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Joe Surkiewicz: With a pro bono boost, Project HEAL expands

Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia feature more than 225 medical-legal partnerships that help low-income patients and families with a wide array of legal services, such as assistance with special education, public benefits, landlord/tenant problems, advanced medical directives, medical insurance and family law.

Maryland has one: Project HEAL (Health, Education, Advocacy, and Law), founded in September 2003 by the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service and with sites at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.

And it’s the only medical-legal partnership nationally that’s located at a specialty hospital serving children with disabilities, an especially vulnerable population.

Since its inception, Project HEAL has represented 1,163 clients in civil legal matters; provided brief advice to 1,917 patients and families; provided 3,246 consultations to health care professionals; and conducted 490 advocacy-training programs at the local, state and national levels.

Thanks to successful fundraising and a pro bono partnership with the law firm of Ober?Kaler, Project HEAL has recently expanded and now boasts a staff of three attorneys.

“We expanded last February with a full-time staff attorney, Rachel Stafford, at Kennedy Krieger Institute,” said Maureen van Stone, Project HEAL’s director at the institute. “Rachel came from the private bar. As a result, we’re able to reach out to new clients in more distant parts of the state.”

In March 2010, Ober?Kaler adopted Project HEAL as a “signature” pro bono project. “They have a pro bono coordinator and have taken 18 cases so far,” van Stone said. “It allows us to serve more people and have greater impact.”

Project HEAL acts as a bridge between attorneys, doctors, social workers, educators and health care professionals. Often, the families have multiple needs — and the demand for services is growing.

“Right now, I’m serving clients from all over the state,” van Stone said. “We’ve been to every county in the state, but two. We provide a broad range of civil legal services, such as Supplemental Security Income, special education, housing, wills, powers of attorney and family law.”

Often, the services provided are critical.

In one case, the single mother of a boy born with spina bifida was turned down three times after applying for SSI benefits for her son because the Social Security Administration said he was not disabled.

After explaining the situation to her son’s doctor at Kennedy Krieger, she was directed to Project HEAL and van Stone, who saw that the boy had a significant disability and required considerable medical care.

Van Stone worked on the case for 18 months and was finally successful in getting the boy the benefits — and changing the family’s lives. “Project HEAL is an amazing testament to what can happen when physicians and lawyers work together to benefit patients and families,” van Stone said.

In addition to its pro bono partnership with Ober?Kaler, Project HEAL gets support from both of Maryland’s law schools.

“We have good relationships with the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore law schools,” van Stone said. “We have two full-time law students from each law school working at both sites this summer. It’s been great.”

Project HEAL also offers training to teach doctors and health care professionals how to spot legal issues, and to teach low-income families and people in the developmental disabilities community how to deal with legal issues on their own.

“We offer about 75 different training opportunities annually for patients and families, health care professionals, local, state and national community groups, and pro bono attorneys and paralegals,” van Stone said.

Topics include adult guardianships, disability rights, family law, government forms, housing, landlord/tenant disputes, public benefits, school discipline, Social Security benefits and special education law.

Hope Tipton, director of Project HEAL at the Children’s Center, said her practice covers “the whole gamut” of legal services.

“We have a lot of families with custody and visitation issues,” Tipton said. “Often, grandmothers and aunts are raising non-biological children. If something happens in school or the child needs her tonsils taken out, they’re told they can’t consent to the procedure. So giving the caregiver the ability to continue to make decisions for the child is a lot of what we do.”

Much of the work also centers on special education.

“Often, children with disabilities can’t access the general education curriculum without specially designed instruction or related services,” Tipton said. “We help families navigate the alphabet soup of special education by assisting the families at IEP [Individualized Education Programs] meetings. Sometimes we are trying to get a child qualified for special education services. With others, we try to get the public school system to implement the current IEP or move the child to a more appropriate placement.”

At the Children’s Center, doctors always ask, “How is Billy or Susie doing in school?”

“Parents don’t hesitate to tell their child’s pediatrician when there is a problem in school,” Tipton said. “Often, the parent is looking for guidance and help with their child’s education.

Prior to Project HEAL, doctors would try to understand the school system, the process and law, and in turn, help the family navigate the process. Now the doctor and family have a resource and voice in Project HEAL.”

At the end of the day, Tipton says, she goes home feeling satisfied.

“Our families are so incredibly grateful,” she said. “Often they feel their voices aren’t heard and they’re grateful when someone fights for them. Each night, I go home satisfied that I made a difference in someone’s life.”

Plus, Project HEAL’s clients often have multiple problems — and solving one of them means they can better deal with the others.

“Pro bono attorneys tell me that they find the work gratifying,” Tipton added. “The simplest task can make a world of difference. We need more pro bono attorneys to go in and fight and be the voice of the families.”

Attorneys interested in volunteering can complete a volunteer application at www.mvlslaw.org or call Tipton at 410-502-0058 or van Stone at 443-923-4416.

Joe Surkiewicz is the director of communications at Maryland Legal Aid. His email is [email protected]