LAJC just submitted a public comment urging the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for caring for unaccompanied minors and for reuniting them with their families through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), to abandon a dangerous agreement with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that would turn ORR into an arm of ICE.
Under this agreement, ORR and DHS will provide ICE with confidential information not only about the caregiver seeking to reunite with a minor in ORR custody, but about every person in their entire household. This will enable ICE to check every person’s immigration status and use the information to detain and deport the adults trying to reunite with their children.
This agreement and the procedures that have been proposed to implement it use children as bait to detain and deport their family members. It is in direct conflict with ORR’s mission to protect child welfare, as well as being a gross erosion of privacy rights and further evidence that this Administration is only paying lip service to child protection in order to enact practices that hurt children and keep families apart.
LAJC is committed to protecting immigrants and refugees and keeping kids out of jail. While attention has been focused on the horrible impacts of family separation on the border, the administration has been quietly continuing its project of preventing families from reuniting, a project that started over a year ago and one that LAJC has been watching and fighting against for years.
Contact: Sylvia Cosby Jones, Esq., Managing Attorney
Legal Aid Justice Center
804-521-7305 | email@example.com
PUBLIC HOUSING TENANTS REACH SETTLEMENT WITH RICHMOND REDEVELOMENT AND HOUSING AUTHORITY ON CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT
Richmond, Va., July 11, 2018— Yesterday, U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney, Jr., of the Eastern District of Virginia Federal Court, approved a class action settlement between Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and a group of tenants, valued at more than two and a half million dollars. The settlement and final order resolved a federal class action lawsuit challenging RRHA’s failure to properly set and implement tenant utility allowances. A fairness hearing was held on July 10, 2018, and Judge Gibney signed the order shortly thereafter.
Under the terms of the proposed agreement, $1,182,984.76 will be distributed among current and former Richmond public housing tenants who were subjected to RRHA’s utility surcharges from November 1, 2012, through October 31, 2016. An additional $112,876.10 will be returned to tenants through implementation of new utility allowances. The new allowances will result in reduced charges to tenants of approximately $1.3 million over three years, thus bringing the total amount of cash and other relief for tenants to approximately $2.6 million.
The class action lawsuit, filed in February 2017, alleged that RRHA’s failure to properly set, implement, and charge electric utility allowances, resulted in unlawful excessive charges to current and former public housing tenants. Federal law requires that public housing tenants not be charged more than 30% of their income for rent and utilities. A class of plaintiffs, represented by lawyers at Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), and Thomas D. Domonoske of Consumer Litigation Associates, contended that these excessive charges increased tenants’ share of their housing costs, and caused tenants to pay more than allowed in violation of federal law, state law, and tenants’ leases.
In approving the settlement, Judge Gibney found that the relief to tenants and former tenants was fair, reasonable, and adequate. During the fairness hearing, he commended the named plaintiffs in the action for their bravery in “standing up to city hall.”
In addition to monetary relief, under the terms of the settlement agreement Judge Gibney has approved, RRHA will:
Set and implement new, higher utility allowances that will stay in place for at least 3 years.
Create new notices, policies and procedures for elderly and disabled tenants needing additional electric usage due to their conditions.
Change its billing statements to give tenants more information about their utility surcharges.
Not bill to residents the Dominion “customer charge” unless HUD fails to reimburse RRHA for these charges at the same rate it reimburses RRHA for other operating costs.
Change its lease so that late fees and other non-rent charges are not treated as rent.
Change its lease so that it states whether a tenant has submetered utilities and list each tenant’s utility allowance.
Ensure RRHA staff is trained regarding utility billing procedures, tenant requests for relief from utility billing, and the grievance procedure for tenants to contest charges.
Use unclaimed refunds to create an energy efficiency fund for the benefit of RRHA public housing residents who need assistance maintaining energy efficient homes.
Shanta Miles, a named plaintiff in the case, said of the final settlement: “Unfair excess utility charges put so many families in a state of panic and helplessness. Our efforts to get the housing authority to do the right thing was well worth the many years we put into it; and today we have insured that there will be better accountability between RRHA and tenants.”
