Duke Law clinic helps launch medical-legal partnership for children

October 10, 2007Duke Law News

October 10, 2007 ― The Children’s Law Clinic, formerly known as the Children’s Education Law Clinic, has broadened its focus with an initiative that involves pediatricians and other medical personnel in identifying legal issues that may be impeding children’s health and well-being. The clinic is collaborating with Legal Aid of North Carolina, Duke Primary Care for Children, and Lincoln Community Health Center in Durham in adopting a national model developed by the Boston-based Medical-Legal Partnership for Children. The partnership will soon include the Division of Pediatric Pulmonary Medicine at Duke Medical Center as well.

“There is a lot of data that indicate children living in poverty, without access to habitable housing, health insurance, sufficient nutrition, and stable families have poorer outcomes than children who don’t face those issues. Using legal remedies to ameliorate some of those problems can be immensely beneficial to the affected children,” says Clinical Professor Jane Wettach, director of the Children’s Law Clinic.

Wettach and lawyers from Legal Aid of North Carolina have trained pediatricians and other clinicians at the partnering medical practices to help them identify the social and legal issues that may be affecting their young patients and have set up a system to refer appropriate issues to the law student-staffed clinic or to Legal Aid. Under faculty supervision, Duke Law students handle issues relating to education ― the clinic’s long-time area of focus and expertise ― and handle some public benefits issues. Currently three clinic students are representing disabled children who were referred from their doctors in appeals after the children were turned down for Supplemental Security Income benefits.

Dr. Barbara K. Walter, clinical coordinator of the Duke Children’s Primary Care Behavior, Development, and Mental Health Team, observes that in addition to assisting parents of children with disabilities understand their rights and helping them access and advocate for appropriate services, the partnership has assisted patients’ families with issues relating to legal guardianship, power of attorney, and benefits, just some of the issues that can somehow affect children’s health.

“The partnership offers a wonderful opportunity to work together to prevent negative health and psychosocial outcomes for the children of our community,” she says.

The Medical-Legal Partnership in Durham adopts a model pioneered at the Boston Medical Center in the early 1990s, and now being used in more than 70 programs nation wide to help bring legal access into clinical settings.

The Children’s Law Clinic continues to handle the full panoply of education-related issues that it has made its specialty since it was launched in 2002, says Wettach. The new partnership builds on that, opening new avenues for low-income individuals to gain access legal services and, in the process, helping medical clinicians identify and treat social issues that impact child health. “Best of all, it helps expose our students to a broader range of substantive legal issues and to another way of doing pro bono work and meeting the needs of the low-income community that aren’t being met,” she says.