By Andrew Cohen
For many Alameda County residents, the emotional strain of having a sick child worsens when legal and financial problems get in the way of proper health care. Through an innovative program with Oakland Children’s Hospital, the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) works to ease that burden.
The East Bay Medical-Legal Partnership provides legal services to low-income patients and their families, trains the hospital’s medical staff in legal advocacy, and advocates on policies affecting pediatric health.
Two days a week, EBCLC lawyers, volunteer attorneys, and law students interview patient families at the hospital’s outpatient primary care clinic. They zero in on issues that can affect a child’s health, including lack of health insurance, inadequate family income, substandard housing, and immigration status.
“We’re doing a lot of issue-spotting with these cases because frequently clients are struggling with many problems at the same time,” says EBCLC staff attorney Yvonne Troya. “Clients come in for a screening and check off one problem on our list of potential issues. By the time the screening is done, sometimes we will have identified four other items that need attention.”
Some of those items bring welcome news. Troya met with one family that was receiving $300 a month in CalWorks—and didn’t realize it was legally entitled to $1,100. EBCLC also brings clients up to speed on their housing rights, such as educating people living in foreclosed homes who may have received false and deceptive information from banks or realtors about their rights.
Explaining rights, easing fears
“Many clients are very frightened when they come in,” Troya says. “A lot of them don’t know they have a right to stay in their home through the course of the foreclosure process. We’ve been able to advise them and walk alongside them as they negotiate with the bank and realtor to stay longer and try to avoid eviction.”
Realizing that poverty is tied to poor health, EBCLC lawyers try to stabilize families and increase their access to health care. The first meetings with clients usually include legal education, counseling, and some advocacy on their behalf. After that, the EBCLC representative will either open a case file for ongoing advocacy or refer the client to another legal service or social service provider.
The clinic helps families on a wide range of legal issues, including helping disabled children get Social Security benefits, and improving conditions in sub-standard housing where poor ventilation, plumbing leaks, mold, and mildew affect the health of kids with asthma.
“It’s a big plus to be able to assist these families onsite at the hospital,” says Sheila Hall, EBCLC’s Health Practice director. “It removes a barrier to getting the help they need, and enables these families to focus on their challenges dealing with income, housing, and access to health care.”
In step with its mission
Founded by Berkeley Law students in 1988, EBCLC is the largest provider of free legal services in Alameda County. Two years later, it launched a medical-legal partnership that still provides services to low-income people living with HIV and AIDS.
In addition to direct client service, EBCLC regularly trains hospital staff on legal advocacy issues related to immigration, public benefits, housing rights, and special education. This training helps the hospital staff recognize when a patient’s family should be referred to the partnership.
Berkeley Law students give presentations to the residents, and are closely involved in the partnership’s operation. This summer, EBCLC expects to have at least two students working primarily on medical-legal partnership cases and rotating through office hours at the hospital.
“We try to let them handle the cases as independently as possible,” Hall says. “Supervised law students go to Children’s, meet with families, do the intakes, and conduct the necessary research for determining how to proceed. The law students are largely responsible for how the case is developed and its outcome.”