About Us

Humble Beginning

     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.

New Locations

     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.

Prioritizing Services

     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.

Mergers

     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.

Our Commitment

Prairie State Legal Services is committed to fiscal accountability as well as high quality legal services, as demonstrated below.

The organization undergoes an extensive independent audit each year in accordance with U.S. Government Auditing standards under the Office of Management and Budget Circular A-133. The audit includes additional testing and reviews pursuant to Legal Services Corporation rules. Prairie State files IRS form 990 each year. These forms are accessible through Guidestar.

Prairie State uses an extensive case management database that enables the organization to track services in six minute increments by funder, by service, by client, and staff person. Funders can be assured that PSLS can fully document the services it provides under its various grants. The organization also records the result of cases for which it provides representation in court, administrative agency hearings or negotiations. A selected number of clients receiving legal advice services by telephone receive follow-up surveys so that Prairie State may evaluate the impact of its legal advice services.

Prairie State is committed to providing effective and efficient legal services in a fiscally responsible manner. However, responsiveness to the changing issues affecting our communities requires creativity and innovation.

Recognition

Prairie State has been recognized over the years for their commitment to excellence in services and creativity in service delivery. Recognition has included:

  • Illinois Association of Area Agencies on Aging - Sid Granet Award for innovations in service delivery.
  • Retirement Research Foundation Encore Award for excellence.
  • Governor's Award for Unique Achievement.
  • The Shriver National Center on Poverty Law 2008 Housing Justice Award.
  • "Exemplary service to victims of crime" (Victim Justice Coalition, 1997)
  • Partners in Peace Award (Community Crisis Center 1995 and 2006)
  • National Pro Bono Partner Award for involvement of corporate attorneys in services to low-income women (Association of Corporate Counsel 2004)
  • "Excellent performance" rating (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (each year 2004 through 2009)

The Docket

The "Prairie Fire" is Prairie State’s docket of notable cases, projects and activities. This docket provides our staff, our Board, our clients and the public the opportunity to read short summaries of some of the noteworthy cases and other activities of Prairie State staff. In addition, The "Prairie Fire" explains the firm’s special projects and provides some relevant statistics concerning our work. Click on the links to see issues of The Prairie Fire.

Victories for Clients

PSLS preserves Client's utility services and child's health.

Our client, estranged from her husband due to domestic violence and subsequently divorced, found employment in a bank, but lost her job when an injury left her unable to work. She supported herself and 4 children (including twins) on Social Security disability and SSI benefits, and a small amount of rental assistance from the city where she lived. The client never received child support and was unlikely to ever receive it. When she came to PSLS, ComEd and NICOR had dramatically increased her bills by unlawfully charging her for utility services used by her ex-husband for a separate residence after the divorce. When she could not pay these utility bills, the electric utility threatened disconnection. One of client's children has asthma and needs a nebulizer, requiring electricity. ComEd would not accept a doctor's note to keep the electricity on unless the client agreed to repayment plan of the entire billed amount within the next 30 days and paid $500 immediately. PSLS filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy to discharge her debts, and prevented disconnection of her utilities.

PSLS successfully increases Social Security benefits for client with disabilities.

Our client, in her mid-40s, has been disabled, receiving Social Security disability benefits since her mid-20s due to schizophrenia. However, the client was also entitled to additional dependent benefits based on her father's work history because her disability started before age 22. Nevertheless, the Social Security Administration denied her request for these additional benefits. PSLS represented the client at an administrative hearing at which it was necessary to prove that the client was disabled before age 22 and that client's own limited work history soon after that did not disqualify her from getting dependent benefits on her father's account. At the hearing before an administrative law judge, PSLS put on evidence and convinced the judge, not only that she was disabled before age 22 but that client's work was not more than a trial work period, so she was not disqualified from benefits. We successfully qualified the client for dependent benefits.

PSLS prevents Client's eviction by obtaining a Fair Housing Act reasonable accommodation,

Our client was a long-time resident (for more than 20 years) of a section 8 project-based housing complex. When acquiring an untreated bipolar condition, she began displaying bizarre and annoying conduct at the premises. This led her landlord to file suit to evict her, threatening to make her homeless. We requested a reasonable accommodation for her condition of disability: to postpone the eviction proceeding while she went to an inpatient treatment facility to get her condition stabilized, to be followed up with medication and counseling. After PSLS obtained the postponement on this basis, the landlord monitored client's progress and later voluntarily dismissed the eviction case.

PSLS prevents termination of Senior Client's Subsidized Housing Benefits.

The local Housing Authority terminated the Housing Choice voucher of a 70 year old client. The voucher enabled our client to live in affordable housing. The client had surgery for throat cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy treatments when the Housing Authority terminated his voucher. The Housing Authority took this action because Client had failed to report as income a small pension of $62 per month that he had received for the past 5 years, which affected the amount of rent he was charged. The client mistakenly believed that he had previously reported this income as part of his Social Security income. However, the Housing Authority called it an intentional failure to report income. PSLS represented the client at an administrative hearing on appeal. PSLS successfully proved that this was a mistake and not intentional. Based on client's age and health challenges, we requested a reasonable accommodation that client receive assistance with reporting at future redeterminations of eligibility for the voucher. The hearing decision was entirely in the Client's favor, reversing the decision to terminate the voucher, and allowing client to pay the difference in rent through a repayment plan. This enabled client to maintain his subsidized housing .

