Prairie State Legal Services, Inc. (PSLS) began serving clients on October 1, 1977. We started with five Illinois offices located in Bloomington (McLean County), Geneva (Kane County), Peoria (Peoria County) Rockford (Winnebago County), and Waukegan (Lake County). Our staff consisted of 15 attorneys, three paralegals, and one or two support persons in each office. About 80% of our funding was from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) through an appropriation by the U.S. Congress.
As a fledgling legal services organization we handled a wide variety of cases for our clients including divorces, evictions, welfare, social security, unemployment insurance, defense in civil tort cases such as assault and battery, and negligent driving defenses. In our early years, there was little prioritization of the types of cases for which we would provide representation and we generally handled “whatever came in the door” for our low income clients.
From 1977 through 1979 we expanded to nine offices adding new locations in Kankakee, Ottawa, Rock Island and Wheaton. For the most part, each office began serving adjacent counties as well as the county in which the office was located. Again, this expansion was largely funded by a grant from LSC. After this expansion, Prairie State served 29 counties.
The Challenge of Reduced Federal Funding
In 1981, the entire country experienced a nearly one-third reduction in federal funds for legal services. Moreover, changes in federal law restricted benefits to welfare recipients and tenants residing in federally subsidized housing. Over the next decade, Prairie State met this challenge by seeking input from clients and the communities it served as to what types of cases were most critical, prioritizing the cases handled, taking advantage of growing technology so that cases could be handled more efficiently, and by bringing some larger lawsuits that would have a positive impact on large numbers of eligible clients. Those lawsuits challenged the manner in which government agencies administered welfare benefits such as General Assistance and federally subsidized housing benefits. We represented developmentally disabled persons on special education and other institutional issues. During this period we also began to represent victims of domestic violence under the recently enacted Illinois Domestic Violence Act.
In the early 1990's, federal funding for legal services increased, as the national climate then was more favorable to the provision of legal services for low income persons. As staffing and client load increased, our staff engaged in efforts to examine how we accepted cases for representation. Out of these sessions came the notion of prioritizing services for those with a “basic human need.” Such needs included being free from violence, having food, a place to reside, a basic level of income, and essential medical care, among others. We adopted a case acceptance methodology whereby we would look at the human problem the prospective client presented, determine if it was a basic human need and then determine if there was a legal solution to that problem. If there was no legal solution we would make a referral to another human services agency that could assist the client with his or her problem.
Responses to Congressional Restrictions
In the middle 1990's Congress imposed restrictions on the types of cases we could accept and the manner in which we could provide representation. In response to this challenge, and to free time for case-handling by full-time advocates, we created the Telephone Counseling Service. This is a group of part-time attorneys who provide intake for all of our counties using telephone technology. These attorneys specialize in being general practitioners who provide advice to callers on a wide range of legal issues and who refer cases to an office if the case is within the particular office’s priorities. We also increased our efforts to diversify our funding sources so that our reliance on any one funding source was substantially reduced. This trend has continued, so that at present, LSC now provides only about 35% of our total funding.
In 2000, West Central Illinois Legal Services Foundation, located in Galesburg (Knox County) serving 6 additional counties, merged with Prairie State. In 2009, the Will County Legal Assistance Program, located in Joliet (Will County) merged with Prairie State. With those counties we now serve 36 Illinois counties in Northern and Central Illinois from 12 offices with a staff of approximately 120 persons including 74 attorneys.
Prairie State Today
Today, we continue to represent many hundreds of clients each year in preventing domestic violence; preventing unlawful evictions; preserving their homes; obtaining and maintaining Medicaid, SSI and Social Security Disability benefits; keeping custody of their children; and resolving a myriad of other problems that involve their basic human needs. We represent clients in court, before administrative tribunals, before school boards of education, before such agencies as local housing authorities or the Illinois Secretary of State, and in obtaining assistance through powers of attorney and guardianships.
We have established courthouse-based projects at which victims of domestic violence or persons who are in danger of losing their homes through eviction can obtain immediate representation in court. We have collaborated with local human service agencies in a number of communities to establish continuums of care for homeless persons, for persons in need of medical assistance, and for victims of domestic violence. We have joined with other advocacy organizations to share strategies in such areas as maintaining medical care in a person’s home or obtaining a life preserving medical procedures. We have brought and succeeded on behalf of our clients in complex lawsuits seeking to preserve our clients’ constitutional rights to due process in obtaining and maintaining welfare and veterans’ benefits; preventing consumer fraud by nursing homes in falsely promising residents that they could remain at the facility when their private funds were exhausted; thwarting home lending abuses; and preventing housing authorities from terminating our clients’ subsidized housing solely because the housing authorities believed themselves to be in financial difficulty. We have represented parents in obtaining and preserving special education benefits for their children at administrative due process hearings and in court cases. We have negotiated settlements that prevented the State from terminating our clients’ welfare benefits because of alleged failure to comply with certain work search requirements. In the current economic climate, we have provided representation for persons who are in danger of losing their homes through mortgage foreclosures and predatory lending practices.
These are but a small sample of the kinds of cases PSLS has undertaken throughout its history. As always, we seek to remain flexible to changing client needs. In each and every representation our presence contributes to what should be a basic principle for any democracy - that all persons should have an equal opportunity to obtain solutions to their problems through the existing legal system.