November 10, 2009
SickKids and Pro Bono Law Ontario launch Canada’s first program to prescribe legal remedies in a hospital setting
TORONTO - There are certain aspects of health that health-care workers can’t mend on their own. Studies have shown that families who live in poverty and those who have inadequate housing and nutrition are more likely to have poorer health outcomes. There are also parents or caregivers whose financial situations, immigration status and work conditions may impede their ability to focus on the health of their children. Helping these families sometimes requires lending a legal hand.
The Family Legal Health Program, which officially launches on November 19, is a free legal service located at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) for patients and families referred by clinical staff. The program offers legal assistance to address the non-medical issues that impact a child’s health or a family’s capacity to care for their sick child. This unique partnership between SickKids and Pro Bono Law Ontario (PBLO) is the first of its kind in Canada.
The program is comprised of several components: training doctors, nurses and social workers to be able to identify cases that may require legal intervention; referring families to a lawyer whose office is at the Hospital; offering legal information to families who need it; and providing access to legal services, either by the onsite lawyer, through a referral to pro bono lawyers or other legal services in the community. The onsite lawyer is available to meet with families in the office, or if needed, at the child’s bedside, enabling parents to focus on their child.
“At first glance, it seems like an odd concept: adding lawyers to a clinical team that is usually comprised primarily of doctors, nurses and social workers,” says Lynn Burns, Executive Director of Pro Bono Law Ontario. “The Family Legal Health Program helps families navigate a complex legal system that often holds solutions for factors that directly or indirectly affect the health of the child. This project enables lawyers to be part of a team seeking to eliminate barriers to health.”
Prior to the creation of the program, pilot cases were referred to Pro Bono Law Ontario. Since the onsite Pro Bono Law Ontario lawyer arrived at SickKids in May, there have been about 30 referrals each month. Cases have ranged from the families of asthmatic patients whose landlords refuse to address mould concerns, to immigration matters, to employment issues.
“Every day at SickKids, we see children who are affected by the social determinants of health, which are defined as the conditions in which people live and work that impact their health and well-being,” says Dr. Ted McNeill, Director of Social Work and Child Life at SickKids. “Being able to offer onsite legal guidance to families who might not otherwise have access to lawyers will play a significant role in improving the health and well-being of these children and their families.”
The Desbiens are one such family who once needed help. Cindy and Jeff’s daughter Charolette was born with a rare form of congenital heart disease. Charolette spent the first four-and-a-half months of her life at SickKids with her parents by her side. When the Desbiens family tried to claim a tax credit for the more than $12,000 in expenses they incurred while travelling to and from their home in Waterloo during their daughter’s stay at SickKids, the Canada Revenue Agency denied their claim. Cindy explains they were told the claim would only be accepted if Cindy or Jeff were travelling to receive treatment themselves. Since they were not travelling to receive treatment, they were simply considered visitors.
“We needed to be by our daughter’s side,” says Cindy. “She was a newborn. She needed her parents’ help to recover. How could they say we were just visiting?”
The Desbiens family unsuccessfully appealed the Canada Revenue Agency’s decision. A referral from their SickKids social worker to Pro Bono Law Ontario connected them with a lawyer who helped them resolve the issue and get reimbursed for their expenses. They are continuing to work with the lawyer to try to effect change in the current tax laws, in order to help prevent other families from having to face the same challenges.
“You never expect your children to be sick and when that happens, it has a huge impact on your family. This program reduced a lot of stress for our family. It means a lot to us,” says Cindy.
The Family Legal Health Program is funded by a two-year grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario. The program is managed by Pro Bono Law Ontario in partnership with SickKids and law firms McMillan and Torkin Manes Barristers & Solicitors, with the support of Legal Aid Ontario.
For more information about the Family Legal Health Program, please visit www.childadvocacy.ca/FLHP.
About The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids)
The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), affiliated with the University of Toronto, is one of Canada’s most research-intensive hospitals and one of the world’s leading centres dedicated to improving children’s health. As innovators in child health, SickKids improves the health of children by integrating care, research and teaching. Our mission is to provide the best in complex and specialized care by creating scientific and clinical advancements, sharing our knowledge and expertise and championing the development of an accessible, comprehensive and sustainable child health system. For more information, please visit www.sickkids.ca. SickKids is committed to healthier children for a better world.
About Pro Bono Law Ontario
Pro Bono Law Ontario (PBLO) is a charitable organization that promotes access to justice in Ontario by creating and promoting opportunities for lawyers to provide pro bono (free) legal services to persons of limited means. To that end PBLO works to develop the capacity of the private bar to participate in organized pro bono activities on the one hand and to develop and support pro bono projects that address the unmet legal needs of the most vulnerable members of our community on the other. For more information, please visit www.pblo.org.
The Hospital for Sick Children
The Hospital for Sick Children
Phone: 416-813-7654 ext. 2059