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About Sickkids
About SickKids

December 2, 2014

Celebrating five years of partnership with Pro Bono Law Ontario

The factors that influence a child’s health can go well beyond parents obtaining the appropriate treatment for their child. Families facing challenges like poverty may not be able to afford to purchase the medication their child needs. Housing issues such as building managers refusing to address mold or asbestos problems can exacerbate a child’s illness. And immigration barriers are additional social determinants of health that may stand in the way of a parent being able to be at their sick child’s bedside.

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Champions of legal support for families: Lee Ann Chapman (left) and Dr. Lee Ford-Jones.


Five years ago, in an effort to provide more comprehensive child and family-centred care, The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and Pro Bono Law Ontario (PBLO) officially launched the Family Legal Health Program – now called PBLO at SickKids – to assist families in addressing some of the non-medical challenges that impact the health of patients.

An in-house lawyer is available to meet with families at SickKids, sometimes at the child’s bedside, to provide legal advice and guide families through legal processes, or to connect them with a lawyer in the community who can provide the necessary legal services, all free of charge.  

Three law firms – McMillan LLP, Torkin Manes LLP, and Bellissimo Law Group – provide free services to the program which has assisted more than 2,600 families since 2009. At the time, there were about 20 cases a month; today, with word of mouth and buy-in from clinical staff, the volume of referrals has doubled.

The program was originally part of Social Work, whose former director, Dr. Ted McNeill, was a leading champion of the initiative alongside Dr. Lee Ford-Jones of Infectious Diseases and Social Paediatrics. They worked with hospital lawyer Megan Evans to integrate the program into the hospital, and the program is now part of the Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Child and Family-Centred Care.

“When SickKids and PBLO launched this project five years ago, we didn’t know to what degree it would be accepted within the organization,” says Lee Ann Chapman, the PBLO lawyer who runs the program at SickKids. “I think it was a courageous move on the part of Megan Evans and other hospital leaders. “However, there’s such a supportive culture and environment here, with everyone wanting to help. Everyone at this hospital is working with each child’s best interest in mind and is deeply committed to addressing the social determinants of health.”

The program has also expanded in scope. In addition to supporting individual families, Chapman now works more closely with clinical staff, she’s a frequent guest speaker at Grand Rounds and SickKids events, and she works on advocacy projects to help drive improvements in access to medical care and other issues impacting the patient population. She believes an important aspect of her role is keeping staff abreast of impending legislative and systemic changes that may affect internal processes and/or the delivery of care, such as the Order in Council from the federal government in spring of 2012 which brought drastic cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program.

In 2013 PBLO at SickKids was recognized as an innovative leading practice by Accreditation Canada.

“Lee Ann is keenly attuned to relevant government policies and has linked with key stakeholders to advocate for policy changes,” says Barbara Muskat, Director of Social Work. “Through this program, many families facing complex medical-legal concerns have been assisted in connecting with timely, expert legal advice. Due to our close collaboration with Lee Ann, she is aware of the kinds of issues that are faced by our patients and their families. We consider Lee Ann to be an honorary member of our department.”  

Chapman notes that legal service is one more tool the clinical teams can offer families at SickKids. “I have been made to feel that I’m a part of the health-care team in the room; I just have a different skill set that hopefully can add to the care we offer at SickKids. It has been a remarkable journey so far,” she says.

PBLO at SickKids was the first of PBLO’s children’s hospital programs. In the past five years, four other paediatric centres in Ontario (under PBLO), plus others across the country and internationally, have modelled their programs on the one at SickKids.

On Nov. 20, PBLO’s Medical-Legal Partnerships for Children received the 2014 Ruth Atkinson Hindmarsh Award, which is named for the daughter of longtime Toronto Star publisher Joseph E. Atkinson. The annual award was established in 1998 to support the efforts of organizations dedicated to improving the lives of children.