January eNewsletter

Our team at LAF began 2018 doing what it does best:  fighting for the poor and vulnerable in Chicago, Cook County, and the State of Illinois.
In particular, our Immigrants and Workers’ Rights group has traveled the state ensuring that migrant workers are treated fairly.  Our Consumer group has been advocating on behalf of clients on the wrong end of unconscionable land-sales contracts.  Our Housing team on a daily basis has been saving clients from wrongful evictions.  Our Public Benefits team has been advocating for disabled clients deprived of Social Security benefits.  And one of our Children and Family lawyers was selected by the Illinois State Board of Education to serve on an inquiry team to examine whether Chicago Public Schools is wrongfully depriving special needs students of the services they need.  Read more about them, and much more, in this month’s eNewsletter here.
Thank you for your continuing support.  We could not do it without you.
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A Fresh Look at Food Justice

Food insecurity—the condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food—is a patent symptom of poverty, so it’s no surprise that communities with the highest rates of food insecurity in Chicago largely overlap with the communities where LAF clients live and work. But with food insecurity linked to problems we see so many of our clients struggling with—like obesity, diabetes, and poor performance in school—it’s imperative we look at what justice and equity look like in the broader context of our food system.

“Our food syproducestem—all of the practices, processes, policies, and people involved in getting our food from the farm to the table and beyond—is shaped by the same structures of power and oppression that beset the rest of society,” says attorney Daniel Edelstein. He joined LAF in September on a one-year fellowship funded by his alma mater, Boston College Law School. In November, Daniel gave a presentation to LAF attorneys and staff that introduced major issues in the food system, and discussed how LAF’s work is involved while suggesting a “systems-oriented” perspective.

Much like other social systems (e.g., the criminal justice system, the public school system), the food system’s history, size, and complexity present a number of barriers to meaningful change. With 15 federal agencies involved in regulating the food system, Daniel explains, it’s hard to shake the silo mentality that keeps the many different stakeholders from addressing the system as a broader network of issues that connect and influence each other.

“Our industrial agriculture system was built on the back of slavery. Today, farmworkers still don’t have the same employment protections as everyone else, so we continue to live in a system where labor that brings our food to the table is forced and exploited,” Daniel says. “All of this has disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color, which traces back to the same inequalities and structures of oppression that we see in all of our work and throughout society on a daily basis.”

Over the last decade we’ve seen renewed discussion about where our food comes from, but most of what we know about our food is based on what’s been marketed to us. Many popular claims like “natural” or “boosts immunity” aren’t strictly regulated, causing confusion in grocery store aisles. “With all these claims and fancy packaging while we’re moving quickly through a grocery store, it makes it hard to say we have a real, thoughtful choice about what we’re buying,” Daniel says.

Despite the challenges facing those who seek justice in the food system, Daniel looks forward to thinking creatively about strategies and solutions. Chicago and Illinois are active and vibrant spaces for food justice: urban farms, wasted food reduction, food banks, worker centers, progressive institutional purchasing policies, are just some of the areas in which resources and communities are organizing. But there is more to do to ensure that these strategies are inclusive, solutions are comprehensive, and importantly for us at LAF to mobilize legal services. In November, Daniel and Miguel launched an alliance of community groups, advocates, and individuals that make up food system. “As attorneys, we have a lot we can bring to the table. My hope is that over this next year, we’re able to think together and with our communities to advance the food justice movement.”

For more information or to get involved with the fight for food justice, contact Daniel at DEdelstein @ lafchicago . org.

Meet Matt Linas, Housing Jedi

 

JediMatt

Much like Jedi use the Force to protect those in need, Matt Linas uses advocacy.

Before he came to LAF, Matt was involved in community organizing around evictions and foreclosures. Now as LAF’s Housing Advocate, he serves low-income clients living with HIV/AIDS. “I came to LAF because I saw how powerful it is to have legal support and representation in court,” he says.

Matt works specifically with clients living with HIV/AIDS, though they face all the same issues as the other populations LAF serves. As a tenant living in poverty, regardless of your status, accessible housing is limited and the threat of eviction looms large. But people living with HIV have a compounded obstacle on top of the stresses of poverty, Matt explains. “In order to keep the virus in check, it’s important that people living with HIV get their immediate needs met, which is where we can intervene to preserve their housing voucher, or help them find a new unit as soon as possible if they’ve already been evicted.”

If you don’t have housing, Matt says, your priorities shift. “You have to think about where you’re going to sleep tonight or get your next meal. When you live with that amount of stress and instability, you may not be able to plan around taking your medication every day or seeing your doctor when they’re running low and need to get them refilled.”

In Chicago, LAF is typically the last line of defense for people in poverty faced with an eviction—meaning the work Matt and his Housing colleagues do is often all that’s standing between someone having a home and being homeless. To deal with the pressure his position inevitably breeds, he uses martial arts. “It provides a physical and mental outlet, and it also changes the way I approach problem solving,” he says. “Rather than putting all my eggs in one basket, martial arts has trained me to use multiple tactics when faced with a challenge.”

That approach doesn’t stop with martial arts. In addition to casework, which is immediate and reactionary by nature, Matt co-chairs a task force that works on long-term strategies to get more housing subsidies for people living with HIV. “Even though we’re more so firefighters than we are policymakers, a cool part of my job is being able to work with community members and organizations towards long-term, sustainable solutions.”

Your support enables LAF to continue being a Force for good. Make your tax-deductible contribution for 2017 at www.lafchicago.org.

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.

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.”