Sylvia Cosby Jones, lead counsel for the Plaintiffs, added: “This is a great day for the tenants and former tenants, who not only will be compensated for past unfair charges, but who will have a clearer and fairer process for bills going forward. We are pleased that RRHA worked hard with our clients to come to an agreement that satisfied all parties.”
About the Legal Aid Justice Center The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), representing Plaintiffs in this case, fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance. LAJC’s primary service areas are Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, Richmond and Petersburg, but the effects of their work are felt statewide.
About Thomas D. Domonoske Mr. Domonoske, representing the Plaintiffs in this case, is of counsel with Consumer Litigation Associates. His primary emphasis is on using the civil justice system to remedy credit-related frauds, including predatory lending, debt collection, and credit reporting. He has published many articles on several aspects of consumer law in various professional publications. In the past seventeen years he has given over 140 consumer law trainings at various events around the country and regularly trains JAG lawyers for the United States military. He has served as a member of the Harrisonburg City School Board and also on the Board of Directors of the Fairfield Center and the National Association of Consumer Advocates.
Alexandria Sheriff Moves to Reduce Collaboration with ICE, But More Is Needed Immigrants’ Rights Groups Demand Alexandria Jail Sever Ties With ICE
ALEXANDRIA, VA: Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne’s recent commitment to reduce collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a positive step forward, but more changes are needed in order to live up to the City’s Statement on Inclusiveness.
Sheriff Lawhorne announced yesterday that for immigrants serving a sentence imposed by a judge, his jail will no longer honor ICE requests to hold them past their scheduled release dates. For immigrants ordered released on bond, or eligible for release after time served, the jail will only hold them for 16 hours for ICE (or up to 24 hours in extenuating circumstances), no matter what day of the week. Sheriff Lawhorne will also institute timekeeping policies and regular weekly audits to make sure no one is held beyond the time allowed under this new policy.
Previously, the jail would honor ICE requests to hold both pretrial and post-conviction immigrant detainees for up to two business days past their scheduled release dates, not including weekends and holidays. In 2017, the Alexandria City Jail turned over 105 people to ICE, up nearly double from 2016. More than half of those were merely awaiting trial and had not been convicted of a crime. Alexandria also allows ICE to use its jail as a short-term holding facility for immigrants arrested anywhere at all, a practice which will not change after yesterday’s announcement.
“Thank you, Sheriff, for your willingness to engage with the community and revisit your practices. We are encouraged that you describe this as a ‘first step.’ And it is a step in the right direction,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program. “But 16 extra hours in jail for immigrants is still 16 hours too long. Immigrants should be treated no differently than citizens: after they post bail, they should be allowed to walk out the front door.”
“There is no law that compels the jail to transfer people to ICE,” said Mia Taylor, organizer with Tenants and Workers United. “Local law enforcement should not be enforcing the laws of a broken federal immigration system.”
“We are hearing a tremendous outpouring of concern from our friends and neighbors in Alexandria,” said Jonathan Krall from Grassroots Alexandria. “The jail is one place where we have the power to make a change.”
On June 18, Alexandria’s other jail, the Northern Virginia Regional Juvenile Detention Center, announced that, effective September, it will stop renting beds to the federal government to detain unaccompanied immigrant children. But with yesterday’s announcement, the Alexandria Adult Detention Center will continue to act as a short-term holding facility for ICE, both for immigrants arrested by local police in Alexandria and for immigrants arrested by ICE anywhere else.
ICE has come under fire for inhumane tactics including racial profiling, warrantless entry into homes, and the breaking up of families. The time has come for Alexandria to entirely sever ties with that agency.
Tenants and Workers United builds power in low-income, immigrant communities of color to improve the quality of our lives in Northern Virginia. We organize and support people to be agents of change in their own lives by addressing the issues they care about.
Legal Aid Justice Center is a statewide Virginia nonprofit organization whose mission is to strengthen the voices of low-income communities and root out the inequities that keep people in poverty. We provide legal support to immigrant communities facing legal crises, and use advocacy and impact litigation to fight back against ICE enforcement and detention abuses. Our ‘De-ICE Virginia’ campaign seeks to sever the ties between local law enforcement and ICE.
