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Helping kids is what it's all about

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

  • Ralph Schaefer
  • Tulsa Business & Legal News

Merrill finds legal role more effective than classroom

April MerrillApril M. Merrill always knew she wanted to help kids.

She earned a degree in Early Childhood Education and went into the classroom before going to law school.

It was during her student teaching career that she realized she could only do so much in the classroom and that the real work was ensuring children got the needed help was from another source - the law.

The situation was dramatized when she observed a child under three-years-old doing things that went beyond classroom misbehavior.  Checking with the mother, it was confirmed the child regularly witnessed domestic violence at home and was just acting out what he knew.

Merrill knew that something had to be done to get the child and mother out of that abusive situation, but as a teacher, she couldn’t help.  It was clear that she needed another skill set to make a difference.

As a result, the 2002 Broken Arrow High School graduate returned to the classroom herself, this time the University of Tulsa College of Law where she would earn her juris doctorate degree in 2010.  Merrill focused on nonprofit agencies the general law courses to earn her law degree.  But she didn't just stick to books.

She got involved in various activities at the TU Law School and started the "Paw Law" group to represent pets, another defenseless group without representation. She was involved in the Women's Law Caucus and was introduced to her future job.

Adrienne Watt who held her future position, made a presentation at one of the meetings.  A two-year fellowship at the Schusterman Foundation gave the new lawyer a “3,000-foot level" view of Tulsa and the non-profits working in the city.

Merrill was wondering what to do next when the fellowship ended.  "I knew Adrienne through her presentation at the Women in Caucus meeting,” she recalled. "I liked what she said.  "One day we’re having coffee and I mentioned my dilemma about my next career step," Merrill continued. "Adrienne listened and the following day called and told me to send her my resume."

A meeting with Michael Figgins, Legal Services of Oklahoma Executive Director, found that both were on the same page and had the same philosophy in helping kids.  Merrill then found she was employed as the Lead Attorney & Resource Development Coordinator for the Medical Legal Partnership Initiatives at the University of Oklahoma Medical School -Tulsa.

Merrill said that between 80 and 100 cases are bandied annually.  She also has the assistance of volunteer GableGotwals attorneys.  She also found herself helping kids in a way she could have only imagined as a student teacher.

"Myprimary responsibility is to take referrals from the University's social workers and staff and provide care and support for the child's well-being," Merrill said. That help can come from making certain the child's legal rights are being met. It often means helping families.

For example, a kid with asthma might be living in less-than-adequate housing.  The mother tried repeatedly to get the landlord to resolve the issues contributing to her child's illness without results.

"I made that call and things happened," she said.  Those repairs are made.  If they had not been made then the next question to the landlord is how the family can be let out of their lease so they can find adequate housing.

One mother would later tell Merrill that she felt hopeless in her housing situation and that she didn’t think she ever could get help.  There are all kinds of landloard-tenant issues that must be handled.

Just taking the time to listen allows people without much voice to feel validated about their concerns and most of the time issues can be resolved, she said.

Domestic violence situations where kids are injured also must be handled in the proper legal manner, Merrill continued.  Another big issue is getting guardianships for grandparents.

It might seem like a small matter to have grandparents care for their grandkids in the absence of their parents, she said. But they hit a wall when it is time to enroll the child - or children – in school and the parental signature is missing. Their legal status is missing and can only be put in place through a legal hearing.

Special education issues are continuous challenges for the Legal Aid attorney.

These are the kids requiring special treatment because of their fragile medical conditions.  Schools often fail to follow the Federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act.

Merrill often has to sit down with administrators and teachers to resolve the issues.  "Myopening statement as people are sitting down is, 'I am teacher, have been in the classroom and understand your problems. Now, what are we going to do as a team to provide this child an education?”

That statement with a lawyer and former teacher generally opens the door to constructive discussions with educators.

Clients generally are pretty desperate, she said. They feel defeated.  One important part of the job is being able to listen sincerely to the issues they face and validate their concerns. They are at their wits end. They want to help their children and these cases get highly emotional.

Some adults are so concerned about their situations when they come to Merrill that they become emotional and are unable to control their feelings.

When that happens, Merrill uses a yoga technique that encourages the person - or persons - to breathe deeply and calm down so issues can be resolved. That is when they can start working together.

This work is about kids and their parents and giving them access to the justice system, she said. Otherwise they would have nowhere to turn.  Private attorneys cannot handle some of these cases on a pro bono (free) bases, Merrill continued.  That doesn't say the private attorney cannot do the work.  They do not have the time to handle all the needs required by a cognitive impaired child.

The OU-Tulsa Legal Clinic is a legal emergency room, she said.

Multiple telephone messages are waiting when Merrill comes to work each morning. They are left at all hours, when people get off after working a night shift or when they have time available. That is when calls are received about domestic violence and child custody case issues.

Answering those calls and finding solutions for problems is what makes the job exciting.

Merrill praised the university’s social workers and other staff members whorefer cases. Many times the clients are referred to other Tulsa area social service non-profit organizations.

Clients are the "working poor" who really care about their children. They aren't lazy.  Both parents work minimum wage jobs and their money quickly disappears, especially when they have a medically fragile child.

That is when the partnership between the legal, social worker and community gets its fullest use.  The families are referred to the Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma to get enough food to supplement their monthly grocery needs. Some are referred to the Emergency Medical Services for those special formula needs for their baby.

Looking at the big picture, Merrill said the need for the medical-legal partnership for children is urgent. These young people need help.

She also goes to the Morton Clinic and receives calls from the Wayman Tisdale Clinic.  There is such a need at every clinic where someone is ready to help remove barriers to a child's well-being, she continued. Those barriers include help for special equipment; getting a family's food stamps restored when someone happens to work just enough overtime to get them kicked out of that program; getting power restored quickly so the electric equipment a child needs will run, and getting schools to accept their responsibilities to educate these medically fragile children.

All are challenging issues that Merrill willingly takes on and brings a smile to the job.  She feels that she has found her way to effectively help children.

by Ralph Schaefer
Published March 11, 2013

Photo by Ralph Schaefer


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