A Powerful Combination: Project HEAL Blends Health Care and Advocacy

JeffreyLife has dealt 14-year-old Jeffrey a particularly challenging hand. Jeffrey, who lives with his parents and sibling in a low-income neighborhood in South Baltimore, has bipolar, obsessive-compulsive, anxiety, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders. Four years ago, his behaviors became so severe that his parents decided to take him out of school and home-school him, which would have been a challenge because his parents have only ninth-grade educations themselves.

"If Jeffrey's behaviors were too severe for a team of professionals in a public school to handle, they were obviously too much for his parents," says Maureen van Stone, Director of Project HEAL (Health, Education, Advocacy, and Law) at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a partnership between the Institute and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) designed to offer children with special needs and their families free access to legal and advocacy services.

With little knowledge about their son's rights under federal and state laws and regulations, Jeffrey's parents attempted to home-school him for almost two years, with little success. Though he eventually re-enrolled at his local public school, his behavior problems continued. Kennedy Krieger healthcare professionals working with Jeffrey referred his parents to Project HEAL for assistance.

Project HEAL has provided free, confidential advice, consultation, or direct representation to more than 900 families since it began in September 2005, when van Stone joined the Institute for a postgraduate legal fellowship. Some of the areas that Project HEAL offers assistance with include special education and related services, public benefits, landlord/tenant problems, family law, and Social Security.

"A disproportionate number of people with disabilities are also members of lower socioeconomic groups," says Judy Levy, director of social work at Kennedy Krieger. "A large proportion of the population we serve needs legal support and advocacy, and they don't have the money to pay for it."

When van Stone began working with Jeffrey, he was frequently isolated from his peers because of his disruptive behaviors.

"Jeffrey did not have an appropriate education program or related services, and so he went to school every day without producing any classwork," she says.

Van Stone attended Jeffrey's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting at his school, advocating for more services, a revised IEP, and a more appropriate educational setting.

"He's no longer anxious about going to school," says van Stone. "He made friends, he's doing work, he's participating in school-related activities, he's making progress toward his goals and objectives on his IEP, and he is engaging with his school counselors."

Van Stone's fellowship ended in August 2007, though Kennedy Krieger and MVLS have committed funding to sustain the project, and van Stone continues to pursue additional funding from outside sources so Project HEAL may continue providing valuable services to children like Jeffrey and their families. - By Anne Hoffman