Grassroots Alexandria promotes local, non-partisan, long-term conversations, community education and action towards positive solutions by those who are moved to act on their conscience.
CONTACT: Rachael Deane
Legal Director, JustChildren Program, Legal Aid Justice Center
804-521-7304 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Richmond, Virginia (July 6, 2018) – In advance of the July 11 meeting of the Virginia House Select Committee on School Safety, the Legal Aid Justice Center and 23 advocacy organizations are calling upon the General Assembly and Governor Northam to address the Commonwealth’s school safety concerns by investing in supports and services to meet the needs and improve the health and welfare of students well before behavior reaches a point of violence. Rather than looking toward “hardening” our schools, Virginia policymakers must prioritize supporting and strengthening our students.
In a letter today to the House Select Committee on School Safety, which was also delivered to members of the House Appropriations Committee and Governor Northam, LAJC and its partner organizations offered detailed recommendations around four main school safety policies:
Increasing school support staff, such as school counselors and nurses;
Improving school policing accountability through tailored, mandated training for school resource officers on working with children and youth;
Investing in positive school discipline and school climate programs and methods, such as restorative practices; and
Broadening the accessibility of supports and services under relevant funding streams, such as the Children’s Services Act.
“Rather than focusing solely on what makes school buildings more secure, policymakers should be asking what makes our students safer, healthier, and more connected to their education, and we already know many of the answers,” said Rachael Deane, Legal Director of the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center. “School counselors, nurses, psychologists, and other support staff play an irreplaceable role in students’ overall well-being. It’s time to lift the state’s funding cap on these positions and to invest in prevention, positive intervention, mental health, and trauma-informed supports. These approaches dramatically improve safety not just for students, but also for teachers, staff, and communities as a whole.”
CONTACT: Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, (703) 720-5605, email@example.com
Virginia Lawyers to Report Back from Border Immigrant Detention Facility Where DHS Holds Parents of Separated Children
On Tuesday, June 26, 2018, at 11:00am, Washington, D.C.-area lawyers will hold a press conference to report their findings from the Port Isabel immigrant detention facility, which the Department of Homeland Security has designated as the holding site for parents of separated children. The press conference will take place at the offices of the Legal Aid Justice Center, 6066 Leesburg Pike, Suite 520, Falls Church VA 22041. Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP or, if unable to attend, for call-in information.
The lawyers speaking, each of whom interviewed and provided legal counseling to dozens of parents who were victims of the family separation policy:
Sophia Gregg, Legal Aid Justice Center staff attorney
Ofelia Calderon, founding partner at Calderon Seguin PLC, Legal Aid Justice Center board member, and Dulles Justice Coalition board member
Sirine Shebaya, Muslim Advocates senior staff attorney and Dulles Justice Coalition board member
Eileen Blessinger, principal of Blessinger Legal PLLC and longtime Legal Aid Justice Center supporter
Sara Elizabeth Dill, partner at GJC Corporation and Dulles Justice Coalition board member
Legal Aid Justice Center will also provide updates on their legal efforts to help free immigrant children trapped in juvenile detention centers and locked shelters in Virginia, and to help Virginia families seeking to reunite with immigrant children detained by the government anywhere in the country.
*La conferencia de prensa será en inglés pero los abogados son bilingües y estarán disponibles para entrevistas con medios de comunicación en español.*
# # #
Legal Aid Justice Center is a statewide Virginia nonprofit organization whose mission is to strengthen the voices of low-income communities and root out the inequities that keep people in poverty. We provide legal support to immigrant communities and use advocacy and impact litigation to fight back against ICE enforcement and detention abuses. Since 2014, we have represented over 150 immigrant children though our Refugee Kids in Court initiative.
Muslim Advocates is a national legal advocacy and educational organization that works on the frontlines of civil rights to guarantee freedom and justice for Americans of all faiths.
