STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

When the doctor's prescription is a lawyer

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

Sometimes a family needs more out of a trip to the doctor than what a physician can provide. In those instances, an attorney might be what the doctor orders. It's called a medical-legal partnership, and there are 36 states that have them including one in Michigan that’s helped hundreds of low-income families over the past decade.

Hailee Rose is seven years old, with blond hair and a shy smile who loves math and spelling bees. She has a rare genetic disorder called 22Q, which can manifest itself in many different ways. In Hailee's case, it severely impacts her speech and language development.

Hailee goes to Sayre Elementary in the South Lyon school district, and she's in a first grade general ed classroom. She's thriving. Her teacher says Hailee's making improvements all the time. Hailee’s grandmother, Cheryl Blevins, says it hard to believe that just a year ago Hailee was almost not allowed to go to Sayre Elementary. The school district wasn’t going to let her. 

The South Lyon school district wanted to keep Hailee in a special ed classroom for severely disabled children, but Hailee’s impairment is verbal, not cognitive, and her family fought with the district for two years to get Hailee into a general ed classroom. (The school district cannot comment because of federal privacy laws.) Blevins says they brought in letters from her pediatrician and her neuropsychologist "saying this is what she needs, and they would not give it to us."

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Megan Hall (right) says many people told her to move to a different district to get better services for her daughter.

Megan Hall, Hailee's mom, says numerous people told her she should move to a different district to get better services for her daughter. But Hall, a single working mom, wanted to stay in South Lyon to be near Hailee's grandmother. So one of Hailee’s doctors put the family in touch with a lawyer named Debra Chopp.

Chopp directs the Pediatric Advocacy Clinicat the University of Michigan Law School. It’s a medical-legal partnership between the Law School and C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, the Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti, the Ypsilanti Health Center and the Washtenaw County Public Health Maternal Infant Health Program. 

Medical staff from the hospitals and health centers refer patients who need help with legal matters that are affecting patients' health. Chopp says often those legal matters involve children with special needs. "A doctor might see a child with a chronic illness who’s missing a lot of school and the school’s not accommodating that child," explains Chopp, "or a child with a disability who maybe is receiving special education but that child’s Individualized Education Program, their IEP, is not really appropriate for what this child needs."

"Having free attorneys who have the power of the University of Michigan Law School behind them ... the threat is implicit in our sitting in that room that we could file a lawsuit," says Debra Chopp.

That's where Chopp and her law students step in to advocate for the child. They show up at the school for IEP meetings with the family; they bring in testimonials from the child’s team of doctors. They do whatever they have to do to improve that child’s special education plan, and their services are free for low-income families.

"Having free attorneys who have the power of the University of Michigan Law School behind them ... the threat is implicit in our sitting in that room that we could file a lawsuit," says Chopp.

Debra Chopp has sued school districts on behalf of her clients, but "the vast majority of the time we come in and we work it out" without filing a lawsuit. In the case of Hailee Rose, Chopp didn't have to go so far as to file a lawsuit, but she firmly believes if the clinic hadn't stepped in Hailee would still be in a self-contained classroom, separated from the general ed population.

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Hailee's family calls lawyer Debra Chopp a "savior" for helping to get Hailee into a general ed classroom, where she is thriving.

Hailee's mother Megan Hall agrees. "She's our savior," adds grandmother Cheryl Blevins.

In addition to education issues, the clinic also works on cases that deal with domestic violence, public benefits, and housing. U of M's Law Quadrangle magazine also highlighted the clinic's cases that deal with denials of Medicaid coverage.

The clinic gets more than 100 referrals a year, but can only take around 50 cases (all civil) due to limited staff.

Dr. Jacqueline Kaufman is a pediatric rehabilitation neuropsychologist at the University of Michigan, and she has referred a few of her patients to the Pediatric Advocacy Clinic. She says it's too soon to tell what kind of effect the law clinic will have on her patients, but she already sees a lot of benefits for patients' families.

"I hear parents talking with more strength and perseverance than I saw prior," says Kaufman, and they "become better advocates" for their children. "So I really want to keep using the service."

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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