Rachel O’Konis Ruttenberg was appointed by the Board of Directors as The Family Defense Center’s Executive Director in July 2016. She joined the Center as its Deputy Executive Director in March 2015.
During her tenure so far, Rachel has made significant improvements in the Center’s operations and infrastructure. She has prioritized developing talent and has directed the Center through its founder transition. Rachel recently led the Board of Directors through a year-long strategic planning process that will take the Center through 2020. She also developed the Center’s first-ever annual development plan, using donor data, cultivation strategies, and improved messaging to increase revenue. Rachel works closely with our Director of Legal Services to direct the legal and policy strategy for the Center. She was instrumental in the Center’s development of a project that uses collaboration to advocate for and implement changes in child welfare interventions for families experiencing domestic violence. She also leads the Center’s legislative advocacy efforts in Springfield.
Prior to joining The Family Defense Center, Rachel was the Chicago director of a youth services organization called the Marilyn G. Rabb Foundation, which led enrichment and after-school programs for high school students on Chicago’s west and northwest sides. She previously served as Assistant Counsel to the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, providing expertise specifically in the areas of K-12 and higher education.
Before that, Rachel spent six years in various roles at Chicago Public Schools, including as Special Assistant to the Chief Administrative Officer. While working for Chicago Public Schools full time, Rachel earned her J.D. with a concentration in public interest law from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 2011.
Rachel received an M.S. in integrated marketing communications from Northwestern University in 2004, where she was the youngest-ever editor-in-chief of the nationally distributed Journal of Integrated Marketing Communications. She received her B.A. in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2001.
Rachel is a 2014 graduate of the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership (IWIL), an exclusive leadership program for women interested in politics. She has been featured on several panels at conferences, specifically on the topics of management and alternative public interest law careers. In 2017, Rachel received The Honorable Abraham Lincoln Marovitz Public Interest Award from Chicago-Kent College of Law.
Rachel lives in Evanston with her family.
Director of Legal Services
Sara Gilloon joined the Family Defense Center in 2014, originally as a Staff Attorney and Pro Bono Program Coordinator, prior to becoming Director of Legal Services in 2017. She has represented and advised hundreds of parents and caregivers in all aspects of child welfare investigations and litigation, including federal civil rights litigation. She has gained particular expertise in advocating on behalf of survivors of domestic violence as well as families dealing with so-called “safety plans” that place unlawful restrictions on parents’ custody of their children, without adequate basis and often in violation of families’ fundamental rights.
In addition to frequently securing legal victories on behalf of individual clients and their families, Sara has played a lead role in obtaining and enforcing significant policy improvements (relating to families facing domestic violence as well as policies surrounding mental health issues) in several of the FDC’s most impactful federal civil rights cases, including A.B. v. Holliman and L.W. v. DCFS. She is also co-counsel in FDC’s class action lawsuit Nicole P. v. DCFS, filed in September 2016 on behalf of thousands of people across Illinois, which has already led to the implementation of a new, improved Illinois Department of Children & Family Services Rule governing a previously overbroad category of alleged neglect known as Allegation 74, “Inadequate Supervision.”
Sara continues to direct FDC’s lauded pro bono program and frequently represents the Center in the legal aid community both in Chicago and nationally. She has presented at the American Bar Association’s National Parent Attorney Conference and the Illinois Legal Aid Advocates Conference, frequently speaking on the topic of building and maintaining successful pro bono programs. She was also selected to participate in the 2017 Family Defense Leadership Workshop at the University of Michigan Law School’s Child Advocacy Law Clinic, along with other up-and-coming leaders across the country in the field of child welfare advocacy.
Prior to joining FDC, Ms. Gilloon practiced general litigation at Winston & Strawn, where her extensive pro bono work included successfully obtaining political asylum for a young mother from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and taking on the role of lead counsel in a contested child custody trial.
Sara received her J.D., with high distinction, from the University of Iowa College of Law in 2008, where she earned membership in the Order of the Coif (awarded to the top 10% of the class) and served on the Journal of Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems. Sara received her B.A. in Economics and Spanish, summa cum laude, from the University of Notre Dame, where she was also inducted into the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society. Sara studied abroad in Spain during both college and law school and speaks Spanish proficiently. She is also an avid tennis player and college sports fan.
