“Kathy” is a single mom who found herself in a situation she never imagined. Because of various mental and physical illnesses, she could no longer work. Despite having a college degree, she and her two children ended up living in Aurora at Hesed House, the second-largest homeless shelter in Illinois, when the Social Security Administration continued to deny her disability case. Kathy talked with her medical provider about her stressful situation, and he handed her a referral to the NIU College of Law Health Advocacy Clinic.
Founded in 2013, the NIU Law Health Advocacy Clinic is a medical-legal partnership (MLP) between the College of Law, Aunt Martha’s Health and Outreach Center and Hesed House. MLPs directly integrate legal services into health-care settings where medical professionals, case managers, social workers and lawyers work together to solve legal issues impacting health.
Under supervision, law students spend 8-16 hours per week at Hesed House and gain hands-on experiences to better prepare them for practice. Most of all, they learn the important role legal professionals play in helping those facing poverty. Also playing a vital role at Hesed House is its Executive Director Ryan Dowd, who earned a joint law degree and master’s degree in public administration from NIU in 2003.
“It is a really exciting partnership, and not just because I’m an alumnus. It not only serves the legal needs of homeless individuals, but it also prepares the next generation for a career of service,” Dowd said. “Does it get any better than that?”
In the end, the Health Advocacy Clinic made a significant impact in Kathy’s Social Security case. Students worked collaboratively and extensively with her case manager, mental health counselor and physician to help ensure that she had the strongest evidence supporting her case. Students wrote a prehearing brief and represented Kathy at an administrative law hearing. The judge granted her case and Kathy was awarded monthly benefits and more than $12,000 in retroactive payments. As a result, she and her family will not be returning to Hesed House.
The Health Advocacy Clinic adds to the list of incredible experiential learning opportunities offered by the NIU College of Law. The Civil Justice Clinic, Criminal Defense Clinic and Prisoners’ Rights Project located in Rockford, Illinois, are also all a part of the law school’s history of public service and drive its mission to provide hands-on experience for students to advocate on behalf of real clients.