Legal help now offered at Ky. Clinic

Doctors don't generally want lawyers practicing in their offices, but a new program at the Kentucky Clinic is bringing the two professions together.

The idea is to improve children's health by making sure they have access to a lawyer when they need it.

"Medicine relies on children having all of their basic needs met, or it doesn't work," said Marlene Huff, an associate professor of social work who works in the pediatric offices and helped start the free program.

Children need legal help when landlords won't address mold and cockroach problems or when the people taking care of them, like grandparents, don't have guardianship, said Jan Clark, the attorney who now spends two days a week in the pediatric offices of the Kentucky Clinic at the University of Kentucky.

Called Child Advocacy Today, the program is one of a growing number of programs bringing doctors and lawyers together and the first to open in Kentucky. The idea started in Boston and has spread to medical centers across the United States.

Sometimes the help is as simple as guiding parents through the bureaucrat-ese of Medicaid forms, Clark said. Other times it is more complicated.

One recent case involved a mother who was separated from her child's father. The mother wanted the child to be vaccinated; the father didn't. So Clark helped the mother file a pleading, asking a judge to give her the right to vaccinate her child.

Several cases have involved children with attention deficit disorder or other special education diagnoses who weren't getting the help they needed at school. The children didn't have individual education plans, as mandated by law, or their plans weren't being followed, she said.

Doctors are concerned because they treat those children with medication, Clark said, but the medication won't help if the school isn't supporting the child as well, she said.

And kids whose needs aren't addressed don't do well at school. "They start failing," she said. "It's emotional health as well as physical health."

Clark opened the office at Kentucky Clinic in November. So far the program has handled 29 cases, most of which involved applications for Medicaid or the Kentucky Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides health insurance to children whose families make too much for Medicaid.

Clark either handles the case herself or refers it to one of the attorneys who have volunteered to help the program.

She expects more cases as doctors become aware of the program and learn how it can help them.

Doctors have to know how to uncover legal problems affecting their patients' health, said Dr. Kim Northrip, a pediatrician at Kentucky Clinic who also helped get the program started.

"Often parents don't think to tell pediatricians that they're having these problems, so the pediatricians have to actively ask," she said.

Northrip had access to a similar program when she worked in Washington, D.C.

Many of the problems may be resolved easily, said Jackie Duncan, director of the Kentucky Volunteer Lawyer Program and another organizer.

Landlords, for example, might ignore social workers or doctors, but they usually pay attention to a lawyer, Duncan said.

"Simply writing a letter tends to get results," she said.