World Elder Abuse Awareness Day

Today, the UN recognizes World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. According to their research, as many as 10% of older people globally may experience some kind of financial exploitation. Such abuse often goes unreported, due to shame and embarrassment on the part of the victims or their inability to report it. Advocates at LAF work every day on behalf of senior clients who have been taken advantage of, by family members, scheming contractors, or others, to protect their safety, homes, and savings. Many of those clients are like Francisco and Margareta.

Francisco and his wife Margareta are in their late 70’s and speak very little English. Last winter, they called a company to repair their furnace. A man named Jake from the company came out and agreed to fix the furnace for a price of $1,000. He had Francisco, who is nearly blind, sign a document that offered him a discount to the $1,000 rate. Francisco gave his credit card number, but Jake said that the credit card would not work, so Francisco gave a second credit card number. The next day, Jake and a few workers from his company came back out. They brought more documents and, folding the paper over so that only part was visible, insisted that Francisco sign again. This time the amount was blank. Francisco signed, and the workers went downstairs to begin work. A few minutes later, Margareta went downstairs to demand a copy of the document that her husband had signed. She was given a copy which showed a charge of $13,500. A few minutes later, she looked out the window and saw the workers loading their central AC unit onto their truck. This made no sense since the contract was merely to fix the heater. They also loaded the furnace on their truck. Frantic, Margareta called her daughter, who got on the phone with Jake and demanded that he stop all work. While Jake was on the phone with her, his workers drove off with the AC unit and furnace. They also charged $6,000.00 onto Francisco’s credit cards, and recorded a mechanics lien on the home for $13,500.

That’s when Margareta and Francisco came to LAF. LAF prepared for a serious legal battle, but Margareta and Francisco convinced LAF and Jake to settle before they went to court. They just wanted their house adequately heated. In the end, they received new heating and central AC units and repayments of most of the fraudulent credit card charges. Jake’s company was also forced to release the mechanic’s lien, so that Francisco and Margareta own their home again outright. Finally, their heat has been restored and, because of LAF’s help, all of the other trouble Jake’s company gave them is over.

Sometimes justice isn’t a long-fought legal battle. Sometimes it’s just holding contractors to the promises they make to their customers. LAF is here to make sure vulnerable seniors are protected and their homes, savings, and health are safe.

John Gallo Appointed Executive Director of LAF

jgalloLAF has appointed its new Executive Director, following the retirement of Diana White this summer. John Gallo, currently head of litigation at Sidley Austin LLP and former Assistant U.S. Attorney, is active in civic work in the Chicago area. Throughout his illustrious career, John has demonstrated a deep commitment to providing pro bono counsel to indigent criminal defendants and others in need. He has also served on the board (most recently as chair) of Horizons for Youth, a nonprofit that helps children living in poverty become the first ones in their families to prepare for, attend, and graduate from college.

“When the opportunity to join LAF presented itself, I recognized immediately that it would allow me to follow my passion to provide a voice for those in need while helping an incredibly deserving organization continue to grow,” John said. “I’ve always felt that, as a lawyer, I have a responsibility to use my skills to provide services to individuals that otherwise could not afford legal representation. It is an honor to be selected to lead the city’s preeminent provider of legal services to people living in poverty and other vulnerable groups.”

Diana White, who will retire as Executive Director on June 30, 2017, says, “John is a great lawyer. He is also a real leader, helping people on his team do their best, and most satisfying, work.  John is friendly, open-minded, enthusiastic, and empathetic. LAF is lucky to have found him.”

John will take office at LAF in the early fall, and will spend the summer getting to know us, our clients, and our work. Until John arrives, Kate Shank will be LAF’s Acting Executive Director. We are excited to welcome John to LAF and look forward to all he will bring to our work providing free civil legal aid to people living in poverty across Chicagoland – and getting them back on their feet.

A full press release is available here.

 

 

Student Loan Debt: Rights & Relief

fileLast week, friends and cohorts from Chicago’s social services community joined LAF and Joseph Sanders, Assistant Attorney General from the Illinois Attorney General’s Consumer Fraud Bureau, to discuss student loan debt—an issue social service providers like LAF are seeing more and more among its client population. “Having student loan debt that is past due harms people’s chances of landing a job, obtaining permanent housing, and pursuing further education down the road,” said Kulsum Ameji, Staff Attorney in LAF’s Community Engagement Unit and moderator of the discussion.  “It can actually exacerbate poverty and push vulnerable people deeper into the cycle of poverty.”

