Tuesday, April 17, 2018
TThe Pennsylvania House Committee on Aging and Older Adult Services invited representatives of legal aid organizations to speak on April 11, 2018. As I listened to attorneys from SeniorLAW Center, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, MidPenn Legal Services and the Deputy Chief Counsel and Legal Assistance Developer for Pennsylvania's Department of Aging, it occurred to me that many of the client histories, including my own school's clinic story, were about positive outcomes in representing individuals facing potentially tragic futures, including eviction from the only housing they know, rejection for Medical Assistance, or no option but to rely on the unkindness of strangers.
We were speaking, understandably, about the good that trained lawyers and lawyers-in-training (students in law school clinical programs) can do. For example, Pam Walz, director of the Aging and Disabilities Unit at Community Legal Services (CLS) in Philadelphia told the story of a recent client, "Mr. D," who at age 70 was living alone in a single room in a rooming house. He was found unconscious, leading to hospitalization:
He had suffered a stroke and at the hospital he was also diagnosed with throat cancer. A treatment plan was created, including radiation therapy, and he had to have a feeding tube placed. The hospital discharged him to a nursing facility because they did not think he could care for himself alone in a rooming house. . . .
Mr. D received rehabilitation for about two weeks at the nursing facility but the facility failed to coordinate with his oncologist or to provide him with transportation for his first radiation treatment. Worse yet, the nursing facility told Mr. D that they were discharging him because his Medicare coverage had ended, despite the fact that he continued to need nursing facility care and is eligible to have his continued stay paid by Medicaid [under federal and state law]. . . . The nursing facility had also failed to provide a legally required written notice of discharge, explaining Mr. D's rights to appeal the discharge to the Department of Human Services. . . . [S]ending Mr. D back to his rooming house in his condition would not be a safe discharge.
CLS attorneys stepped in and filed the appropriate papers to get the discharge stopped until the legally mandated "safe" discharge plan could be determined. They recognized that Mr. D was further in jeopardy because he needed assistance in Spanish, a requirement safeguarded by Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act.
CLS attorneys will continue to represent him. The message in common for the speakers is about the better outcomes possible when trained experts step in. On the one hand it is a success story and a success story heard across the nation at the hands of both legal aid attorneys and private attorneys who are skilled in the array of state and federal laws intended to protect older adults and provide greater dignity in circumstances of need, including ill health or extreme risk.
I realized that with our testimony, including my testimony about students at Penn State's Dickinson Law's Community Law Center, who were able to prevent the wrongful eviction of an older man, we were painting a picture of a glass half full. But a half-full glass is also half-empty. As I testified, the histories also made me a bit sad, because I know how many calls for help go unanswered, because there aren't enough free or low cost services for those in need.
As one woman explained to me in seeking a lawyer, "I had a plan. I planned to work until I was 70 and I made it. I planned my savings to last until I was 80 and I made it. Unfortunately, now I'm 85 and my savings weren't enough, Social Security isn't enough, and I don't know what to do. . . . I think I need help with my creditors, but I can't pay an attorney to help me."
I testified that law schools with clinical programs and legal aid organizations are willing to do more to represent the underrepresented, but to do so each such organization needs ines of funding dedicated to older adult legal services. In more rural communities, the need may be especially serious. It's not that the glass is half full or half empty, it's that the glass is probably just 20% full, as so many go without sound legal advice until desperation sets in, and even then only a small number get help in time.
In the photo here, after testifying before the House committee, we're smiling because key members were listening and asking important questions.
The tall man in the center, Chairman Tim Hennessey, has long served in a leadership role for senior services in Pennsylvania. Around him, from left to right, me, Deborah Hargett-Robinson (Pa Department of Aging), Wendy Bookler (SeniorLAW Center), Karen Buck (Exec. Dir. SeniorLAW Center), Pam Walz (CLS) and Marisa Halm (Dickinson Law 1L student who will intern with SeniorLAW in summer 2018).
I'm often bouyed by the commitment of so many students to public interest law. Students who plan on private practice also, increasingly, recognize commitments to public service with their own pro-bono pledges. Private attorneys who make a commitment of a percentage of their time to pro-bono services are part of the solution.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, before she made it to the bench of the highest court in the U.S., reminded lawyers of our duty to "represent the underrepresented in our society" and to "ensure that justice exists for all, both legal and economic justice." A reminder in these challenging times of our ability and obligation to do good.
For more, here's a link to my written testimony.
My special thanks to Karen Buck for her leadership role on the future of legal services in Pennsylvania. Here is the link to SeniorLAW Executive Director Buck's testimony; Karen opened the hearing.