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Joe Surkiewicz: Social workers team up with Legal Aid lawyers

When clients come to Maryland Legal Aid, they’re often desperate. In addition to a pressing legal problem, they’re grappling with other issues that drive their lives into a crisis — no money, no housing or no medical care. Sometimes all of the above.

You could say they need a social worker almost as badly as a lawyer.

And you’d be right.

That’s why Legal Aid and the University of Maryland School of Social Work created a program that integrates first-year graduate social work students into the nonprofit law firm’s practice in downtown Baltimore.

“Clients come to us with a host of problems — the presenting legal problem, plus community-based needs,” said Cornelia Bright Gordon, chief attorney of Legal Aid’s administrative law and intake units. “For example, many people have barriers, such as mental health issues, that may interfere with the success of the legal problem. They need access to services to make the legal work stick.

“Since Legal Aid is the law firm of last resort, our clients are in true crisis,” Bright Gordon said. “They come in with threats of immediate eviction, no money or food in the house, and some are desperately ill, with no access to medical services and no insurance.”

The three-year-old project helps stabilize clients and bring their lives back to a state of equilibrium. “It’s a collaborative process between a lawyer and a trained social worker with hands-on, clinical therapeutic experience who is supervising four interns,” she said.

The interns work at Legal Aid from September through April.

“The program represents a wonderful opportunity for our practice,” Bright Gordon said. “Other Legal Aid offices around the state want to replicate it. It gives a depth of resources to our clients we never have had.”

Not that helping clients with non-legal issues is new.

“Legal services lawyers have always done social work,” Bright Gordon pointed out. “People living in extreme poverty always have multiple barriers. But when our lawyers practice social work, we do it badly.”

The social work students primarily perform case management and do clinical social work as required.

“First and foremost, we’re a law firm,” Bright Gordon said. “The clients get hooked up to services we do not know about. Also, community-based services are always changing. Clients may need help with an application for disability benefits, housing, homeless shelters and transportation for disabled individuals.”

The program is low-cost to Legal Aid, which only pays the salary of the part-time social work supervisor. (The position is partially funded by the Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Fund and the John J. Leidy Foundation.) But the results can be very big for clients.

An example:

Mrs. S. R., an elderly client estranged from her husband, was calling Legal Aid’s Senior Legal Helpline continuously, leaving six to eight voice mails a day. She got help obtaining food stamps and SSI, as well as help getting her an attorney to represent her at the criminal trial of her son, who almost beat her to death. Additionally, she received family law advice regarding her marriage.

The work was complicated by Mrs. S.R.’s diagnosed schizophrenic, bi-polar and paranoia disorders. But she had always refused mental health treatment.

The Helpline referred her to the social work supervisor, who conducted a home visit, worked up an evaluation and got Mrs. S.R. to voluntarily admit herself to the Johns Hopkins Hospital’s In-Patient Psychiatric Unit.

The social worker also got her into a three-day-per-week day program at Hopkins’ Psychiatric Unit, got her help cleaning up her home (she was a borderline hoarder) and getting a replacement refrigerator.

The result: Mrs. S.R. is more stable today, seems much happier and has not been calling the Helpline incessantly. “The point was to stabilize her,” Bright Gordon said.

While not unique, the program is a first of sorts for Maryland.

“The District of Columbia’s public defender’s office has had a similar program for 30 years and the Maryland Public Defender’s Office has had one for a number of years,” she said. “Legal Aid’s program is the first in Maryland on the civil side in a large-scale, general practice.”

The program is also a boon to the University of Maryland School of Social Work — one of the four largest in the country, with about 900 graduate students — and to the four interns.

“It gives the first-year students the most basic things about social work,” said John Hardin, the assistant director of field education and an assistant professor. “The needs of clients at Legal Aid provide the meat and bones of what our students need, such as how to feed people, get them a place to live and get their kids in school.

“The students learn how to build a healthy relationship with clients, how to get them services and are evaluated on how they do,” Hardin said. “Internships are a vital part of their education. Their experience at Legal Aid is exactly what we need. We’d like to be able to place six, eight or 10 students there.”

Joe Surkiewicz is the director of communications at Maryland Legal Aid. His e-mail is