Dulles Justice Coalition is a nonpartisan alliance of individual volunteers from legal non-profits, law firms, and all walks of life working to uphold democracy and justice. Our volunteers remain focused on fighting the Muslim Ban and other unjust immigration policies on a person-to-person level and in the courts, and we remain committed to using our collective voice and power to stand shoulder to shoulder with our immigrant and refugee neighbors to counter discrimination and bigotry.
Richmond, Va., June 12, 2018 — After three years housed within the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), RISE (Re-Invest in Supportive Environments) for Youth (RISE) will take formal steps over the summer toward becoming an independent organization. RISE for Youth is a non-partisan campaign in support of community alternatives to youth incarceration. Since its launch in 2015, RISE has been an active and influential voice for juvenile justice reform in Virginia. Placing youth activism at the center of its efforts, the campaign has successfully advocated for both the closure of the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center and the reinvestment of the funds used to operate that facility into community-based services while opposing the building of new juvenile prisons. Valerie Slater, RISE for Youth Campaign Coordinator and a recent fellow of the National Juvenile Justice Network’s Youth Justice Leadership Institute, will take the helm as Executive Director of the new organization, with support from juvenile justice organizers Rebecca Keel as Policy Director and James Braxton as Strategic Engagement Director.
During the transition, RISE will operate under fiscal sponsorship until the campaign core is incorporated. LAJC Executive Director Mary Bauer said, “We’re thrilled that RISE has grown to the point that this transition is possible. The campaign has achieved unprecedented youth-led victories in juvenile justice reform over the past three years. It is deeply gratifying to see this investment result in the creation of a new, sustainable community-based asset.”
After transitioning into fiscal sponsorship, RISE for Youth will continue engaging community members and justice-involved youth to plan the next phase of its juvenile justice advocacy work. Ms. Slater explained, “Years of community engagement, educating and activating allies, and local and state level legislative advocacy have helped put our communities’ voices front and center, making our opposition to the outdated youth prison model and support for community-based alternatives seen, heard, and accounted for. This next step will help RISE for Youth grow and adapt to allow for even greater community collaboration in our work.”
After the transition, LAJC will continue to push for juvenile justice reform in Virginia. Rachael Deane, Legal Director of the JustChildren Program, said, “JustChildren has a twenty-year history of successful advocacy on behalf of low-income and justice-involved youth. We look forward to continuing that advocacy and to partnering with RISE for Youth to ensure that Virginia continues to invest in proven, community-based alternatives to youth incarceration.”
Nearly three months after the close of the 2018 General Assembly Regular Session, Governor Northam signed the 2018-2020 biennial budget bill, which most notably included the necessary framework for the Commonwealth to expand its Medicaid program in order to cover nearly 400,000 currently uninsured low-income Virginians. The Medicaid Expansion advocacy effort has spanned 5 years, three administrations, and several different iterations of the General Assembly, but one constant over that time period has been the united front of advocates–individuals and organizations across the spectrum–who continued to fight long and hard for this moment. LAJC is proud to have worked as a partner in the Healthcare for All Virginians coalition, alongside our friends at The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis and the Virginia Poverty Law Center (thank you, Jill Hanken!) as we fought for the healthcare needs of our clients.
The main provisions of the expansion will come into effect on January 1, 2019, but the state has already posted more information on the ins and outs of the new coverage categories on its CoverVa website here.
Medicaid Expansion is a huge victory, and deservedly in the spotlight as the headliner of the state’s new budget, but LAJC also advocated for many other budget reforms, many of which were realized in meaningful ways:
Children’s Mental Health:
We successfully advocated alongside our partners at Voices for Virginia’s Children to make sure that children were included in the approved proposal to invest $7 million to establish a statewide system of alternative transportation for children and adults under a Temporary Detention Order (TDO). Currently, after patients have been evaluated and found to be in need of involuntary inpatient treatment, they are transported to treatment facilities by law enforcement, which includes shackling and being placed in a police cruiser. The new funding will allow Virginia to develop treatment-focused alternative transportation options that can decriminalize what can be a traumatic experience for patients who are already experiencing trauma. LAJC has worked with several very young clients, for example (ages 7 and 9) who, because of no other options, were shackled and taken to the hospital by law enforcement. One of these children had just been removed from his family by social services and seen his own father arrested–his only other experience with police at that point. Providing options in appropriate cases can help patients, families, and even law enforcement provide appropriate, safe care while using the patient’s own therapeutic needs as a guiding principle, which follows best practices in mental health treatment.
