Improving Family Health Through Legal Representation

Nationwide Children's Hospital Patient Stock Photo

Some families who come to Nationwide Children’s Hospital face legal situations that could impact their health, from domestic violence risks to the threat of eviction. For those families who need legal assistance but may not know where to turn, Nationwide Children’s offers a free service that had a remarkable impact in 2021 – Lawyers for Kids.

Last year, front line clinicians and staff at Nationwide Children’s referred 1,512 families to Lawyers for Kids for a wide array of needs that can be addressed through legal intervention.

“When we help families leave a domestic violence situation or get food stamps, we might not see that immediate health outcome, but we know that it does contribute to their health,” says Callie Query, managing attorney for Lawyers for Kids.

The service is particularly important for children who live in poverty; the 20% of children in Ohio who live below the poverty line have a disproportionate number of legal needs, says Query. For example, a child with asthma may be following their treatment plan but may still experience flare-ups caused by mold in apartments that housing managers are slow to fix. The family may need Lawyers for Kids to help address this problem through legal intervention. 

The program offers families legal counsel, handles administrative hearings on their behalf or represents them in litigation. Families are referred to Lawyers for Kids through front line professionals like care coordinators, social workers and nursing staff. The program offers training to help with recognition of issues that can be addressed through legal intervention. 

Lawyers for Kids is one of a number of what are called “medical legal partnerships” across the country, and the legal services themselves are kinds of health care interventions. Data shows that these interventions improve health, help patients comply with treatment plans, decrease caregiver stress and improve clinician satisfaction. These data are reinforced by a study conducted by Lawyers for Kids last year, surveying 150 families. The findings showed perceived stress reduction after legal intervention. 

Nationwide Children’s medical legal partnership began in 2013 at The Center for Family Safety and Healing and was born out of the legal needs of families dealing with domestic violence. In cases with allegations of child abuse or neglect, Lawyers for Kids will help the non-offending parent get or maintain custody or ensure the child is receiving the proper support at school.

The program expanded in 2016 to partner with the Legal Aid Society of Columbus and officially became Lawyers for Kids in 2019. Many medical legal partnerships contract with a local legal aid agency. What makes Lawyers for Kids unique is the environment of collaboration between the hospital’s in-house attorneys and the Legal Aid Society of Columbus. 

“Legal Aid attorneys are familiar with social determinants of health and are passionate about finding families who need help,” says Cari Stork, program manager for Lawyers for Kids. “They are some of the greatest partners you can have in this kind of endeavor.” 

While the program’s most-referred cases deal with family law, benefits, housing and education, Lawyers for Kids also helps families with a wider range of legal problems like consumer issues, guardianship cases for adult disabled children, wills and power of attorney forms.

Just a few of the program's successes in 2021 included:

  • 5 children were prevented from being expelled from school
  • 16 families obtained or maintained monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits 
  • 5 families received increased home health care hours
  • 38 families avoided eviction
  • 15 families had improved housing conditions

Approximately 31% of referrals need extended services like legal representation in a hearing, while 60% of referrals simply need counsel or advice. The other 9% of cases referred to other organizations or legal service providers. The referrals needing in-court representation are usually sent to Legal Aid while the others are kept in-house. 

“We're able to expand our reach because of our hybrid model,” says Stork. 

In addition to legal intervention, Lawyers for Kids ensures families are connected with other resources they need. For example, if a family is struggling with food insecurity, the program can assist them with food stamp applications and connect them with community resources. 

In 2022, Lawyers for Kids is expanding their efforts to create systemic change by intervening in legal issues that affect multiple families across the state, such as working with the Ohio Department of Medicaid on its rules relating to the needs of complex care children. The program also plans to study its impact in certain zip codes. Lawyers for Kids seeks to positively impact whole communities by helping families realize that legal intervention can be an option for them too.

“We want to be able to provide services to every family at Nationwide Children's Hospital,” says Query. “Ultimately, our goal is to empower families.”