Fighting for immigrant DV survivors, despite limits in the law

Below is a guest post from Nubia Willman, a supervisory attorney in LAF’s Immigrants and Workers’ Rights Practice Group.

At LAF, we’re used to working with limited resources. No fancy messengers to deliver filings, no administrative assistance to put together trial exhibits—none of the frills you expect in a major law firm. Even without those resources, we work hard with what we have because we know that our ultimate tool, the legal system, is supposed to be open and available to all.

In 1996, our funding restrictions changed our ability to represent undocumented immigrants. We were limited to only representing those who were survivors of domestic violence or other serious crimes. Since then, we have advocated for domestic violence survivors seeking legal relief from all around the world. We know how resilient and brave our clients are in the face of horrible, humiliating, life-threatening situations.

Clients like Bhavika, who entered the United States on an H4 visa with her husband. A husband who abused her, threatened to set her on fire, and then demanded she return to India so he could have her committed.

Or like Juan, whose citizen wife physically assaulted him and threatened to murder their children if he didn’t obey her.

Or like Roberta, who fled from Guatemala after her husband strangled her until she blacked out. This confirmed to Roberta that the years of abuse she endured would result in her death.

Roberta fled to the U.S. and sought help at LAF. Through a four-year process, we successfully obtained asylum for her based on the domestic violence she suffered in her home country.

Now, the recent decision by Attorney General Sessions that domestic violence can no longer serve as grounds for asylum erases a remedy for thousands of women like Roberta, who are fleeing to the U.S. to save their lives. The inability to apply for DV-based asylum will result in the death and torture of countless women.

The loss of this remedy also creates a chilling effect for other victims of domestic violence, clients like Bhavika and Juan, who experienced DV in the U.S. and now fear that our country doesn’t value protecting victims of inter-family violence.

This decision limits the legal relief available to so many, yet at LAF we’ve adapted to making due with limited options. We will continue to fight for all survivors of domestic violence—both in and out of immigration proceedings—to ensure their safety and access to the legal system. We will continue to use all tools at our disposal and fight for all appropriate forms of legal relief for all our clients.

You can join us in that fight! Share this post and like our page on Facebook—let others know what good work LAF is doing. And if you feel moved, make a donation so we can continue to help even more Bhavikas, Juans, and Robertas.

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Broadening our impact

At LAF, we serve people in poverty mostly one at a time. The majority of our cases are interventions into crises facing just one individual or family, but often those crises are symptomatic of disadvantages that people with low incomes confront every day. So when we get the chance not only to make a difference for an individual client, but also to change some policy or set some precedent that will give the populations a better chance to be treated fairly in the first place, we’re especially proud. Recently, LAF attorneys Michelle Gilbert and Jackie Zarack-Koriath did just that when they completed cases that protected access to affordable housing for their clients and that spurred administrative changes that will extend that protection to countless others as well.

Michelle Gilbert Public Interest Award

Michelle Gilbert and her colleagues after receiving the Excellence in Pro Bono Service award

Jackie’s client Dawn participates in the housing choice voucher program, where she and CHA both pay a portion of her monthly rent. After a medical condition caused Dawn to lose her job at a childcare facility and before she could find another source of income, her rent was due, and she simply couldn’t afford her share.  The voucher program’s guidelines provide for short-term exemptions from minimum payments, called hardship exemptions, that are designed to help tenants in circumstances like just like these. But the process for asking for one is buried deep in a 150-page administrative document, and Dawn wouldn’t have known she was entitled to an exemption if it hadn’t been for a friend of hers who told her she should apply. Even when she did, CHA improperly idenied her request.

Without the extra help, Dawn failed to make her rent payments, was evicted from her home, lost her housing subsidy, and was left homeless. Fortunately she came to LAF, and with Jackie’s help CHA agreed to reinstate Dawn’s housing assistance, pay her damages, and update the forms and notices recipients of vouchers regularly receive to contain a simple explanation of hardship exemptions. CHA is already using the new documents, and we’ve already heard from tenants who received relief thanks to Dawn and Jackie’s hard work.

