Amina Warsama’s fourth child, Marwa, was born with significant health conditions. Diagnoses of Down Syndrome and a heart defect, among other things, meant that Marwa spent several months after her birth at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. Those months were very difficult for her parents, who work full-time and have three other children.

When Marwa came home, she was medically fragile and prone to infection. She needed her own bedroom in order to minimize risks and accommodate her medical needs. The family lived in a two-bedroom apartment, so Marwa’s three siblings moved into their parents’ bedroom.

Six months later, Marwa was hospitalized again in the Children’s Hospital Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit to receive a permanent pacemaker. At that point, her parents realized they couldn’t continue with the crowded housing situation. They found a more affordable three-bedroom unit elsewhere and asked for early termination of their lease.

An Unsympathetic Landlord

“The doctor gave us a letter, and we took it to the management, but they said no, they didn’t care about that,” says Warsama. “They were going to charge over two thousand dollars. I told them we didn’t have that kind of money. I asked if we could make a payment plan, twenty dollars a month until we finished. The manager said we could do that. It would’ve taken us more than eight years.”

Fortunately, Warsama did not sign the Lease Termination Agreement. She brought it to the hospital and showed it to the social worker who had been helping them with multiple issues. The social worker called Legal Aid Staff Attorney Dena Birkenkamp, who works on site at Children’s Hospital.

Hospital-based Legal Intervention

“This case perfectly shows the benefit of Medical-Legal Partnerships (MLP),” says Birkenkamp. “Facing a housing issue at the same time as dealing with a child’s complex medical and health needs is incredibly stressful. This legal problem was directly related to the health needs of the child.”

The MLP between Legal Aid and Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota facilitates smooth communication between the patient’s families, the care team, and Legal Aid. Birkenkamp is on the Minneapolis hospital campus up to four days a week, where institutional support from Children’s has helped her to build relationships with the social workers on staff. She also receives referrals from resource navigators, clinicians, and care coordinators.

Marwa’s care team put together documentation that clearly showed the family needed to break the lease because of a medical need. Birkenkamp made a reasonable accommodation request of the landlord. After some negotiation, the landlord agreed to allow the family to break the lease without any financial penalty.

“When a child is in-patient for a long stay, the parents already have a lot to handle,” Birkenkamp says. “Marwa’s parents were dealing with a long commute and reduced work hours in order to be at the hospital with their daughter and continue to care for their other children. Adding monthly payments for a break-lease fee on top of that was just too much.”

A Powerful Medical-Legal Partnership

Children’s Hospital social workers are learning to recognize legal issues and contact Birkenkamp as part of their workflow. When she’s not on site, Birkenkamp offices in Legal Aid’s Minneapolis office. There, she has easy access to her Legal Aid colleagues with years of combined expertise across legal topics.

“I see so much value in being available to people who would otherwise face barriers to receiving legal services at a difficult point in their lives,” says Birkenkamp. “Especially with the in-patient population, many of those kids are in the hospital for a long time. The families have so many concerns, and travel to yet another office for legal help is probably not going to happen.”

Marwa is now settled in her own room at home. The family is much more comfortable with three bedrooms, and they don’t have the additional debt of breaking the lease hanging over their heads.

“I think it’s good to have a lawyer at the hospital,” Warsama agrees. “It made a huge difference to get that help from Dena. A lawyer can help so much and really change someone’s life.”

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