The idea of higher education leaving people worse off runs contrary to the narrative that has shaped how we’ve talk about education for generations. As President Johnson famously said as he signed the Higher Education Act of 1965 into law—which greatly expanded financial assistance for higher education—the “nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained close to any American.” But as enrollment rates skyrocketed, so did tuition—and at a rate that outpaced income growth, forcing more and more students to take on large amounts of debt to finance their education under the universal assumption that investing in education will lead to higher income and more opportunities for a better life.

Today, with $1.4 trillion of student loan debt in the United States—more than either credit card and auto loan debt and now second only to mortgage debt—and a default rate of 11%, the question of the real return on investment in education is starting to surface. “We have such a positive view of education that we don’t think about its costs the way we do when we’re buying a car,” explains Shelmun Dashan, Staff Attorney in LAF’s Consumer Practice Group. “Most people don’t go to school just for the intrinsic value of learning—we have the goal of achieving a higher income or changing careers, but a lot of times we haven’t done the homework to figure out if what we’re doing will actually meet those goals. Private lenders let you take the loans out regardless, and that gets you in trouble—which they know. They depend on people having this positive association with education and not thinking about what it really means.”

Being an empowered consumer takes some time and research. Is the price tag worth what I’m getting? Are there other ways to get what I want? Apply that same mindset as best you can to higher education, advises Kathryn Liss, Senior Attorney in LAF’s Consumer Practice Group. “It is absolutely imperative in this climate that people really compare the costs, the financial options, and the subsequent opportunities.”

And while educating people considering going back to school now or in the future is a sound preventative approach, there are plenty of resources for the millions already grappling with student loan debt. “Even if we’re not able to take every case out there, we want to be sharing resources and playing a role in connecting people who need help with student loan debt to other organizations that focus on those issues,” Katie says.

That’s where folks like Joseph come in, who helps oversee the IL Attorney General’s Student Loan Helpline. “We started the helpline back in 2015, training five of our Citizen Advocates specifically on student loan issues, he explains. “They are there to assist with anything related to student loans. Even if they’re not your loans, for service providers it can be helpful if you’re working with a client and have a question.”

As student loan debt affects more and more people—disproportionately those from low-income and vulnerable communities—it’s important for community partners to continue having these conversations. Thanks to Joseph and everyone who joined us for this fruitful discussion!

 

 

May eNewsletter and LAF Awards

President Trump’s 2018 proposed budget, published last week, again proposes to defund the Legal Services Corporation, the source of 45% of LAF’s annual funding. While this would have a devastating impact on LAF, we’ve doubled down on proving how important LAF is by working harder than ever at making sure that people living in poverty have a fair shot at justice. And people seem to have noticed! Just this month, our own Dolores Cole and the Community Engagement Unit were surprised with a Program Champion award from the Rush Generations program, for their work educating older adults on their rights. Volunteer John Held received the Federal Bar Association and the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois’ Excellence in Pro Bono and Public Interest Service Award. And Executive Director Diana White was honored by the Rotary Club of Chicago among their outstanding Women of the Year.
You can read about these awards, and much more, in LAF’s May eNewsletter, out now.
On behalf of everyone at LAF, as well as our and clients and communities, thank you for your continued support. Your gifts of time and money are our most steadfast and reliable source of income and they ensure that LAF will remain strong even as political winds blow.

‘Reporting for Duty’ at the Veterans Legal Clinic

Veterans Legal Clinic PicAccording to the CHALENG for Veterans Progress Report, legal assistance is one of the greatest unmet needs among veterans. In fact, legal issues make up 5 of the 10 greatest unmet needs CHALENG identifies, including legal assistance for eviction/foreclosure prevention, help restoring driver’s licenses, child support, and outstanding warrants and fines. Thanks to LAF’s Veterans Legal Clinic, held the third Thursday of each month at the Community Resource and Referral Center near Douglas Park, more Chicago veterans have access to the legal help they need.

Supervisory Attorney Kathyrn Socha, Veterans Legal Corps Fellow Ellen Rheaume, and Hilary Gordon, AmeriCorps VISTA tasked with coordinating the clinic, are on the frontlines each month, alongside two attorneys from LAF’s Veterans Task Force that serve the clinic on a rotating basis. With only a few cubicles at their disposal, space is limited. And since about half of the clients they see make appointments ahead of time, work at the Veterans Clinic is what some might call controlled chaos.