Michelle’s client Beverly ran into a different administrative hurdle as she attempted to move with her housing voucher, and likewise ended up without assistance. She had requested moving papers and was searching for a new place, but due to a combination of discrimination against her by landlords who wouldn’t accept a voucher and failed HACC inspections at the places that would, her search term expired and she was terminated from the voucher program without a chance to speak up for herself in an administrative hearing.

As Michelle herself points out, this kind of policy not only deprived Beverly of a safe, decent place to live, but it’s antithetical to the stated goal of the program: to allow subsidized tenants to move to higher opportunity areas. So Michelle filed a Federal complaint stating that Beverly was denied due process when she was denied a hearing, and eventually HACC agreed to amend its administrative plan to automatically grant tenants like Beverly hearings before their assistance could be taken away, in addition to re-instating Beverly’s housing voucher.

Michelle was recognized by the U.S. District Court for her work on the case, receiving its annual Excellence in Pro Bono Service Award this month. Though she’s somewhat bashful about being recognized herself, she’s proud of LAF’s work. “At LAF we have a reputation for doing a lot of volume. But seeing so many cases feeds our desire to do big picture litigation and to change policy in a way that benefits our clients.”

Denim Day 2018: LAF’s work for survivors of sexual violence

In honor of Denim Day and Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2018, we would like to highlight some of LAF’s critical work in serving low-income survivors of sexual violence across Cook County.

Emilia was abducted at age 17. For two years, the man who abducted her physically and sexually assaulted on a regular basis and, eventually, impregnated her. In 2008 she escaped with her daughter, Alyssa. Emilia is now married to Jose, whom Alyssa believes to be her father.

In June 2016, Emilia called LAF because her abuser had filed a parentage case seeking visitation rights with Alyssa, whom he had not seen in 10 years. Alyssa had never known the true story of her birth and, on top of forcing Emilia to relive her trauma, Emilia was worried about the impact the stress could have on Alyssa’s fragile health.Denim

LAF’s Myka Held diligently fought in parentage court to deny Emilia’s abuser’s right to custody or visitation with Alyssa. If her abuser had been criminally charged and found guilty of rape, his custody and visitation rights would have been denied. In this case, however, her abuser had not been criminally charged. Therefore, Myka faced the daunting task of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, that Alyssa was conceived by rape 12 years ago. When Myka filed a petition seeking $10,000 in attorneys’ fees, Emilia’s abuser withdrew his parentage case altogether.

Emilia is now planning to return to school for nursing or social work, and her daughter, Alyssa, is a straight A student being raised in a loving home by Emilia and Jose.

The CDC lists poverty and lack of jobs as community risk factors for sexual violence. People with low incomes, who have less access to resources, are more vulnerable to sexual assault. By assisting survivors of sexual assault obtain protective orders, apply for legal immigration status, and enforce their rights in the workplace,  LAF can holistically address the concerns of a sexual assault survivor, and help them achieve a sense of safety, and economic stability.

Denim Day is an annual campaign to raise awareness of issues facing survivors of sexual violence. Click here to learn more about the origin of Denim Day, and here to learn more about survivors.

Holistic help from medical-legal partnerships

Over the course of just a few months beginning last summer, Gary rapidly lost his vision to retinal detachment. At the age of sixty-one, he was without a source of income, unable to work, and as Kaitlyn Quigley, Gary’s attorney with LAF’s Public benefits practice group, notes, lacking some of the skills for living with vision loss.

Gary is insured by CountyCare, a Medicaid managed plan offered by Cook County Health and Hospital System, which collaborates with LAF as part of a medical-legal partnership (MLP). CountyCare care coordinators identify members facing potential legal issues, and then refer them to LAF for help. Gary came to LAF last fall seeking assistance with his application for Social Security disability benefits, after a referral from his care coordinator Camille Haynes.

To get approved for Social Security benefits, Gary needed to attend an evaluation at a doctor’s office, but he had no way to get there because his impairment kept him both from driving and from using public transit. So Kaitlyn, working alongside Camille and Jenelle Pedroza, LAF’s Client Services Coordinator, moved his appointment and helped him apply for paratransit accommodations so that he could make it to his appointment and get around on his own moving forward.