Domestic Violence Project Attorney
Sara Block is the Domestic Violence Project Attorney at the Family Defense Center. In this role, Sara is implementing a pilot program that bridges the domestic violence and child welfare communities together in order to meet the complex needs of child welfare involved families who are experiencing domestic violence. Sara received her J.D., magna cum laude, from Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 2007, where she was a Child Law Fellow and the Features Editor of the Children’s Legal Rights Journal. Sara was a Skadden Fellow at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago with a fellowship focusing on the intersection of domestic violence and child welfare. As a two-time Skadden Flom Incubator Grant recipient, Sara has been advocating to improve the way the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services intervenes into the lives of families experiencing domestic violence, and co-founded the Domestic Violence Child Welfare Resource Coalition. Sara is an Adjunct Professor in the Masters of Jurisprudence in Child Law program at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, in which she teaches Child Welfare Law and Policy, and Juvenile Justice Law Policy. In 2014, Sara was awarded the Family Defense Center’s Major Litigation Award for her involvement in Julie Q. v. DCFS, and the Jewish United Fund’s “36 Under 36” award. Sara also received the 2017 Outstanding Partner Award from the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network. Sara is currently the President of the Board of Directors of SHALVA, a domestic violence agency serving the Jewish community in the Chicagoland area. Sara received her Bachelor of Arts degree with honors in American Studies from Northwestern University. Sara has two daughters and feels honored to be their mother.
Líadan Donnelly provides representation to clients in all aspects of the Center’s work, including advice and representation during investigations, representation at administrative hearings and in administrative review actions, supervision of pro bono cases, and work on the Center’s federal civil rights cases and broader policy projects. She has a particular interest in allegations of neglect related to so-called “unsafe sleep” and cases involving safety plan representation. Líadan also serves as the staff liaison to the Center’s Young Professionals Board, and has overseen the revitalization and expansion of the group during her time at the Center.
Líadan received her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center in May 2014, where she was an Articles Editor for the Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law. While in law school, Líadan spent a semester in London studying at the Center for Transnational Legal Studies, with a focus on international human rights. She also pursued her interest in public interest law during law school by working on behalf of political prisoners at Freedom Now.
Prior to joining the Center’s staff, Líadan worked for a year in her hometown, New York City, representing low-income New Yorkers in a variety of public benefits and Social Security cases at MFY Legal Services (now Mobilization for Justice). Líadan received her B.A. in U.S. History, with honors, from the University of Chicago in 2011. She is proficient in Spanish and enjoys cooking and painting in her spare time.
Bryan Liberona received his J.D. from Temple University in Philadelphia in 2007 and his JBA in Public Relations and Communications from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2002. Prior to attending law school, Bryan gained valuable experience in the AmeriCorps Vista program working in public relations in New York. Before moving to Chicago, he worked as an intake attorney at SeniorLAW Center in Philadelphia where he represented seniors in collections cases and utility cases in addition to his intake work. Bryan is fluent in Spanish and enjoys reading, writing, and jogging in his spare time.
Melissa Staas received her J.D., magna cum laude, from Loyola University Chicago School of Law in May 2007, where she was the Editor-in-Chief of the Children’s Legal Rights Journal. In 2010, Melissa was awarded the Chicago Sun-Times Public Interest Fellowship in recognition of her academic achievements and her commitment to public interest law. Through her work with the Family Defense Center, Melissa has represented hundreds of families involved in the child welfare system and has gained expertise in cases involving allegations of domestic violence and cases involving complicated medical issues. Prior to attending law school, she gained valuable experience as a grant-writer with Centro San Bonifacio (a grassroots, not-for-profit organization in Chicago, IL) and coordinator with Disability Services at the University of Minnesota. Melissa received her Bachelor of Arts degrees in Psychology and Women’s Studies from the University of Minnesota.
Development and Administrative Staff
Alejandra “Alex” Ballesteros manages the office’s internal controls and client billing, coordinates the organization’s day-to-day donor stewardship efforts, maintains office space and inventory, and keeps organizational records. Alex is a staff representative of the Board of Directors’ Finance Committee and is responsible for providing up to date financial information to the Executive Director, Development and Communications Manager, and independent auditors. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is fluent in Spanish. Alex is a proud mom of a toddler girl and a young boy. Alex likes to read and play with her children in her spare time.
Mayra Miranda is the administrative assistant at the Family Defense Center. She is a graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in Gender and Women Studies and a certificate in Global Health. Prior to joining the Center, Mayra served as a health educator through the Chicago Health Corps AmeriCorps Program. She hopes to obtain a nursing degree in the near future. Mayra is fluent in Spanish and enjoys reading and traveling.
Development and Communications Manager
Connie Prater leads resource development and communications for the Center, including management of the organization’s institutional and individual giving campaigns, digital and print marketing, and special events. Prior to joining the Center, Connie was Grants Manager at Latinos Progresando, where she was responsible for all facets of the organization’s grant portfolio and increased grant revenue by over 30% over three years. Connie earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish Language and Literature from The University of Chicago in 2014. Connie is proficient in Spanish and enjoys cooking, going to concerts, and traveling.