Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : June 2007

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On Christmas Eve, 2001, Maureen van Stone was up late, trying to help yet another patient at the Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI) with access to care issues outside the scope of her work as a clinical researcher. The scenario was all too familiar to van Stone, who by then had more than five years’ experience at KKI.

Van Stone
was tired of seeing children’s health care derailed by denial of benefits or of access to education.

“We would put all our resources into developing a comprehensive treatment program, only to see a total failure of implementation once the patient returned to school,” says van Stone. Parents frequently lacked resources to ensure a school followed the KKI plan. Van Stone was tired of seeing children’s health care derailed by denial of benefits or of access to education. That Christmas Eve, she posed herself a question: what if she applied to law school and studied to become an advocate for these patients?

Five years later, she’s living the answer to that question. She is now an attorney completing her second year as director of Project HEAL (Health, Education, Advocacy and Law) at Kennedy Krieger Institute. It’s a project that provides doctors, social workers and educators at KKI with a resource for legal advocacy, education on recognizing families in need of legal services and referrals to community organizations. Project HEAL at KKI is a special project started by Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) in an effort to help children with disabilities obtain special education services to which they are entitled.

While van Stone pursued an education in special education law at Whittier Law School in California, MVLS was already at work developing a program to address the legal needs of children and families at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. MVLS launched the first Project HEAL at the Harriet Lane Clinic in August of 2003. As van Stone approached the completion of her law degree, she learned of Project HEAL and got in touch with MVLS to broach the idea of adding a second Project HEAL at KKI. Van Stone received a two-year postgraduate legal fellowship through Equal Justice Works to create the project under the supervision and direction of MVLS.

KKI is the only medical-legal partnership out of about 60 nationwide that is based at an institution exclusively serving developmentally disabled children, adolescents and adults. As a result, the primary focus of her program is special education law. It’s clear that van Stone is driven by a need to serve families struggling with these issues. “I’ll see that a child has been stuck in an educational placement that’s not meeting his needs, the family trying – maybe for years – to see results, and following one meeting in the presence of legal counsel the child gets into a new program where he can flourish,” she explains.

One such family, upon referral to Project HEAL, expressed concern that their 13-year-old son was not making educational progress at his school. The boy, who suffers from mental disorders including autism, had experienced an interruption in his education three years before, when he became disruptive in school and his parents were persuaded to home school him by the administration. His parents, with only ninth-grade educations, were ill-equipped to teach him, and after two years re-enrolled him in school. He still did not progress. Within one week of their referral to Project HEAL, van Stone’s legal intervention ensured the boy’s placement in a school that could meet his needs and provide counseling, and speech and language services. Now he’s thriving. Forty percent of van Stone’s clients fall into this category: they’ve been placed in the wrong school or the wrong program, and their family, their social worker or their doctor do not know how to navigate the special education process to get the child what he needs.

Van Stone can provide brief consultations, or, if necessary, direct representation, or she can refer the family to other community organizations. She works closely with organizations like Maryland Disability Law Center (MDLC), building ties between legal service providers, KKI and the families served by KKI. As van Stone approaches the end of her second year running Project HEAL at KKI, she’s already made a significant impact. She’s advised more than 500 families since the program’s inception. In a typical day she might present a group of social workers with information on identifying clients in need of legal assistance, attend an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting with a client, field several phone calls or e-mails from potential clients and schedule meetings, then attend a meeting for a local community group. Her project is important in its direct impact on the clients she serves, and also in the network it is creating and the model it provides for other programs. Van Stone’s Equal Justice Works fellowship will end in August, but MVLS and KKI are committed to finding continuing funding for her important work.

Danika Myers is a full-time paralegal for Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service. She has an M.F.A. in Writing from George Mason University.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: May  2007