Lawyers on the team Imagine having a son who is dependent on a ventilator, and losing your health insurance because your new job means your income is slightly too high to qualify.

Imagine taking care of your four grandchildren and struggling to pay for food, while also realizing you should seek custody — and not knowing where to turn for help.

Since 2015, more than 400 families at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) have had somewhere to turn. At CHOP’s Medical Legal Partnership (MLP), lawyers work closely with CHOP social workers and physicians to advocate for families facing healthcare challenges that have a legal aspect.

If a parent has to choose between groceries or medication, if they are living without heat or electricity, if they are living in unsafe lodging, then their child’s health will suffer. Sometimes legal intervention is needed to address factors such as lack of heat, unstable housing, improperly denied benefits or insufficient income to buy healthy food. Combining medical and legal expertise results in healthier kids and families.

The MLP operates out of two locations: the Dialysis Clinic and the Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pediatric Care Center. Within the Dialysis Clinic, many families struggle with challenges related to housing, insurance and other issues that profoundly affect chronically ill children. Once a week, students from Penn Law’s Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic come to CHOP to consult with dialysis families at the same time as their medical appointments. Under faculty supervision, student teams provide legal advice so that families can focus on their children's health.

In 2018, with support from philanthropic partner Reed Smith, CHOP expanded its commitment to the MLP by incorporating legal services at the Karabots Center in West Philadelphia. A lawyer from Community Legal Services is at Karabots two days a week, and expansion is in the planning stages. In its first five months, 38 patient families received representation or advice on a total of 44 health-harming legal issues, with pro bono support from law firm Reed Smith bolstering capacity.

The lawyers help appeal decisions about food stamps, address predatory lending, represent tenants in housing matters involving substandard conditions and more. Now, all patients who are eligible for free legal services can get guidance at CHOP.

“Having a lawyer on-site to meet directly with our families addresses some of the core barriers many families face getting the help and support they need to keep their children healthy,” says social worker Leigh Wilson, MSW, LSW, senior program manager, PolicyLab/Division of Social Work. “The MLP is a perfect example of a way to provide meaningful support to families while they are in the pediatrician’s office.”