K-12 Public Education:
The biennial budget’s largest K-12 investment went to rebenchmarking our overall spending, which the General Assembly must do on a set schedule. It’s critical to underscore that rebenchmarking in and of itself DOES NOT provide the full and necessary investments in our Standards of Quality to assure all children across the state are receiving a high-quality education. We have a long way to go, and LAJC will continue to advocate, using all of our tools, to assure our K-12 system is adequately funded. Even so, the new budget did contain several new pieces of funding for policy proposals on our legislative agenda this year:
1. We successfully advocated for a one-percent increase (to 14% from 13%) to the “At-risk Add-on” range, a funding stream that provides additional dollars to local school divisions, measured in relation to the number of economically disadvantaged students attending in the division. Increasing the high end of the range will help some of our most under-funded school divisions (several of which are in our practice areas) provide more funding to students in need. Our goal for the year, in collaboration with our partners in the Alliance for Virginia’s Students, was to raise this threshold to somewhere between 20% to 25%; while we will accept the incremental bump as a win, we will continue to push for increases in funding that prioritize areas of poverty in the Commonwealth.
2. Through advocacy with both the Governor’s office and the General Assembly, we successfully advocated for a $1 million increase in funding for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a framework that helps to reduce the use of school suspension and expulsion by focusing on prevention, improving school climate, and tailoring higher-level interventions to the specific needs and circumstances of students with more challenging behavior issues. Nearly seven years ago, LAJC led the way in advocating for the initial line-item inclusion of PBIS in the budget, and this year’s budget addition represents the largest increase in the program since its inception. And we will continue our advocacy to create and improve more alternatives to suspension and expulsion–read more about our recommendations, which include things like restorative practices and social and emotional learning, in our Suspended Progress reports.
We successfully defended against a proposal initially put forth by the House of Delegates to build a new 156-bed facility at the old Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center site, which would have put an exceptionally large youth prison back in a remote location that has a terrible history of unsafe, harsh youth incarceration, and placed community alternative funds in great jeopardy. The General Assembly instead approved pieces of a plan put forth by the Northam administration to build a 60-bed facility in Isle of Wight, Virginia, and lay some initial groundwork for planning a to-be-determined Central Virginia facility to replace Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center. We will continue to advocate for the decarceration of youth, and to work hard on reforming our juvenile justice system to stop the flow of young people further into the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems.
Just as one session ends, it seems preparation for the next year’s session begins. Stay tuned for more information on LAJC’s 2019 legislative advocacy agenda over the next few months. We’ll be continuing to work on issues like reforming the court debt process, increasing education equity and education funding, improving school discipline and reducing school exclusion, protecting immigrant communities, reducing evictions, and assuring low-income Virginians are able to achieve economic security. If you’d like to become involved in our legislative and administrative advocacy, please contact LAJC Attorney and Policy Coordinator Amy Woolard at email@example.com. You can also sign up for our email alerts here.
Attorney and Policy Coordinator, Legal Aid Justice Center
434-529-1846 | firstname.lastname@example.org
LAJC Celebrates Enactment of School Discipline Reform Legislation
Richmond, Virginia (June 1, 2018) – After a years-long effort by its JustChildren Program to stem Virginia’s school suspension crisis, the Legal Aid Justice Center celebrates the enactment of two major pieces of school discipline reform legislation, which await Governor Northam’s pen during a ceremonial bill signing this afternoon. The new laws will take effect on July 1, making Virginia one of the first states in the nation to enact statewide school discipline reform.