PACE busGary faced similar difficulty in applying for SNAP benefits after he missed a required phone interview because he couldn’t read the letter notifying him when the call was scheduled. His water was shut off because he couldn’t afford the bill while he had no income. Time and again, Jenelle, Kaitlyn, and Camille worked together to resolve issues as they arose and set Gary up for success in the future. They rescheduled his SNAP interview, advocated with the city to turn his water back on immediately, and helped him apply for a Salvation Army grant to pay down his water bill balance. They also connected Gary with resources at Chicago Lighthouse, an organization that specializes in helping visually impaired adults learn to live on their own.

This kind of assistance is what LAF’s medical-legal partnerships are all about. As Kaitlyn puts it, “there are aspects of your health that a doctor can’t fix. There are social determinants of health.” By working closely with Camille as Gary adjusted to living with a disability, LAF was able to help Gary resolve these issues, all of which could have adversely affected his health, as they arose.

LAF was also able to help when Gary was wrongfully billed over $1000 by an eye specialist that he was referred to by his doctor. At the time Gary received treatment, he believed that his care would be covered by Medicaid. Later, the specialist’s office informed him that they don’t accept the specific Medicaid plan that Gary is enrolled in, even though he showed an insurance card at the office that day, and even though, by law, a healthcare provider must verify a patient’s Medicaid coverage before providing treatment. Kaitlyn drafted a cease and desist letter to the specialist’s office, and they agreed to stop seeking payment from Gary.

“For him, this was important, because he isn’t judgment proof,” says Kaitlyn. Gary owns his home, an asset that could be put at risk by a court judgment for unpaid debt. Thanks to Kaitlyn’s early intervention, Gary’s home is safe from this would-be creditor.

But none of Kaitlyn or Jenelle’s work for Gary, on protecting him from wrongful billing for medical services or reinstating his utility service or securing him the benefits he is entitled to, would have been possible had it not been for our partnership with CCHHS. “Clients don’t always know that their problems are legal problems,” Kaitlyn says. “This is someone that never would have come to LAF if it wasn’t for his care coordinator.”

Gary’s case is just one example of how MLPs connect us with people that can use LAF’s help, but the kind of holistic service we were able to provide for him is exactly why those partnerships are so valuable to the communities we serve.

Elephant in the Room: No Money, Mo’ Problems

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

“It’s a text-book example of institutional racism.”

This was University of Chicago Professor Chris Berry’s conclusion when he testified, last summer, before the County Board discussing the disparate impact felt by Cook County residents in their property tax assessments. If you’ve been following the news (or the election cycle), you may be aware that there have been some problems brewing with the Cook County Assessor’s Office. A study conducted by the University of Chicago showed a discrepancy where lower-priced homes were over-valued and higher-priced homes were lower-valued.  If this conclusion is correct, this system shifted the tax-paying burden to lower socio-economic neighborhoods; neighborhoods composed primarily of people of color.

The disparate implementation by the Assessor’s Office poses severe risks to lower-income neighborhoods—many people who often come to LAF seeking help. We see how the inability to keep a home decreases a family’s ability to create wealth; it requires them to make big financial sacrifices to keep their home—maybe their child’s college tuition can’t get paid, or they have to pick between paying the tax bill or medicine and groceries for the month. For those that can’t keep up with payments, they may feel forced to sell quickly, losing out on their investment. In dire cases, the county may sell the taxes to a tax-buyer and if the home owner cannot repay those taxes, the tax-buyer may take ownership of the home through a tax-deed.

This says nothing of the physical and mental stress people experience fighting to save their house, or the damage it inflicts on children who may have to move to new schools, or the depression an elderly parent may fall into when they can no longer afford their home.

