Monthly Archives: August 2010

Another housekeeper alleges ‘slave-like’ mistreatment by Dickerson family

Legal Aid client Lisa WilkinsonAnother woman has  stepped forward claiming she was cheated out of thousands of dollars in wages and endured slave-like conditions  working as a housekeeper at the home of a Dickerson, Md., family.

Lisa Wilkinson of Laurel tearfully told WUSA-9 News she wasn’t surprised when she saw news reports last week about a legal immigrant from Venezuela filing a federal lawsuit against the family for never being paid and being held in “slave-like” conditions for nearly five months (see below).

“If I had spoken up sooner she wouldn’t have gone through months of mistreatment,” Wilkinson said in the office of  Nathaniel Norton, her Maryland Legal Aid attorney.

To read the article and see a video of the news report, click here.

Housekeeper claims she was treated like slave, files lawsuit in federal court

Supervising attorney Nathaniel Norton, client Janet Gonzalez

A housekeeper claiming she was held in slave-like conditions in a rural Dickerson, Md., household for nearly five months without pay filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against the family.

“I felt that I would never live the house and I felt a lot of fear,” said Janet Gonzalez, 55, speaking in  Spanish through an interpreter at a news conference in Rockville yesterday. “I thought I would never see my family again.”

Her lawyer, Maryland Legal Aid supervising attorney Nathaniel Norton (in photo with Gonzalez), said she is a documented worker from Venezuela who has lived in the U.S. for 12 years.  He said Gonzalez is owed about $14,000 in back wages and is entitled to triple that amount. The lawsuit is also seeking punitive damages. Gonzalez also filed a complaint under Montgomery Co.’s domestic worker law.

Exploitation of vulnerable women who speak little English and are desperate for work “isn’t limited to undocumented workers,” Norton said. “We can’t take away the trauma she endured. We can give her her day in court.”

News coverage of the lawsuit included The Daily Record, the Montgomery Co. Gazette, several Washington TV news stations, and Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision.

Law firm of last resort

Today’s Of Service column in the Daily Record looks at Maryland Legal Aid’s downtown Baltimore intake process, which saw 670 prospective clients walk through its doors in June.

“People come in for any number of reasons,” said Bobbie Steyer, the lawyer in charge of Legal Aid’s intake unit, which hosts open intakes three days a week. “We are the law firm of last resort. Courts, other law firms, social services — if they see someone with an inkling of a legal problem, they send them here.”

“The people coming in used to be the poorest of the poor — until the economic downturn,” Steyer said. “Now we’re seeing people who thought they’d never come here. They’re unemployed, their house is in foreclosure.

“Housing is the biggest issue by far,” she continued. “People come in who are getting evicted tomorrow and we try to find places for them to go. But all the financial resources from other agencies have dried up.”

To read the entire column, click here.

Abused domestic worker held in slave-like conditions to file lawsuit in federal court

When D.C. resident Janet Gonzalez took the Monday through Friday, live-in maid position in rural Dickerson, she was promised $350 a week and transportation to and from the Shady Grove Metro station at the beginning and end of the week.

But employers Belinda and James Caron held Gonzalez in slave-like conditions for nearly five months. The Carons refused to pay her, restricted her phone access and declined to drive her to the nearest Metro station, miles from their isolated country home.

After nearly five months, Gonzalez secretly called the National Human Trafficking Hotline after the number appeared on a television show. The hotline connected her to CASA de Maryland’s Domestic Worker Committee, who arrived at the Carons’ home with a delegation of 15 domestic workers and community advocates, rescuing Gonzalez from the abusive environment.

“This shouldn’t happen to anyone. I was lied to, abused and cheated,” said Gonzalez, a legal immigrant from Venezuela. “I want people to know that things like this happen. I demand justice for all domestic workers.”

Gonzalez will speak at a press conference at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 10, on the steps of the Montgomery County Council Building in Rockville (100 Maryland Ave.). Joining her will be County Councilmember George Leventhal, co-sponsor of Montgomery County’s Domestic Worker Law; members of CASA de Maryland’s Domestic Worker Committee; attorneys from Maryland Legal Aid (who represents Gonzalez); and officials from the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protections.

The press Conference, organized by CASA de Maryland, will highlight the plight of domestic workers suffering from ongoing abuse in affluent Montgomery County. The same day, Gonzalez’ Legal Aid attorneys will file a lawsuit in federal court seeking back pay and punitive damages.

For more information, contact Tania Del Angel, (240) 353-2288 (tdelangel@casamd.org) or Joe Surkiewicz (410) 951-7683 (jsurkiewicz@mdlab.org).

Small tax bill sends Baltimore home to tax sale

Maryland Legal Aid’s Baltimore City co-chief attorney, Joe Rohr, was quoted in a recent Baltimore Sun article  about tax sales. Rohr explained that low-income homeowners facing foreclosure can’t afford to pay debts that accumulate leading up to a tax sale (often over small municipal bills). “The clients who come to us, who are eligible for our services, aren’t able to pay that kind of money in lump sum,” he said. To read the article, click here.