There's a Lawyer in the House!
Friday, May 01, 2009
- OU Medicine Spring 2009
Down the hall and around the corner from the pediatric exam rooms in the Schusterman Clinic is a small office, not much bigger than a walk-in closet, where sits (gasp) a lawyer.
While OU physicians focus on curing the medical ills of their young patients, Legal Aid attorney Adrienne Watt and the clinic’s two pediatric social workers take aim at the social problems that threaten the health and social well-being of these vulnerable children during their growing-up years and beyond.
Together they tackle tough problems that low-income parents need legal help to solve, from vermin-infested rentals to protective orders to a child’s problems at school. Watt is careful not to take any cases that the private bar might handle, and she files no injury lawsuits for monetary damages. “We see this as a way of meeting environmental needs that can translate into physical and psychiatric problems,” said William A. Geffen, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics, who worked with Legal Aid of Tulsa to arrange for Watt’s three year assignment at the clinic.
“Adverse experiences produce stress in a child, and the health effects, whether acute or chronic, may show up years later as heart disease, diabetes, depression. People are at higher risk if they grew up in environments where there are problems. “The parents of these children often don’t recognize something as a problem or think they can’t do anything about it,” Geffen said. Geffen’s own family charitable foundation, plus gifts from the Ruth Nelson Family Foundation, the Grace and Franklin Bernsen Foundation, the Linda Mitchell Price Foundation, the John Steele Zink Foundation and the George Kaiser Family Foundation funded the program, which is affiliated with the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership. The partnership as created in Boston in 1993 by Barry Zuckerman, M.D., chief of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, because of his frustration with the legal problems that affected his patients’ health. He decided that what his clinic needed was a lawyer.
Watt – like Zuckerman – realized within weeks of the program’s opening last fall that she was dealing with about 25 different legal areas affecting her clients, from custodial issues to special education and from housing to child support. “I encounter a lot of families that are suffering because they don’t have enough income to meet their basic needs,” Watt said. “They can’t pay the rent, there’s not enough money for food or medication, you name it. So I’m always looking for any ways to bring more income into the household.” One way is to make delinquent dads pay the child support they owe. “I can work with child support enforcement or bring independent action,” Watt said, explaining that an important part of her job is helping a parent navigate the legal system.
Federal education programs also require expert navigation skills, and Watt often finds herself attending a school meeting between a parent and a teaching team. “We have children with special medical needs, and part of my job is to help parents advocate for the special education services they may be entitled
to under federal law.” Sometimes the child’s medical problem isn’t readily apparent to the school, and when the child misses enough class, the school brings a truancy case. “Once I get involved, I bring it to the school’s attention that the absences are medically related,” Watt said. Watt’s involvement in such issues can calm rough waters, as it did recently when she assisted a parent whose developmentally disabled child was suspended for aggressive behavior. Acting as facilitator, she helped the school and parent agree to an educational plan that would help the child stay in school.
Watt became a specialist in housing issues during her earlier Legal Aid work and now spends considerable time “trying to keep people in their homes. Sometimes the landlord acted unlawfully to get people out. Sometimes, if the person is behind on rent or there is a lawful basis for eviction, I might negotiate with the landlord to give the family time to find other housing.
“Sometimes the housing is inhabitable, the owner says he can’t afford to repair it, and I negotiate for the client to move without paying a penalty for breaking the lease,” Watt said. “If the parent has a legal defense and I can keep the child in the house, that’s my job.”
Watt also works to ensure that the children of homeless parents are able stay in their schools of origin, even as the parents move their families. “It’s very disruptive for children to constantly move from school to school and have new teachers and be interrupted in their educational program.
“Helping the child is the goal.”
Watt is a Tulsa native with a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and, after a stint working for the National Conference for Community and Justice of Northern Ohio, received her law degree in 2004 from Georgetown University.
“I always knew from a young age I wanted to be involved in social justice issues,” she said. Attendance at a week-long camp sponsored by the Tulsa-based Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice when she was 17 was “life-changing and clarified my mission to civil rights.” Watt continues her involvement with the anti-bias and bigotry center as a board member.
Both Watt and Geffen said it is too early to assess the medical-legal program’s effect on the health of the clinic’s young patients, but after just a few months of operation, Geffen said he felt it was succeeding. “In the past, social workers could tell parents to go to Legal Aid or get an attorney, but they couldn’t go into court for them or write a letter specific about the law. And the people with the problem didn’t have the time or the transportation or were simply too intimidated” to press the issue.
“Now there’s a lawyer here to help them,” Geffen said.