Justice Circle supports the Law Project, marks 20th year of the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act

Members of the legal community who support the work of the Law Project gathered Feb. 13 for the annual Justice Circle reception, hosted at the Chicago Bar Association. Support for the Justice Circle helps the Law Project work on behalf of children, families, and unaccompanied youth who face homelessness.

Illinois Supreme Court Thomas L. Kilbride
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas L. Kilbride

After a welcome from CCH Board President Jacqui Algee,  Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas L. Kilbride told more than 100 attendees of the need for legal services for people living in poverty. 

“Homelessness is the most poignant manifestation of poverty,” said Justice Kilbride, explaining his support for the Law Project.

Our 2014 event marked the 20th anniversary of the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act, also known as Charlie’s Law. Charlie was an Aurora teen who was denied enrollment in school after his family became homeless. With two-thirds of the Law Project’s casework focused on children and teens facing school-access issues, CCH invited two recent clients to tell their stories.

Simmie Cobbs, an Oak Park high school senior who excels in football and basketball, said he “was in a tough situation” when he faced a housing crisis during high school. The family of one of Simmie’s close friends offered him a place to live, so he transferred back to Oak Park River Forest High School. But last August, the Illinois High School (Athletic) Association barred Simmie from pre-season football practice, and he missed the first games awaiting an IHSA ruling that he could play. The Law Project filed for a dispute hearing on Simmie’s behalf to ensure that he was able to fully participate in sports. The day after the dispute was filed, Simmie was permitted to join the team for the third game of what became a playoff-bound season.

“[The Law Project] fought for me, got me back in school, got me back on the team,” Simmie said.  Simmie’s standout season helped the receiver earn a football scholarship to Indiana University, where he will start classes this summer.

As the Chicago Tribune reported earlier this month, “Simmie Cobbs went from a senior without a scholarship offer to the focus of a Big Ten recruiting battle.”

Nora Flaherty (left) accepting her award presented by Niani and Jamilah Scott (center)
Nora Flaherty (left) accepting her award presented by Niani and Jamilah Scott (center)

Niani Scott, another accomplished high school student, attended the Justice Circle event with her mother, Jamilah Scott. Niani and Jamilah presented awards to Nora Flaherty and Nora’s law firm, Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C. Working with the Law Project, Ms. Flaherty devoted more than 100 hours of attorney time to advocating on behalf of Niani when she faced harassment from her Bolingbrook school.

“With the help of Nora and Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, I felt empowered,” commented Niani.

Ms. Flaherty acknowledged both her client – “Niani is proof that there are people who are worth it to work so hard for” – and the Burke, Warren law firm, which encouraged the attorney to commit her time to the case. Alex Marks, attorney and chair of the firm’s Pro Bono Committee, accepted the award on the firm’s behalf.

The Law Project also honored the Honorable Julia Nowicki. While presiding over one of the Law Project’s cases in Cook County Circuit Court, Judge Nowicki showed great concern and care for homeless students and helped the parties negotiate and agreement that greatly assisted students.  Judge Nowicki said that the relentlessness and passion with which the Law Project represented its clients impressed her greatly.

A group of awardees was also recognized for their dedication to and history of implementing education rights for homeless students in Illinois. These professionals, each in their own way and in different areas of the state, have worked directly and tirelessly with families, children and youth to make educational rights a reality: Amber Damerow, Tremel Daniel, Deb Dempsey, Matt Hanafee, Diane Nilan, Ron O’Connor, Patricia Rivera, Jeanne Rowe, Maggie Schroeder, and Patricia Scott.

CCH Board member Tom Lysaught, an attorney who chairs the Justice Circle host committee, concluded the evening by noting the importance of supporting the Justice Circle. “Whatever we can do to make the paths easier for these kids, that is what we should do,” Mr. Lysaught said.

Other attorneys serving on the Justice Circle host committee are CCH Board members Angela Barnes, Richard Goldstein, Dem Hopkins, Julie LaEace, Joseph Putnick, Chris Sanders, Andrew Shapiro, Chris Shearer, Jessica Staiger and Chris Ward; and Joel Friedman, Lawrence Griffin, and Nathan Herbert. More than 60 attorneys have joined the Justice Circle in 2014.

You can learn more about the Justice Circle and join with a tax-deductible donation online.
– Story by Ali Heinen, Law Project case intake coordinator, and photography by Shruti Sharma