Outreach Presentations

     Prairie State Legal Services provides outreach presentations for organizations and groups in the 36 counties we serve. We can respond to requests from your group to speak on a wide range of topics and issues facing the community, depending on availability of knowledgeable staff. For more information or to inquire about presentations, please contact the managing attorney in your local office.

MCLE-Approved Training

     For attorneys, Prairie State provides MCLE-approved training on a variety of subjects. For more information, please contact Linda Rothnagel, Director of Advocacy Training, at training@pslegal.org.

By Request

We also take requests from social service or government agencies, attorneys and client groups to deliver presentations on substantive legal subjects. Let us know what subject(s) you would like us to present to your group.

Presentations are available on the following topics:
Protecting Victims of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault & Stalking: Essential Information for Social Service Providers
Family Law for Unmarried Parents: What Social Service Providers Need to Know
Legal Issues Impacting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in Illinois
It’s Tax Time! Tax Issues for Social Service Providers Working with Low and Moderate Income Clients
Fair Housing: What You Need to Know to Help Your Clients Identify and Challenge Unlawful Housing Discrimination
Renters' Rights and Obligations: Helping Your Clients Maintain Decent Housing
Public and Subsidized Housing: What Social Service Providers Need to Know
Mortgage Foreclosure: What Social Service Providers Need to Know
Mortgage Foreclosure: Illinois Law for Housing Counselors
Working with Clients in Debt: What Social Service Providers Need to Know
Enabling Clients to Access Public Benefits: What Social Service Providers Need to Know
Applying for Social Security Disability or SSI: What Social Service Providers Need to Know

Prairie State Legal Services proudly partners with many public and private organizations working to make equal justice a reality in our state. Individually, and in partnership with one another, these institutions and organizations work to ensure that low-income individuals and families have timely and meaningful access to legal information and services necessary to allow them to assert, defend and enforce important legal rights.

Prairie State Legal Services has sought to preserve and expand services to people in need by building a strong foundation of support from a variety of funding sources. Much of our funding comes from the federally-funded Legal Services Corporation. Prairie State is also funded by the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois, Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, The United Way, Area Agencies on Aging, many state, federal, and local funders, and private contributions.

Please see our Annual Reports page for a complete list of funding organizations and private donors.

Legal Services Corporation
LSC is the single largest provider of civil legal aid for the poor in the nation. Established by Congress in 1974, LSC operates as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that promotes equal access to justice and provides grants for high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income Americans.   Funding is distributed based on the number of persons living below the federal poverty level according to the last U.S Census. Recipients of LSC funds must abide by various federal laws and regulations governing LSC grantees. 

Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois
The Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois is a not-for-profit corporation formed in 1981. The Lawyers Trust Fund is the beneficiary and administrator of the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program. The IOLTA program allows interest to be earned on nominal or short-term client deposits held in lawyers' pooled trust accounts. The interest is paid directly to the Lawyers Trust Fund and used to contribute funds for providing civil legal assistance to the poor throughout Illinois and for programs specifically approved by the Supreme Court of Illinois that benefit the public.

Illinois Equal Justice Foundation
The Illinois Equal Justice Foundation (IEJF), a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, distributes funding appropriated by the State to support not-for-profit legal aid programs. The funding for the IEJF, which comes through an appropriation through the Office of the Attorney General, directly helps families in crisis, victims of domestic violence and seniors facing abuse and financial exploitation. The IEJF supports innovative, cost-effective legal aid programs that empower clients to resolve legal issues and regain control of their lives. These programs offer information, guidance, advice, representation and tools to help clients understand the legal system and their rights within it.

United Way
Prairie State is proud to be a United Way agency and encourages your support of the United Way in your community. Prairie State receives generous support from thirty United Ways throughout our service area. Combined, these United Ways provide one of our largest sources of funding. Local community and business leaders determine the funding that is awarded to each funded agency or program. Prairie State provides each United Way with data to show the impact of the legal services provided in each area.

Please see our Annual Reports page for a list of all United Ways supporting PSLS.

Area Agencies on Aging
There are five Area Agencies on Aging in the Prairie State Service area and each provides vital financial support for legal services for persons aged 60 and older. This funding comes from the Older Americans’ Act. Legal services are focused on helping older adults in the greatest social and economic need. 

Central Illinois Agency on Aging www.ciaoa.com
East Central Illinois AAA www.eciaaa.org
Northwestern Illinois AAA  www.nwilaaa.org
Northeastern Illinois AAA www.ageguide.org
Western Illinois AAA www.wiaaa.org

U.S Department of Justice provides funding that enables Prairie State to expand its services for low income victims of domestic violence.  Through a grant under the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) which was awarded by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, Prairie State was able to establish a courthouse based domestic violence legal services program based in the Kane County Judicial Center. This project serves victims seeking emergency legal services.  A grant under the Violence Against Women Act enabled PSLS to expand its legal services for low income victims to provide more holistic legal relief. 

Please see our Annual Reports page for a complete list of all of granting organizations

Donors
Federal funding for legal services for the poor was cut significantly in the mid 1990’s and, although it was briefly restored in recent years, it has not kept pace with inflation. In response to the volatility of federal and state funding, the Board of Directors launched in 1997 the Campaign for Legal Services, a fundraising initiative directed at the private bar. Today, more than one thousand individuals and organizations support the Campaign for Legal Services each year.

Please see our Annual Reports page for a complete list of donors.

Legal Services Corporation
LSC promotes equal access to justice. We encourage you to support LSC. LSC's support for this website is limited to those activities that are consistent with LSC restrictions.

United Way
United Way supports many important community agencies, including Prairie State Legal Services. We encourage you to support your local United Way.

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