Proponents of the current system argue that anyone has the right to appeal their assessment. And that is true, there is an appeals process. But just like so many complicated parts of our legal system, those that need access to this remedy have a more difficult time accessing it. U of C’s study found that wealthier neighborhoods appealed at a much higher rate than lower-value neighborhoods. Wealthier neighborhoods also saw assessment reductions more frequently than poorer neighborhoods. Wealthier neighborhoods are more likely to be represented by attorneys as well. Attorneys, logically, target higher-income clients in order to reap higher rewards. In 2015, attorneys earned 22 million dollars in attorney’s fees involving assessment appeals. Unfortunately, for those living in lower-income neighborhoods, the return on investment for an attorney to file an appeal for a single-family home won’t match what that attorney could earn representing multi-unit condo associations. A person who is low-income, living in a low-income neighborhood, with a home that is valued high, but can only be sold for a much lower price, will be hard-pressed to find an affordable legal representative.

This is the gap LAF tries to bridge—we field calls from people on the verge of losing their home and our Consumer Practice Group steps in to help.  Some clients are advised on their right to appeal the tax assessment of their home. Other times we guide clients through obtaining the correct tax exemptions as home owners.  In cases where the clients have fallen too far behind in tax payments, we represent them in Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which allows them to catch up on their payments in order to save their home.

The work we do doesn’t solve the disparate impact the assessor’s system has on our client communities, but by helping them fight in a system that is stacked against them, it reminds them that they have rights and tools available to protect their assets. More importantly, we create security and peace of mind for families who can return to their neighborhoods—to their homes–with the same sense of stability as those in richer zip-codes.

A fresh start for Linda

When Linda came to the Jose De Diego Legal Clinic in the fall of last year and spoke with the volunteers there from Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, she was seeking assistance with obtaining a divorce from her abusive husband.

Since the pension was the only piece of property at issue, it should have been a straightforward process that didn’t require the resources of an attorney. For that reason, LAF initially planned to refer Linda to the CARPLS divorce help desk for help filling out the appropriate paperwork.

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Jose De Diego Community Academy, the site of LAF and Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP’s monthly legal clinic in Wicker Park, where we first met Linda

“We would have closed the case if it wasn’t for Alyse,” says Myka Held, an attorney with LAF’s Family Law Practice group who served as co-counsel with Alyse Sagalchik in representing Linda. “In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t.”

Alyse is an attorney at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP who regularly volunteers at the clinic, which, she notes, is her “favorite pro bono commitment—not just since I have been at Katten but since I began practicing law.” Alyse had been looking to contribute even more, and, she says, “Linda happened to reach out to LAF at exactly the right time.” So Alyse took Linda’s case pro bono and moved forward with the divorce, hoping to resolve the issue as quickly as possible by obtaining a default judgment. Since Carl was in jail and unlikely to appear in court, this should have been easy.

Before they could obtain that judgment though, Alyse and LAF received a letter from Carl in jail. It was a rambling, 4-page long document that accused Linda of abuse toward him, demanded money before he would agree to a divorce, and ranted about the attorneys representing Linda. Carl also sent correspondence to the presiding judge, which delayed the case further. On top of all that, based upon a technical issue in the criminal case against him for assaulting Linda, Carl successfully appealed his conviction in the criminal case and was granted a new trial.

“Linda desperately wanted to be rid of him,” says Myka. “She was worried that he would come after her if he got out of jail.” What’s more, Carl planned to represent himself in his second criminal trial, which means he would be the one questioning Linda about his own violence toward her.

Thanks to Alyse and Myka’s hard work, the divorce was at last finalized in early March—five months after the petition for dissolution of marriage was filed. Linda also put the prosecutor assigned to Carl’s domestic violence case in contact with LAF so they could share information that will hopefully prevent Linda from being subjected to the trauma of being questioned by her abuser in court.

Linda’s story reminds us of the difference legal aid can make in the lives of our clients, and demonstrates how vital our volunteer partners are as we work to increase access to justice. As Alyse puts it, “It is amazing to me the difference between the results for those who have legal representation and those who do not…that is not part of my understanding of how justice ought to work. I am trying, in this tiny way, to fix that for as many individuals as I can.” Her help, combined with contributions from LAF staff and her fellow clinic volunteers, enabled Linda to make a break with her abuser and start a new chapter in her life.