Family Resource Clinic Reaches Out to Community

May 12, 2008

Antonio was struggling to recover from a devastating car accident when a mistake at an area social services department stopped his Medicaid benefits.

Matt VanWormer, right, meets with a Family Resource Clinic client.

Suddenly without the assistance he and his family had relied upon for medicine and therapy, the disabled Central Virginia teenager's condition worsened and he became wheelchair bound.

"It was really hard," said Antonio, who is not fully identified to protect his confidentiality. "My medicine was really expensive, so it was a drain on my mother and father."

After months without Medicaid, the teen and his family turned to Charlottesville's Legal Aid Justice Center for help. There they made contact with the Family Resource Clinic, a Law School clinic run in conjunction with Legal Aid in which students advocate for low-income people whose public benefits have been wrongly denied, cut off or reduced.

"They got it turned back on," Antonio said recently, seated at his kitchen table for a meeting with Matt VanWormer, a third-year law student who handled his case and worked to convince social services officials that they'd misapplied complex Medicaid regulations in Antonio's case.

Professor Dan Nagin, who oversees the clinic and supervises the students, said Antonio's situation illustrates the quandary many area low-income residents find themselves in if their benefits are wrongly ended. Faced with a massive bureaucracy and a maze of laws and regulations - and often unable to hire a lawyer - many simply accept erroneous changes to the federal, state or local public benefits programs they rely upon, he said.

"The vast majority of our clients are very poor and they live on the margins of society. And many, if not most of them, have serious physical or mental health problems and needs," Nagin said. "But for the existence of these programs, many of our clients would be going hungry, without health insurance, without the ability to meet their basic financial needs. Indeed, some of our clients are homeless."

The Family Resource Clinic, which is now at the end of its first full academic year, functions both to help these clients and to give law students hands-on experience, Nagin said. Under their professor's watchful eye, the eight clinic students take on the bulk of the responsibility in their cases. They help develop strategy, write briefs, represent their clients at hearings and generally act as first-chair attorneys.

"I want the students to feel the weight of the case on their shoulders," Nagin said. "Through the clinic, I hope they learn some of the ins and outs of how administrative law works in practice. They also get exposed to some interesting questions of constitutional law."

Those enrolled in public benefit programs such as food stamps or Social Security are typically entitled to an administrative hearing if their benefits are reduced or eliminated, he said. Depending on the program, the results of that hearing can also be appealed to state or federal court.

VanWormer, the student who worked to convince the social services department to restore Antonio's Medicaid benefits, said he learned a lot by going through the administrative process. Though the case was resolved without a hearing, VanWormer spent three months working intensively for a resolution, Nagin said.

"I think it's a unique opportunity for law students to work directly with clients and test out their legal skills and their advocacy skills while they are working on cases that affect real people, instead of cases that exist only in theory," VanWormer said.

In other cases, students have to square off against opposing lawyers in full-blown hearings before an administrative judge. This year, a pair of students went through a lengthy hearing over whether their clients had been wrongly denied adoption assistance.

In 2004, an area couple became foster parents to a young boy and girl — a toddler and an infant — who'd been neglected by their biological parents.

"I went to work that morning with nothing in my backseat except the seat itself, and I came home with two very beautiful children," said Denise, whose full identity is withheld to protect her confidentiality.

Denise and her husband were nearing retirement age and had already raised their own biological children when they became foster parents. After it became clear that the foster children would not be reunited with their biological parents, Denise and her husband decided to adopt them.

The couple had been receiving clothing and daycare benefits from their local department of social services, a common arrangement for foster parents and adoptive parents. Such assistance is offered to help offset the considerable cost of raising adoptive or foster children, Nagin said.

"They loved the kids and took care of the kids, and the department of social services provided them with a certain amount of financial assistance to help the family maintain stability," he said.

As Denise and her husband began the adoption process, they were assured by no less than four social services officials that the daycare and clothing assistance would continue, Denise said.

"Each one told us, 'Nothing will change, nothing financially will change.' And then it did," she said.

After the adoption went through, the social services department said the daycare and clothing assistance would be cut off entirely, a move Denise said put her family in a financial bind.

Believing it had been a mistake, she and her husband began inquiring with the local social services officials.

"They said 'They're yours now, deal with it,'" she recalled.

After struggling with social services for more than a year and mounting an unsuccessful letter-writing campaign to state officials, Denise and her husband turned to the Legal Aid Justice Center and the Family Resource Clinic.

"I felt like we were never going to be heard unless we contacted an attorney," she said.

The state agency's initial position was that the decision to cut the benefits wasn't appealable, Nagin said.

However, once the clinic appealed that issue to Circuit Court, the state agency agreed that Denise and her husband were entitled to a hearing before an administrative law judge, Nagin said.

The students involved logged innumerable hours of preparation time in anticipation of the hearing, even holding a moot, or practice, hearing with their classmates acting as witnesses and as opposing counsel, Nagin said. Third-year law student Tiffany Clements and second-year law student Victoria Neely researched and drafted the brief for the case and second-year law student Kate Lawrence and third-year law student Hyorim Suh represented Denise and her husband during the administrative hearing, which stretched on for five hours.

"They were so nice and so helpful," Denise said of the students. "There's no way that we could have asked for a better team to help us than what we received."

Despite the rigorous preparation, Lawrence said the hearing was filled with unexpected twists and turns - including surprise rebuttal witnesses from social services - and that she had to adapt her closing arguments on the fly, an experience she said closely resembles what lawyers do at trial.

"As much as you prepare, there's always going to be something unpredictable," she said.

In the end, the judge issued a written decision fully favorable to the clients and ordered the social services department not only to reinstate the benefits, but also to restore the payments Denise and her husband had already been denied.

Like VanWormer, Lawrence said the experience was both educationally beneficial and personally gratifying.

"In terms of the experience of being actually able to do a hearing, do a closing and do the direct, and then see the benefits, it's by far the most rewarding experience in law school," she said.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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