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Children’s Law Center’s Medical-Legal Partnership: A Holistic Approach to Child Welfare in the District

By Jessalyn Schwartz

On October 24th, Children’s Law Center (CLC) invited legal professionals and advocates to visit their Medical-Legal Partnership site at the Children’s Health Center of Anacostia, providing a window into the impactful Healthy Together program. One of the first medical-legal partnerships in the country, the Healthy Together program was built on the idea that many of the health issues facing children in the District were not solely medical in nature. Many social determinants of health that children face include inadequate housing, school exclusion, or food shortages, among other problems, and medical providers were not equipped to address them with medical treatment alone.

Children's Health Center Anacostia storefrontThrough the Healthy Together program, CLC has now placed attorneys in seven health clinics across DC to identify legal barriers to treatment—ones like poor housing conditions that cause asthma—and help bridge the gaps that exist for youth and families. Doctors are trained to perform screenings and ask questions about issues that may lead to legal intervention. On-site attorneys may have easier access to medical records, be able to obtain letters for reasonable accommodations, and advance their clients’ interests with the assistance of medical providers.

The Healthy Together program is currently made up of eleven attorneys and two investigators who work closely with CLC’s pro bono attorneys, guardians ad litem, and the advocacy of third-party caregivers and parents to serve communities in need. There is also a very active policy team in place, tackling the systemic issues that attorneys and providers are seeing on the ground. A substantial piece of CLC’s focus in this work is the BUILD Health DC initiative, a partnership between CLC, the DC Department of Health, and IMPACT DC. BUILD Health DC is concentrated on the intersection of housing conditions and pediatric asthma disparities in the city and provides data resources, direct services, and tools to assist community stakeholders in improving health and wellness for children and families.

site visit photoKathy Zeisel, the Senior Supervising Attorney onsite at the Anacostia clinic, reported that the medical-legal partnership has increased client access to legal counsel and allows providers to address more health issues and have a deeper understanding of legal issues facing their patients. In 2017, CLC’s medical-legal partnership directly assisted over 3,100 children and families, 57% of whom were from Wards 7 and 8. On a systemic level, CLC has released a comprehensive city-wide mental health plan for children, generated innovative mold legislation, and engaged in advocacy related to children with disabilities, housing conditions, and agency oversight in housing and healthcare provision.

Pro bono attorney involvement is essential to the success of Healthy Together and other services provided by CLC. Jen Masi, CLC’s Pro Bono Director, reported that CLC takes on approximately 200 new cases each year in the areas of child custody, caregiver representation, special education, and housing conditions. CLC provides screenings, trainings and resources, and mentoring by experienced staff to ensure that pro bono counsel are equipped to zealously advocate for their clients. To learn more about getting involved, contact Jen Masi at jmasi@childrenslawcenter.org or visit www.childrenslawcenter.org/pro-bono.