Senate Bill 170, patroned by Senator Bill Stanley, will dramatically curb suspensions of young students in grades pre-K through third grade by capping most suspensions of children in these grades at no more than three days. House Bill 1600, patroned by Delegate Jeff Bourne and chief co-patroned by Delegate Dickie Bell, narrows the length of most long-term suspensions to a period of 11-45 school days, down from the current span of 11-364 calendar days. Both bills passed the General Assembly with strong bipartisan votes.
“These laws are a powerful first step toward reducing school pushout and improving school climate for Virginia’s children,” said Amy Woolard, staff attorney and policy coordinator with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “We are pleased Virginia has recognized that exclusionary discipline harms students and that there is a better way. To that end, we are also grateful that the two-year budget recently passed by the General Assembly includes an additional $500,000 per year for implementing positive behavior supports in schools across the Commonwealth.”
Last fall, the Legal Aid Justice Center released a report showing that Virginia schools issued over 131,500 out-of-school suspensions to over 70,000 individual students during the 2015-16 school year, including over 17,300 short-term suspensions to children in pre-K through third grade alone. The vast majority of suspensions were issued for non-violent, relatively minor misbehavior.
Today, the Legal Aid Justice Center and its pro bono partners, WileyRein LLP, Kelly & Crandall and Consumer Litigation Associates file a Pretrial brief in support of their Motion to Show Cause Why the Defendants Should Not Be Held in Contempt for their ongoing failure to provide adequate medical care at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.
The brief calls for VDOC’s persistent non-compliance with the Consent Order entered in February 2016 to end. The women incarcerated at FCCW continue to suffer from woefully inadequate medical care in patent breach of the obligations the Defendants willingly assumed under the provisions of the Settlement Agreement reached by the parties and approved and entered by this Court as a Consent Order on February 5, 2016.
Even before this Court entered the Consent Order, VDOC officials knew that its for-profit contractor, Armor Correctional Healthcare (“Armor”) was failing. Persistent understaffing led to staff turnover, failures in training and supervision, miscommunications, deadly medical mistakes and, ultimately, to a culture of unhappiness and uncaring that permeates FCCW’s health care operations to this day. A critical lack of leadership at FCCW was allowed to fester. Essentially, at every turn, and at every level, VDOC failed to hold the contractor accountable for providing an appropriate level of care at FCCW.
Now, approaching two and one-half years after the Settlement Agreement was approved, and some nine months after the filing of the Show Cause Motion, the Plaintiffs still experience deprivation or mismanagement of care for their serious illnesses, unalleviated chronic pain and a substantial risk of harm, including preventable, premature death, attributable to the VDOC’s consistent failure to provide constitutionally-adequate medical care at FCCW as mandated by the Consent Order.
Legal Aid Justice Center will hold a rally demanding justice for Claudia Patricia Gómez González, and the end of the practice of separating children from their parents at the headquarters of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol at 1300 Pennsylvania Ave NEW, at 11am on Wednesday, May 30th.
On May 23, 2018, the use of excessive force by border patrol agents ended in the death of Claudia Patricia Gómez González. She was coming to Alexandria, Virginia in search of a better life. Instead she was killed.
Meanwhile, our government is literally ripping children out of the arms of their mothers and locking them in separate cages. The administration says it’s to discourage asylum seekers from coming to the U.S. We say it’s inhumane.
Join us for a peaceful protest in front of CBP headquarters at 11am tomorrow. We will gather on 14th St NW, between Pennsylvania and Constitution Ave to demand CBP end its use of excessive force, and demand the administration end the inhumane practice of separating children from their parents. All are welcome.
Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program is at the forefront of the fight for the rights and fair treatment of immigrant children in Virginia.
We’ve handled over 150 cases of Central American unaccompanied minors applying for legal status so they can remain in the United States.
We’ve brought a lawsuit against ICE challenging their practice of detaining immigrants in remote detention centers across the country and bouncing them like pinballs from one detention center to the next, without taking their family status and the location of their children into account. That lawsuit is currently pending.
This month we filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of an immigrant youth who was being held in detention, apart from his family, for nine months with no end date in sight and no clear path for his family to get him out of detention. Rather than try to defend their actions and policies in court, the government released him two weeks after we filed the case