I need legal aid, too

December 16, 2015

By Angelika Labno  |  CBF Administrative & Communications Coordinator

campaign in action

I need legal aid, too.

But not in the traditional sense. I am fortunate enough to have a home, a job, and good health. I need legal aid so that the community I live in functions better.

Shortly after I started at the CBF, I was tasked with penning the Campaign in Action blog series. The idea was simple: profile a legal aid organization supported through the CBF’s Investing in Justice Campaign, and give an overview of their legal aid services.

My background, I should note, is not in law, but journalism. I had never paid much attention to the legal system before, let alone legal aid.

The thought of interviewing lawyers and getting caught up in legal speak was intimidating (phrases like grievance process come to mind). But then I discovered that we shared a common language in social issues. Having covered nonprofits and their work in the past, social issues were something I could understand.

In their individual (and sometimes collective) ways, each organization is trying to better a social issue in a legal context. Chicago Medical-Legal Partnership for Children, for example, tackles poverty from a new angle. A doctor can identify a social determinant of health, such as housing, and connect the patient to legal assistance before the issue spirals out of control. Cabrini Green Legal Aid’s expungement help desks give people a second chance at life through employment, which consequently affects the unemployment rate. Legal aid work leaves an impact that reverberates through the community. It affects us all.

In addition to making a difference in individual lives, many organizations enact widespread impact through advocacy or class action cases. Such cases seek to mend a broken system or to secure relief for a particular set of people. Uptown People’s Law Center has 10 pending class actions against the Department of Corrections, including one on the inadequacy of mental health and medical care provided for Illinois prisoners.

The Children’s Initiative of the ACLU successfully forced extraordinary reforms on the state’s Department of Children and Family Services and the juvenile justice system. Their advocacy helped more than 40,000 kids get adopted since the early 2000s, shifting the balance from long-term foster care to family permanence. In May 2015, their work resulted in a ban on solitary confinement of juveniles.

The impact doesn’t have to be achieved in a courtroom. Youth Futures, a project of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, tries to better the lives of homeless youth by educating and connecting them to resources in order to meet real-life needs, like getting to school. Their Homeless Youth Manual breaks down complex legal information and includes practical information such as obtaining a birth certificate or state ID. It is expected to be available as an app by next August.

Legal aid work is not siloed, but approached holistically. Clients seeking legal aid often struggle with more than one issue. Legal aid organizations may offer supportive services or link them to services by partnering with social workers, psychologists, and doctors. They also partner with other community organizations to approach a social issue in a comprehensive way, especially in the case of immigration.

A stark realization is that sometimes, these organizations are one of a kind in providing niche services in Chicago. The Family Defense Center is the only legal aid organization that represents parents in child abuse/neglect investigations by the state. Domestic Violence Legal Clinic stands out for providing same-day emergency order of protections inside the Domestic Violence Courthouse. In the absence of such services, many people would be left in dire circumstances.

Through my interviews and site visits with various legal aid organizations, I repeatedly heard the cry for more funding. Government funds, as witnessed with the budget impasse, are not something they feel they can rely on with any certainty. Through government advocacy and direct support, it’s up to us to change that. It’s up to us, the legal community, to support the work that they do for the poorest of the poor, the ones with the most as stake. Their clients are losing their homes, losing their kids, or literally losing their lives in detrimental conditions. They are the disabled, the elderly, and the ill.

If these organizations don’t help them, it’s likely that no one will. And that would leave devastating consequences for the entire community.

Through the Campaign, we can stop that from happening. The Campaign helps keep these organizations staffed. It helps keep their lights on. It allows them to create and carry out special projects that tackle specific legal problems more efficiently.

Most importantly, through the Investing in Justice Campaign, we’re helping to close the justice gap.

This Year’s Campaign in Action Series

January Expungement Help Desks (Cabrini Green Legal Aid)

February Youth Futures (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless)

March Special Education Clinic (Equip for Equality)

April Domestic Violence Legal Clinic

May The Family Defense Center

June Chicago Medical-Legal Partnership for Children (Legal Council For Health Justice)

July Center for Disability and Elder Law

August The Children’s Initiative (Roger Baldwin Foundation of the ACLU of Illinois)

September Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing

October Pro Bono Prisoners Civil Rights Project (Uptown People’s Law Center)

November Markham’s Network of Court-Based Services