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.

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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.

Leave the light (and the heat) on

As the winter wears on, plenty of Chicagoans take for granted the refuge of their warm, comfortable homes as they duck inside and out of the weather. But for many of LAF’s clients, that security is in jeopardy, owing to the simple fact that they sometimes lack the resources to pay their utility bills. This becomes especially dangerous during the winter months when heating costs spike, making a tight financial situation even tighter; and when temperatures drop below zero, threatening health and safety.

pexels-photo-764767Depending on their income level, clients may be eligible for grants from LIHEAP (CEDA) or from their utility provider to offset the cost of monthly bills. Those whose service has been shut off may qualify for assistance getting their heat or power reconnected, or to pay off overdue service fees over time.

Unfortunately, these programs are subject to slow administrative processes and complex rules and regulations that can lead to shutoffs while benefits are being processed, or prevent low-income individuals from seeking benefits altogether. To better serve our clients, Barbara Richardson of LAF’s Consumer Practice Group recently held a training session for her fellow staff members to discuss the various utility assistance programs available to LAF’s clients and the strategies they might employ to avoid having service disconnected.

Barbara speaks from experience about how her clients often feel coerced into agreeing to terms for paying off past-due bills. “Of course they will agree to something they can’t afford; they need their utilities back on,” she says. Sometimes clients are forced to choose between heating their homes during the winter or cooling them when the weather warms up. “A lot of our clients are accustomed to living without utilities for months in the summer,” Barbara adds. “It’s a cycle.”

LAF attorneys, paralegals, and intake specialists discussed how other common legal issues facing families living in poverty might complicate the utility issue. How do state budget issues affect clients’ options for seeking help? What if the client has a disability? What he or she needs power in their home to operate medical equipment? What if the meters measuring their gas or electricity consumption have been tampered with?

Answering these questions for our attorneys, so they can answer them for clients, is an integral part of LAF’s mission. The more we learn about the diverse and interconnected problems people living in poverty face, the better equipped we are to advance equal justice and get our clients’ lives back on track.

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.

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.