Whether it’s living on food stamps while paying off law school debt, or expanding LAF’s Woodlawn Legal Clinic on Chicago’s south side, Regina Hernandez doesn’t shy away from a challenge.
When she first joined LAF through AmeriCorps VISTA–the domestic service program that connects idealists and change makers from all walks of life to nonprofits working to fight poverty–Woodlawn saw an average of 12-15 clients per clinic. Now one year later, the two-hour monthly clinic sees an average of almost 40 clients, largely thanks to Regina’s ingenuity.
“At first, I was a little nervous to change things. I was more concerned with making sure I was following everything the previous VISTA had set in place,” Regina says. But as she settled into her new role, she learned how to make it her own. “I stopped asking and started doing—and then asking, what do you think? How could it be improved? It just felt better to be proactive.”
And her enthusiasm paid off. For instance, one of LAF’s biggest struggles is its congested phone system, partly due to funding shortages that have cut the number of intake specialists by almost half. Help desks and clinics like Woodlawn help free up the phone lines, but the phone menu used vague language to describe them (something like, “If you’d like to hear about our community clinics, press 9”). Realizing many clients aren’t familiar with ‘clinics’ outside of a medical context, she worked to change the language to something more widely understood.
That small change led to an explosion of calls—from 10-15 a week to more than 200 in a month. “Always be respectful, always work within the parameters you’re given, but at the same time, if you think something could be improved and you’re willing to take that on, go for it,” she says.
She also changed a question about domestic violence on the clinic’s intake form. “We’d get a lot of clients at Woodlawn who’d come in for help with some other issue like help with their utilities. They may not be ready or able to address the domestic violence, but might want to address it in the future,” Regina explains. She added the definition of domestic violence in italics next to the question, along with a domestic violence hotline they could call in case they wanted to address the issue at another time or in a different setting.
Along with managing the Woodlawn clinic, she oversaw the Juvenile Expungement Help Desk, which has also seen considerable growth in recent months thanks to expanded hours, increased staffing, as well as Regina’s outreach efforts.
As her year of service came to a close last month, she accepted a permanent position as Staff Attorney in LAF’s Volunteer Services Unit. Thanks to Regina for her dedicated service as VISTA Attorney, and congratulations on her new position!
A child in public housing may be able to get treatment for her asthma, but her doctor can’t force her landlord to remove the black mold that’s causing it. Likewise, a lawyer can’t provide treatment for a senior living with cystic fibrosis, but she can fight to ensure his utilities stay on so he can keep his medications refrigerated. For people in poverty, legal issues can exacerbate health problems, and health issues can trigger legal problems.
To improve health outcomes and legal outcomes, both sides need to connect health care with patients’ broader social needs. To that end, health care providers and social service providers are teaming up to address the social determinants of health and poverty – such as income, housing, education, and employment, with Medical-legal partnerships. MLPs — the topic of LAF’s latest Brownbag Roundtable—are a prime example. In addition to helping patients and communities become healthier, MLPs reduce healthcare spending for high-need, high-use patients and improve reimbursement rates for clinical services, meaning that medical providers have more resources to help more people.
“As lawyers, we’re often frustrated that despite the best legal outcomes we can accomplish, our clients are still trapped in poverty because of chronic illness. Physicians and other medical providers we’ve talked to share that same frustration—that despite their best efforts, their patients are trapped in poor health because of factors beyond their control,” Trey Daly, Director of LAF’s Public Benefits Practice Group, explained at the Brownbag Roundtable last week. “MLPs bring together those two important roles in the lives of low-income Chicagoans, to find creative solutions that deal with both their legal and medical problems.”
The Health Justice Project, LAF’s flagship MLP, is a partnership between LAF, Erie Family Health Center, and Loyola University School of Law. “The providers at Erie understand social determinants of health, which makes them good at spotting legal issues, especially when a patient maybe didn’t even know their problem was a legal issue,” says Amelia Piazza, LAF’s MLP Project Coordinator. About half of the referrals come from doctors; while the rest come from a variety of other providers, including nurses, case managers, and behavioral health specialists. “We work to identify health-harming legal issues early, before they become critical. That way we can engage in preventative lawyering to help people stabilize their situation before they seek help through traditional means, after they’ve already lost their utilities or are facing eviction,” explains Alice Setrini, LAF’s MLP Supervisory Attorney.
Another perk of these partnerships is they enable LAF to reach populations that are harder to reach through traditional avenues. Of the clients that went through LAF’s regular intake process so far this year, only 7% speak Spanish as their preferred language—far less than the actual proportion of Spanish-speaking residents of Cook County. But since a large portion of Erie patients are Spanish speakers, more than 40% of patients they’ve referred this year speak Spanish as their preferred language.
LAF also hosts MLPs with Rush’s Road Home Program, a partnership with Rush’s Center for Veterans and their Families that aims to increase patient access to Veteran-specific public benefit, and partners with Howard Brown Health Clinic and Provident Hospital in efforts to bring legal aid to the traditionally underserved HIV/AIDS community on Chicago’s south side. LAF’s newest MLP, Health Forward/Salud Adelante, launched just this year. It’s an innovative partnership is with Cook County Health and Hospitals System and the Chicago Department of Public Health, and it started taking referrals in March.
Thanks to all who joined us for this informative presentation on MLPs at LAF, and how they are closing the health justice gap, one patient of a time.
Last month at our Annual Luncheon, LAF presented the Jerold S. Solovy Equal Justice Award to Dennericka Brooks, a dedicated Supervisory Attorney in our Housing Practice Group. This award is given annually to one attorney on LAF’s staff whose work embodies the work of Jerold Solovy, an attorney whose life’s work was given meaning by helping to change the legal system and improve the lives of people living in poverty. Dennericka lives up to that mission as well as anyone at LAF, and her speech at the Luncheon reminded all of us about the lifelong impact our work can have. We’ve highlighted a selection of it here.
“Every once in a while, I wonder what you see when you look at me. Do you see someone that DCFS threatened to remove from her family after an accident because we were poor? Do you see the little girl that in second grade was told by an adult that she couldn’t be a doctor and she should try something else? What about the middle school girl who went downtown with her teacher to a science fair and had someone ask her white male teacher if he was okay? Do you see someone who because of the poverty sometimes didn’t have heat or hot water? Who, because of gang infestation, looked down the barrel of a gun and was caught in gang crossfire more than once? Do you see someone that was exposed to domestic violence?
If you don’t look at me and see those things, I want you to start. I want you to see them because despite those things, I am here now. I want you to see the child of former LAF clients that was provided a safety net and given a little more stability because of legal aid. Our clients face obstacles like mine every day. It is also the humanity and kindness of others, including the attorneys at LAF, that children see when they step in and help. It’s important to know and believe that through our work, we also lift families out of poverty. Our children are watching. I was watching. It is the humanity of others that made me always want to help others. So I’d ask that everyone in this room be a Jerold Solovy: considerate, generous, humble. Accept the privilege that we have, acknowledge the responsibility given us because of our positions, and hold each other accountable as stewards of justice with the ability to remove barriers and break the cycle of poverty for impoverished families.
We affect the lives of not only the adults that we help, but also of the children. Our children see us, they see our intervention and our work propels our children to seek better, to do better, to help others. When you look out at our clients, see me. See what is possible if we keep working together to provide equal access to justice.”