Yale-New Haven joins legal partnership for children advocacy

Children in Yale-New Haven Hospital now have access to better legal support through a new state-based nonprofit for children advocacy.

The Center for Children’s Advocacy, a nonprofit that works to promote the legal rights of vulnerable children in Connecticut, and Yale-New Haven formed a new Medical-Legal Partnership Project in June. The collaborative aims to improve the health outcomes of children from low-income backgrounds through on-site legal intervention, such as improving housing conditions, protecting educational rights or providing access to appropriate services for disabilities.

“In order to impact the medical problems, the legal issues had to be taken care of,” said Bonnie Roswig, the senior staff attorney of Center for Children’s Advocacy. She added that regardless of the medicine doctors prescribe for sick children, some problems cannot be fixed because of the environments in which children live.

Among the program’s targets are children who suffer from preventable conditions, such as asthma and skin problems, that arise because of poor housing conditions. In one instance, a doctor discovered that a child who suffered from asthma and epileptic seizures was living in a house with bed bugs that could exacerbate the diseases. The program helped the child’s family move to a clean apartment, according to Alice Rosenthal, the attorney who works on-site at the hospital. She added that the child has also benefited from special education services with the help of the program.

“[The families] are so excited,” said Rosenthal. “Sometimes they are worried that they shouldn’t talk about their private information, but they are mostly excited to talk to the lawyer right at the hospital.”

In addition to direct outreach to New Haven residents, project staff members will lead training sessions with faculty at Yale-New Haven and other healthcare providers about the legal issues that affect children’s health.

The idea of bringing a medical-legal partnership to Yale-New Haven was first brought up eight years ago by a Yale Law School student who was studying medicine at Stanford, said Ada Fenick, the acting director of Yale-New Haven’s Pediatric Primary Care Center and medical site director of the project. Fenick started looking for more supporters and took steps to implement the student’s idea, and the project finally started in New Haven earlier this summer.

Medical-legal partnerships have gained momentum throughout the country over the last decade after first launching in Boston. The Center for Children’s Advocacy expanded the collaborative to Hartford’s Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in 2000. There are currently over 180 medical-legal collaboratives operating throughout the nation.

The project’s “ultimate mission” is the improvement of health outcomes on an individual basis as well as systematically throughout an entire area, said Jay Sicklick, the deputy director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy and director of the Center’s MLPP. The multidisciplinary nature of the collaboration allows the organization to approach specific issues through means such as faculty training at hospitals while also working toward the implementation of better policies statewide.

Though the Yale branch of the project will operate out of Yale-New Haven, the Center for Children’s Advocacy also offers services throughout the state in schools, clinics and after-school programs. The organization provides a wide range of legal counsel and also offers representation to children who are victims of abuse, on the verge of juvenile detention or who have disabilities and lack adequate resources.

In order to access the legal services, children and their families must visit the lawyer’s office located in the hospital’s pediatric clinic. The service is free of charge and operates with funds provided by Yale-New Haven, a grant from the Wiggin and Dana law firm and community donations.

“We are hoping we can hire more attorneys [to expand the service] to the adult side of the hospital so that we can affect the whole family,” Rosenthal said. “There are thousands of adults who could also benefit.”

Yale-New Haven is the largest hospital in New England, with 5,799 pediatric discharges in 2012.

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