Whenever there needed to be a legal voice at the table, the Legal Aid Society of Metropolitan Family Services had a seat. With former U.S. presidents on the board, and handwritten letters from Presidents Nixon and Roosevelt outlining their appreciation for the work the organization does, LAS has a legacy that is unparalleled.
As the second oldest legal aid organization in the nation, LAS, one of the many outstanding organizations you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign, has been a pioneer in defining what justice for all really means. Founded in 1886, the organization was one of the first in the country to provide legal services for the poor. Its mission is to protect and strengthen families by providing equal access to justice for the most vulnerable citizens, including low-income people, the elderly and victims of domestic violence.
In 1919, when LAS joined Metropolitan Family Services (formerly United Charities), a unique collaboration between social work and legal work was created. That approach continues today, as LAS recognizes that legal problems often stem from deeper family and emotional issues. Karina Ayala-Bermejo, the LAS Executive Director, believes that the ability of the attorney to work with a social worker really does make a difference in the outcome for the client. She explains that by being able to work very closely, the client doesn’t need to be re-victimized by telling their story over and over again and that this method helps move toward entire wellness for the client.
A case LAS handled for Mary helps illustrate the impact of these interconnected services. One day, Mary’s husband beat her in front of their son and soon after threatened her with a gun. Their son jumped between them, begging his father not to kill her. The son, who had never seen this side of his father, started having nightmares. He and Mary needed counseling, and found it at Metropolitan Family Services.
Counseling¦ helped him to open up and see that I made the best decision¦, and that I was trying to save both our lives, Mary says. And help from LAS including successfully handling a highly litigated divorce was essential in stabilizing their situation. LAS also secured significant financial resources for Mary, which enabled her to attend school and purchase a home. Mary is now free, helping others as a hospice nurse, and enjoying life. She says without the legal help and counseling she received from the Legal Aid Society and Metropolitan Family Services, I don’t know where I would be.
The value of the LAS holistic method is demonstrated by the Victims Legal Assistance Network (VLAN). This partnership initiative offers wraparound services to crime victims, including legal assistance on a range of issues and social services. The VLAN has a steering committee comprised of organizations serving victims of crime. If LAS doesn’t currently provide a service that a victim of crime may need, we’re able to direct them to another steering committee member organization, says Karina.
The VLAN model of wraparound legal and social services is also present in LAS’ Human Trafficking Initiative, which started in 2011. The Initiative is a collaboration with law firms and community groups to provide free legal services to survivors of human trafficking who face legal problems stemming from their exploitation. Not only do they have an in-house expert lawyer who co-counsels on every case, but they also provide case management and on-site counseling to their clients.
Karina is very proud of both the number and diversity of clients that this initiative has been able to serve. Since its inception, the Human Trafficking Initiative has provided legal services to over 59 victims of trafficking from 14 different countries.
LAS has also played a large role in legislation in Illinois over the course of its history. The organization helped pass the first child protection laws in the state and also helped draft and pass the Illinois Domestic Violence Act in 1986. Additionally, LAS helped found the Chicago Municipal Court System.
Given the organization’s extensive history and its strong foundation, LAS has been able to adapt and respond to needs within the community that are going unmet. LAS organizes Know Your Rights workshops to help educate seniors, domestic violence survivors, and the community at large on their legal rights.
What’s next for the organization that won’t stop growing and changing? Karina hopes that the range of services provided at their downtown office can be replicated at other LAS offices and Metropolitan Family Services community centers in Chicago. To accomplish that, Karina wants to partner with more law firms in the area and build strong coalitions so that more pro bono cases are taken on. The work of legal aid attorneys is limited because of resources, she explains, so where we can continue to make a significant difference is by partnering with law firms and corporate legal departments to provide that additional legal assistance so that all their legal needs are met.
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