Rutgers Helps Children Struggling With Special Needs Heal

Rutgers Helps Children Struggling With Special Needs Heal

A new program combining law, medicine and social work expertise is advocating for families in need

Girl with learning disability
In less than a year, H.E.A.L. has become a powerful voice for New Jersey children with learning disabilities.

We often are unable to treat health and developmental problems until we identify and address the social determinants of those problems. H.E.A.L. helps us to do that.
Jennifer N. Rosen Valverde, Legal Director, The H.E.A.L. Collaborative

As the pediatrician was about to begin her examination, 7-year-old James excitedly asked his father, “Is the lady going to make me see again?” The question nearly brought his parents and doctors to tears.

Though the root of his blindness, which developed a few years ago, remained a mystery, the pediatrician believed she could rectify another situation: a learning delay she suspected was a result of a lack of accommodation for his special needs at school.

The pediatrician referred the case to Rutgers Health, Education, Advocacy & Law Collaborative (H.E.A.L), which has become a powerful voice for children with learning disabilities or developmental problems whose parents are ill-equipped to fight for their educational rights and medical benefits.

“We often are unable to treat health and developmental problems until we identify and address the social determinants of those problems,” said Jennifer N. Rosen Valverde, clinical professor of law at Rutgers School of Law-Newark  and legal director of The H.E.A.L. Collaborative.  “H.E.A.L. helps us to do that.”  H.E.A.L. is a joint project of Rutgers’ School of Law-Newark and New Jersey Medical School (NJMS).

Since its launch this spring, H.E.A.L’s cadre of future doctors, lawyers and social workers have taken on the plights of more than 60 children from low-income, underinsured New Jersey families. In James’s case, school records confirmed the pediatrician’s fear: the child’s learning environment was not properly addressing his vision needs to which he was entitled by law.

The H.E.A.L. intervention, bolstered by documentation from NJMS pediatrics and ophthalmology departments, triggered a meeting of school district officials, who soon after transferred James to a school for visually impaired children where he is making progress. 

Families are referred to H.E.A.L. primarily by NJMS pediatricians and other physicians who suspect learning disabilities or development issues may be impeding a child’s growth.  A family’s first meeting usually occurs on the Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences campus with a medical resident and law and social work students.

Assessing the Learning Environment

The team assesses a child’s situation to learn, for example, whether a child has an individualized education plan and is meeting plan objectives; eats healthfully, lives in a home with adequate electricity and takes medications that are properly stored – all factors that can affect development.

After determining a child’s needs, the team collaborates on a plan to convince authorities to implement changes covered by law. The law students develop the legal framework; medical residents contribute health records and easy- to-understand interpretations of medical diagnoses; social work students focus on resources and services available to families struggling. Valverde monitors the legal strategy and works in close coordination with Hanan Tanuos, NJMS director of primary care and pediatrics.

James’s family – like many of the families H.E.A.L. assists – was surprised to learn that their son was legally entitled to free school accommodations.

Hanan Tanuos and Jenny N. Rosen Valverde discussing strategies
Hanan Tanuos, left, NJMS director of primary care and pediatrics, works closely with H.E.A.L. legal director Jenny N. Rosen Valverde.
Photo: Jeff Tolvin
The H.E.A.L. program illustrates the nationwide trend toward interprofessional academic collaborations designed to tackle community health issues while enhancing student learning experiences. More than 200 similar organizations exist nationwide, but only about 25 include a medical school partner and 36 a law school partner. Initial funding for the Rutgers program came from The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.

The interdisciplinary H.E.A.L concept was modeled after the Medical-Legal Partnership, a program founded in 1993 by Rutgers alumnus Barry Zuckerman, chief of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center. The then-novel approach fascinated Valverde. Several years later Valverde met Kendall Sprott, a physician and associate dean for clinical affairs at NJMS, who was similarly intrigued. The two, who each hold law degrees, partnered to create H.E.A.L.

Provides Career Training 

Invariably, the participating post-grads – third-year NJMS pediatric residents, second- and third-year students at the School of Law and master’s degree candidates at the School of Social Work – praise H.E.A.L. as invaluable on-the-job training, summoning their knowledge, expertise, creativity and quick thinking to develop solutions. 

Members of the H.E.A.L. planning legal strategy
The H.E.A.L. Collaborative participants meet regularly to plan strategies for pursuing benefits for children in need. Clockwise from left, Michele Pasierb, pediatric chief resident; clinical law students Sheri Ostrowitz and Eric Storjohann; Clarisa Claeyssen, social work intern; Amrita Pompy, pediatrict resident; Stella Lyubarsky, staff attorney, and Jennifer N. Rosen Valverde, H.E.A.L. legal director.
Photo: Jeff Tolvin
“It’s given me a new perspective to the medical view of looking at things,” said medical resident Adaora Madubuko, who is also a mother.  “I’m working with social workers and lawyers. I get their point of view, and they get mine. And we integrate our knowledge to pursue better outcomes for the families.”

Most issues H.E.A.L. handles relate to advocating on behalf of a child with special education needs, learning disabilities and developmental concerns. But H.E.A.L. members encounter and address household problems as well – parents facing eviction, denial of Supplemental Security Insurance benefits for children with disabilities, or the potential cancellation of food stamps.

“Many families have trouble navigating the system and H.E.A.L. is helping them get what they need and are legally entitled to receive,” Sprott said.