Law students form the front line of troops in the University of Michigan's Pediatric Advocacy Initiative, a relatively new law school outreach program that links poor families with free legal help. Third-year U-M law students Jeena Shah and Sarah Chopp got to hone their legal research and courtroom skills - fast - in a case they feel optimistic about winning. In mid-February, they went before a Social Security appeals judge, representing a mother trying to get benefits for her three daughters on the grounds they are developmentally disabled.
Law students interested in the program sign up for a one-semester class that requires them to work 20 hours a week. Each student has a case load of clients referred to the program from two area health centers. For many students, it's their first experience talking to clients. They identify the issues facing their low-income clients, prioritize them and then do the legal research. It's often a crash course in "the web of state regulations for poor people,'' says Anne Schroth, the program's director. Sometimes students, accompanied by a full-fledged attorney, represent clients in court hearings.
Shah and Chopp used their skills in researching options for poor parents "to the max,'' says Chopp, whose sister, Debra Chopp, is a staff attorney for the University of Michigan Law School's Pediatric Advocacy Initiative. They took over a case that previous law students had been told was probably unwinnable.
They hope they made a convincing case at the recent hearing. "We wrote briefs, we got to go before a judge. We felt really like lawyers,'' Chopp says.
For their courtroom presentation before a judge who hears Social Security appeals, they scrambled to gather records and evaluations from teachers, social service agencies and child psychologists that would help the Washtenaw County mother and her three daughters. Their job was to appeal a previous ruling that her three daughters did not qualify for the funds.
The mother of six who is on public assistance had applied three years ago for financial aid on the grounds her daughters were developmentally disabled, but her application was denied.
In the next few years, the two law students say, there were definite signs the girls' problems got worse. To present their case, the young advocates obtained reports from the girls' teachers on how they were doing in school, and arranged for child psychologists to do evaluations of each child.
"We worked probably 100 hours preparing for this,'' says Chopp. "It would be impossible (for the mother) without a lawyer to appeal.''
A lot is at stake in the judge's ruling, which won't be known for at least several weeks. The mother could receive hundreds of dollars a month for each daughter the judge considers eligible. The benefits would likely double the mother's very low income, says Shah, and the money would get her better housing, clothes for the girls and perhaps a car: She has none.
Shah found it "sad, frustrating'' that two of the girls were not in special education, even though, she says, their research showed all three girls were five grade levels below where they should have been. The two students plan to take on those two girls' eligibility for special education next.
"We really feel emotionally attached to these children,'' Chopp says.
Law students in the program can become swept up in their clients' lives. "We have to teach students that they're most effective not as a friend, but as an advocate,'' Schroth says. One student, for instance, paid her client's utility bill to head off a crisis. Where to draw the line is a topic of discussion in the class. "I don't know if there is (one) or not, the bright line,'' Schroth says.
Shah and Chopp feel the program allows them to think and act "outside the box'' of the typical lawyer-client relationship. Students in the program often feel moved to do things like give a client a ride to the doctor's office, or hand them bus route maps, or otherwise help out - even help pay the heating bill to avoid a shut-off.
One of the other cases Chopp and Shah are handling involves a mother from another country whose child, born in the United States, needs a heart transplant. The mother is here on a temporary visa, but would need to stay much longer to take care of her son's needs.
"How do you take on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to let her stay and have medical care for her son?'' Chopp says, with no trace of resignation. It sounds like the next task on their list.
She and Shah are headed to jobs with private firms for a while. Those jobs will help them pay off tuition debts. Both, however, say they see jobs in public-interest law as their future calling.
Reporter Anne Rueter can be reached at 734-994-6759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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