or where to go if they’ve been violated. “There’s a lot about the system that is difficult for anyone to understand, much less someone with mild dementia or someone recovering from a stroke,” says Suzanne Courtheoux, Regional Ombudsman for Lake County and Supervisory Attorney at LAF. That’s why her team includes 14 paralegals who spend at least three days each week visiting nursing homes and other long-term care facilities across Lake and Suburban Cook Counties to check in with residents, investigate complaints, and advocate on their behalf when necessary. “Even if some of what we do isn’t strictly ‘legal’ work, what we do as ombudsmen has a lot to do with what LAF as a whole does; we protect the rights of vulnerable residents,” she explains.

Since nursing homes represent one of the most heavily regulated industries, the job of ombudsmen often comes down to simply educating nursing home staff. For example, a nursing home might listen to the agent under Power of Attorney rather than the resident. “Just because you’re in a long-term care facility doesn’t mean you’ve lost the right to make your own decisions,” says Suzanne. “We have to come in and make sure they understand that the resident still gets to make that decision.”

They still deal with plenty of traditionally ‘legal’ issues, like Ralph’s involuntary discharge. In fact, nursing home evictions in Illinois have more than doubled in the last five years, and while there are perfectly good reasons for discharging a resident, understaffed facilities have been known to pressure residents—particularly those that require more staff  time—to move, even if transferring facilities is not in their best interest. With a growing number of complaints that residents have been wrongly transferred to hospitals or homeless shelters and then refused readmission, ombudsmen are more important than ever in protecting residents’ rights, empowering them to make their own decisions, and assuring they receive the best possible quality of care and quality of life. Thanks to the efforts of Suzanne and LAF’s team of Ombudsmen, nursing home residents like Ralph are safer, more protected, and more in control of their lives.