When law and medicine unite for children's health
Moving is a stressful time for many families, but it's even more so when it involves a sick child. Let's imagine the not-so-fictional case of a child with asthma living in a home infested with mold, which is making their condition worse. The landlord doesn't want to remedy the situation. For the child's condition to improve, the family would have to take legal action... or move out.
At the Montreal Children's Hospital (MCH), there's a solution for families dealing with legal issues affecting a child's health: free access to the services of a lawyer, available on-site at the hospital.
For over six years now, Justice Pro Bono and the MCH have been joining forces to help these vulnerable families. Often, parents are so preoccupied with the medical aspects of their situation that they don’t have time to look at the legal issues.
Thanks to this medico-legal partnership, the only one of its kind in Quebec, a lawyer offers families free legal advice and, if necessary, refers them to the appropriate resources. When it's necessary to go to court, she refers them to law firms that participate in the program on a pro bono basis (free of charge).
“This kind of medico-legal partnership exists in the United States and has shown to improve the health and care in pediatric hospitals, but Canada is far behind. It frees the parents from the legal burden and allows them to focus on their child’s healing. It also really helps us, the medical team, do our work when addressing related legal issues that are part of our treatment or management of medical conditions," says Dr. Patricia Li, a pediatrician at the MCH and a strong advocate of the program.
Although law is not naturally associated with medicine, "there are many cases where a legal issue is hidden behind a health problem. This is the case when parents risk losing their jobs because of the many absences they take to be at their child's bedside, when parents separate due to the stress caused by a child's illness, or when difficulties arise in connection with immigration, for example, when a family tries to bring in relatives from abroad to help out around the house," explains Aude Exertier, lawyer for the medico-legal partnership between Justice Pro Bono and the MCH.
Sarah* recently moved to Quebec with her husband and daughter Mariam*. Shortly after, the baby fell ill after consuming expired infant formula.
Mariam was seen in the emergency room, then had several follow-ups at the MCH as she continued to be ill. The doctors then realized that she also had neurological problems.
The father was in charge of dealing with the health staff. According to Sarah, he kept her away from appointments, arguing that only one parent could attend because of COVID-19.
However, he reportedly stopped going to the follow-ups. When clinic staff called and asked to speak to Sarah, he allegedly claimed she was asleep. Meanwhile, Mariam's condition was deteriorating.
Also a victim of domestic violence, Sarah decided to leave the house with her daughter, who will soon be two years old. She is now living in a shelter and waiting for a place in a low-cost housing unit.
Justice Pro Bono helped her fill out the housing application, obtain her health insurance card and sign up for family allowances. The organization also found her a lawyer for her court proceedings related to the domestic violence case.
"I really appreciate Me Exertier. She's helped me a lot. The medical staff at the MCH are also extraordinary. They listen to me and are there for me," says Sarah.
*First names have been changed to preserve the family's anonymity, as legal proceedings are underway.