Strengthening the Social Care Toolbox with Legal Rights Education

by Samantha Morton – CEO, MLPB and Eman Khatri – Intern, Wellesley College

June 29, 2021

On the afternoon of Monday, June 21, MLPB convened a Virtual Conversation on Strengthening the Social Care Toolbox with Legal Rights Education. Over the last year, new evidence on the relationship between legal rights education and quality of care has been generated through the Housing Prescriptions as Health Care pilot and the DULCE (Developmental Understanding and Legal Collaboration for Everyone) national Learning Network. (MLPB’s evidence-based team-facing legal partnering model animates both of these innovations.)

View the recording below:

On the heels of coverage in a June 7 Health Affairs Blog, we convened colleagues who are part of these innovations to share their perspectives on this learning. Key themes from these commentators included:

  • The sobering access to justice landscape in the United States. According to Jeannine Casselman, MLPB’s Law and Policy Director, the state of Rhode Island – for instance – ranks “35th out of 52 when we include the 50 states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico,” in four civil justice policy areas: Attorney Access, Self Help, Language Access and Disability Access. Casselman also expressed concern for individuals who can not access a lawyer and cited that Rhode Island ranks “52nd out of 52 in self-representation.” Casselman cited the most-recent Justice Index rankings curated by the National Center for Access to Justice.
  • The ways in which cross-sector colleagues (so-called “non-lawyers”) are bridging the access to justice gap every day. “Sometimes as doulas, we’ve been sitting in courtrooms, but we’re not lawyers. We are downloading documents for families to fill out to file petitions or motions,” noted Tia Murray, Founder & CEO of Harambee Village, a community-based doula agency based in Madison, Wisconsin and leading community planning for DULCE in 2021. Murray observed that, “We truly do need a village and we need to bring in that legal aspect of things.”
  • Care teams increasingly are “first responders” to people’s social, economic and environmental goals – like achieving housing stability – and teams need a bigger and different toolbox. Allison Bovell-AmmonDirector of Policy Strategy at Children’s HealthWatch at BMC commented that, “In healthcare, we often are responding to the problem that is in front of us, but when we take a preventive approach we often are able to potentially prevent a downstream effect.” Bovell-Ammon went on to explain that often, “Resources aren’t available to families until they’re experiencing homelessness or an eviction proceeding, but we know that there can be work done prior to that that could prevent families from entering that stressful situation of having to go to court because of an eviction.”
  • There is a growing evidence base (a) for the power of legal rights education to advance prevention and (b) demonstrating that communities of care can engage with this through legal partnering. Observed Azieb Ermias, Senior Program Analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy: “Legal concerns are major stressors for families impacting their health, for example there are stressors around the rejection of a benefits application, not knowing why or how to go about follow up or even having the time to do so. DULCE legal partners as part of this larger interdisciplinary team are really critical to the approach and they help families access the supports that they want and that they are entitled to. DULCE legal partners are critical to the team as a way to identify patterns and gaps in the system.”

Moderator Samantha Morton also noted the larger context around this June 21 event: that Friday, June 18, 2021 was “the first Juneteenth recognized in the U.S. as a federal holiday. We should pay attention to the caution shared by Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham . . .  – that we not confuse symbolic progress with full realization of racial justice and equity. At the same time, the history of Juneteenth resonates with the question we are discussing today – strategies to put more legal information and power into people’s hands, not less.” And Azieb Ermias commented in a similar vein that “more than ever there’s a drive, a thirst, and appetite to really address social inequities that contribute to some of what we see . . . DULCE is an example of addressing some of these structural issues. DULCE does it by leveraging anti-racist strategies. So integral to this work . . . is families being at the center – how are they driving the work? I think the cross-sector collaboration is a part of it, the access to justice piece . . . and . . . legal partnering [are] a part of it.”