HeLP: Improving the Wellbeing of Atlanta’s Vulnerable Kids

Sylvia Caley (M.B.A. '86, J.D. '89)

“Healthcare resources are scarce and expensive. To maximize the benefit to patients, we need to address health-harming legal problems,” said Sylvia Caley (M.B.A. ’86, J.D. ’89), clinical professor and HeLP’s director. “Teaching medical professionals to identify social determinants of health that may be harming the child, to screen for them, and then refer those affected to a legal resource provides a holistic approach to addressing issues affecting the health of vulnerable individuals.”

The social, economic and physical conditions in which chronically ill or disabled children live can be detrimental to improving their health. The Health Law Partnership (HeLP), an interdisciplinary collaboration between lawyers and medical professionals, has been helping low-income children in Atlanta overcome these challenges and improve their health and wellbeing for the last 12 years.

Challenges include poor housing conditions that intensify asthma symptoms; or poverty that prevents families from seeking medical treatment or purchasing necessary medications. Additionally, the healthcare system is complex and often hard for families to navigate.

HeLP is a partnership among Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Georgia State Law, Emory University School of Medicine and Morehouse School of Medicine. It provides low-income and minority children receiving care at Children’s Healthcare with free civil legal services.

“Healthcare resources are scarce and expensive. To maximize the benefit to patients, we need to address health-harming legal problems,” said Sylvia Caley (M.B.A. ’86, J.D. ’89), clinical professor and HeLP’s director. “Teaching medical professionals to identify social determinants of health that may be harming the child, to screen for them, and then refer those affected to a legal resource provides a holistic approach to addressing issues affecting the health of vulnerable individuals.”

HeLP provides attorneys who can intervene to improve the environments in which many low-income children live, resulting in an improved quality of life. The HeLP legal services staff address basic needs affecting the patients’ health, such as ensuring they receive their entitled full state and federal program benefits, are living in safe and healthy housing conditions and are able to access appropriate educational services.

“The system chronically-ill and disabled patients have to navigate is so convoluted and complex even our social workers have a hard time accessing the information needed and addressing the problems these families encounter,” said Dr. Robert Pettignano, HeLP’s medical director. “Many times without the assistance of one of our attorneys, these families would not get the services they need.”

Georgia State Law’s HeLP Legal Services Clinic allows law students, medical students and residents, and public health, social work and bioethics graduate students to work together and serve the partnership’s clients.

“Participation in the HeLP Legal Services Clinic expands the concept of ‘us.’ It provides students the opportunity to expand skills, such as collaboration, communication and problem-solving,” Caley said. “Working together also encourages and nurtures respect for each profession, and it’s rewarding for patients because we achieve concrete improvements.”

The inter-professional approach is beneficial to all parties involved including the clients, students and legal and medical professionals, Dr. Pettignano asserted.

“The knowledge gained by the professionals working together is cumulative – each assisting the other to better understand our complex medical system,” he said. “My experience with HeLP has been eye opening on many levels, starting with the realization that professions that may not have traditionally worked together as colleagues can do so very effectively. I also can see how we have a positive impact on individual cases and some of the issues these patients and their families face on an more systemic basis through systemic advocacy.”