Each client meets with an attorney for one hour, enabling the attorneys to not only provide brief services and referrals, but also screen for extended representation. The clinic, along with LAF’s Veteran Hotline which enables veterans and their family member to bypass LAF’s regular intake process and speak with an expert in veterans’ issues, are part of LAF’s greater outreach efforts to reduce homelessness and unemployment among veterans in our community.

Hilary shares the story of one former client—a veteran and public housing resident who came to the clinic seeking a building transfer. “He suffered from an untreated psychotic disorder and believed he was being watched in his apartment,” she explains. “We were able to work with his doctor to get a disability accommodation so he could move to a quieter building where he now feels safer.”

Human Trafficking in the News and LAF’s TSAP Work

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.

The Atlantic recently published a poignant, but problematic article from author Alex Tizon that details how his family enslaved a Filipino woman, forcing her into domestic servitude, for decades. Tinzon struggles to understand how and why his parents mistreated this woman, known to him as Lola, for years. It is a shocking confession of modern-day slavery in the United States. For many readers, this article exposed them to the insidious nature of human trafficking. Lola is a figure that is ever-present and always working; outsiders find it odd that she is always cooking and cleaning, yet they never are able to name what is happening to her. Human trafficking is evasive like that–it is a crime that occurs in almost all industries, but we find it hard to identify it because it is easier to believe that slavery no longer occurs in the United States. But human trafficking isn’t just a global problem, it’s a local one.

At LAF we combat both sex and labor trafficking through our Trafficking Survivors’ Assistance Program (TSAP). TSAP provides legal representation to human trafficking survivors from all over the world, including U.S. citizens, in a variety of legal areas. While our client demographics are diverse, many clients come from similar circumstances that left them susceptible to traffickers. Human trafficking survivors come from vulnerable populations: runaways, homeless youth, domestic violence victims, impoverished migrants, and other marginalized communities that make them not only easy targets for traffickers, but easier still for the general population to dismiss as “real” victims. This is why one of TSAP’s biggest and recurrent responsibilities is to convince law enforcement officials that our clients are in fact survivors of human trafficking eligible for various forms of legal remedies.

Failing to recognize survivors of human trafficking is an overarching problem. While victims come from all walks of life, people often have a set idea of what a real victim looks like. They may imagine a young White woman forced into sex work. While White women are trafficked, they are not the only ones targeted by traffickers. Women of color are also preyed upon and coerced into prostitution, yet they are more likely to be ignored and dismissed by those in charge with protecting survivors. This problem is argued in great detail by law professor Cheryl Nelson Butler in her article, The Racial Roots of Human Trafficking. Professor Butler argues that a major reason why the justice system fails to see women of color as victims is due to long-held stereotypes that perpetuate myths about their sexuality. This results in women of color being punished more harshly for prostitution rather than being offered assistance as human trafficking survivors. At LAF, we see the barriers placed before our client/survivors when they fail to meet the sex trafficking survivor prototype. We fight right alongside them to educate law enforcement and obtain the legal relief available to our clients.

Beyond sex trafficking, deep-seeded racial stereotypes facilitate labor trafficking. Certain social groups are stereotyped with being hard workers or submissive, which allows traffickers to abuse people under the guise of hard work. The power of racial stereotypes became evident in a recent trafficking case involving Chinese buffet restaurant workers. We represented some of the trafficking survivors who were primarily from Latin America. Various temp agencies placed our clients in restaurants after advertising that they had “honest” Mexicans available for work. The restaurant owners then worked our clients to exhaustion through physical and emotional abuse.

So while racial stereotypes may seem disconnected from human trafficking, the truth is that traffickers use all tools at their disposal to further their crime. Relying on the public’s implicit bias that certain groups don’t mind being “worked hard” or that other groups are hypersexualized works to the traffickers’ advantage. It makes the public question and dismiss whether a survivor is a “true” victim because they fail to meet a stereotypical standard. With over 20 million people trafficked globally, we know that people are trafficked from all walks of life. Yet, when we envision only one type of victim we do a disservice to all other survivors of human trafficking. Further, we embolden the trafficker who opts to victimize certain types of people believing that no one will care about their wellbeing.

LAF cares, and through TSAP we ensure that traffickers are held accountable; law enforcement protects all people; and our communities gain awareness to fight this ever-present problem.