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New Team Approach to De-tangle Legal Crises

February 16, 2012

BALTIMORE, Md. - Legal Aid offices in Maryland are used to seeing desperation; the attorneys say they see it every day. However, they cannot always help, because client problems can be complicated by factors not related to the courts.

The downtown Baltimore Legal Aid office has been trying something new: teaming up with social workers through the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Legal Aid chief attorney Cornelia Bright Gordon explains that legal services lawyers have always done some social work, but she says they're not especially good at it.

"We're always the law firm of last resort, by federal law. Our clients are truly in crisis - no money, no food; they're disabled or very sick and have no access to medical care."

Bright Gordon says having social workers address the non-legal issues frees up the attorneys to focus more time on client cases.

Kelly DeCunha supervises the social work unit. She says the graduate students helping with the cases get on-the-ground experience that she says can be "eye-opening."

"A lot of time, the legal problem is really the tip of the iceberg. The majority of what I've seen so far is a lot of housing needs."

The results of the team approach are impressive, Bright Gordon says. She cites one example of a young quadriplegic evicted from a nursing home. The social workers found equipment and expertise for the woman's family so they could care for her at home. Although she was eligible for citizenship, she hadn't applied, and her immigration status was in question. That meant she couldn't obtain any medical assistance, Bright Gordon explains.

"They worked with the family and helped them organize themselves so that she could complete her application for citizenship. She's going to be sworn in as a citizen next week, I think they told me."

Other Legal Aid offices around the state want to replicate the Baltimore program, but it does require resources, and regular Legal Aid funding cannot be used for the social workers. Bright Gordon was able to cobble together grants for the Baltimore office.

Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - MD