The Warsama family’s fourth child was born with significant health conditions and disabilities. Given her complex medical needs, the child was hospitalized for several months at Children’s Minnesota in Minneapolis. Her parents were under incredible stress, working full-time and caring for three other children. Then they learned that their medically fragile child would need her own bedroom to protect her from infection.
When the baby came home, the three older children moved into the parents’ bedroom. Several months later, the baby was hospitalized again for surgery, and the Warsamas realized they would need to move. Their youngest would continue to need special care and attention, and five people in one bedroom was simply not sustainable.
The family found an affordable three-bedroom apartment, but their current landlord said they would need to pay a break-lease fee of over two thousand dollars and offered a payment plan of $20 per month until it was paid off. The Warsamas took the proposed break-lease agreement to their social worker at Children’s, seeking guidance. They wanted to follow the rules and pay their bills, but they were worried about being able to afford even a low monthly payment.
Children’s Minnesota and Legal Aid have established a Healthcare-Legal Partnership (HLP), to address exactly these types of situations – where a family’s legal needs interact with the health and well-being of kids. Children’s social work team is trained to spot legal issues and make timely referrals to the HLP. When the social worker saw the proposed break-lease agreement, she immediately called Dena Birkenkamp, the onsite HLP attorney.
As a staff attorney for Legal Aid, Birkenkamp works on-site at Children’s hospital campus in Minneapolis up to four days a week, where she receives referrals from social workers, resource navigators, clinicians, care coordinators, and other members of the healthcare team. She also offices at Legal Aid, where she has easy access to her colleagues with their combined expertise across legal topics.
“Parents have so many worries when their child is hospitalized,” says Birkenkamp. “The last thing they need is a trip downtown to a lawyer’s office. They are at the hospital all the time. It’s easy for us to meet there, and we are introduced by caregivers they already trust. The partnership makes legal services realistically accessible.”
In this case, the social worker coordinated with the healthcare team to obtain the medical documentation for a reasonable accommodation request. Birkenkamp composed the request letter and negotiated with housing management. In the end, management agreed to allow the family to break the lease without a financial penalty. Birkenkamp wrote a new break-lease agreement, and management signed.
“What families are dealing with outside the walls of our hospitals and clinics impacts their health,” says Pam Ross, who serves as Director of Community Health Programs at Children’s and provides administrative oversight for the HLP. “The Healthcare-Legal Partnership allows us to actualize a more comprehensive definition of healthcare to meet the broader needs of patients and families.”
The Children’s Minnesota Healthcare-Legal Partnership operates on both its St. Paul and Minneapolis hospital campuses. The St. Paul campus is staffed by an attorney from Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services. During 2018, the two attorneys closed 250 cases addressing multiple legal issues including housing, immigration, public benefits and family law.
“The families we see are dealing with so much,” Birkenkamp says. “Some patients have medically complex conditions and are in the hospital for a long time. The families face multiple barriers to accessing legal advice or help. I really enjoy helping them through this difficult point in their lives.”