On Christmas Eve, 2001, Maureen van Stone was up late, trying to help
yet another patient at the Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI) with access
to care issues outside the scope of her work as a clinical researcher.
The scenario was all too familiar to van Stone, who by then had more than
five years’ experience at KKI.
was tired of seeing children’s health care derailed by denial of
benefits or of access to education.
“We would put all our resources into developing a comprehensive
treatment program, only to see a total failure of implementation once the
patient returned to school,” says van Stone. Parents frequently lacked
resources to ensure a school followed the KKI plan. Van Stone was tired
of seeing children’s health care derailed by denial of benefits or
of access to education. That Christmas Eve, she posed herself a question:
what if she applied to law school and studied to become an advocate for
Five years later, she’s living the answer to that question. She
is now an attorney completing her second year as director of Project HEAL
(Health, Education, Advocacy and Law) at Kennedy Krieger Institute. It’s
a project that provides doctors, social workers and educators at KKI with
a resource for legal advocacy, education on recognizing families in need
of legal services and referrals to community organizations. Project HEAL
at KKI is a special project started by Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service
(MVLS) in an effort to help children with disabilities obtain special education
services to which they are entitled.
While van Stone pursued an education in special education law at Whittier
Law School in California, MVLS was already at work developing a program
to address the legal needs of children and families at the Johns Hopkins
Children’s Center. MVLS launched the first Project HEAL at the Harriet
Lane Clinic in August of 2003. As van Stone approached the completion of
her law degree, she learned of Project HEAL and got in touch with MVLS
to broach the idea of adding a second Project HEAL at KKI. Van Stone received
a two-year postgraduate legal fellowship through Equal Justice Works to
create the project under the supervision and direction of MVLS.
KKI is the only medical-legal partnership out of about 60 nationwide
that is based at an institution exclusively serving developmentally disabled
children, adolescents and adults. As a result, the primary focus of her
program is special education law. It’s clear that van Stone is driven
by a need to serve families struggling with these issues. “I’ll
see that a child has been stuck in an educational placement that’s
not meeting his needs, the family trying – maybe for years – to
see results, and following one meeting in the presence of legal counsel
the child gets into a new program where he can flourish,” she explains.
One such family, upon referral to Project HEAL, expressed concern that
their 13-year-old son was not making educational progress at his school.
The boy, who suffers from mental disorders including autism, had experienced
an interruption in his education three years before, when he became disruptive
in school and his parents were persuaded to home school him by the administration.
His parents, with only ninth-grade educations, were ill-equipped to teach
him, and after two years re-enrolled him in school. He still did not progress.
Within one week of their referral to Project HEAL, van Stone’s legal
intervention ensured the boy’s placement in a school that could meet
his needs and provide counseling, and speech and language services. Now
he’s thriving. Forty percent of van Stone’s clients fall into
this category: they’ve been placed in the wrong school or the wrong
program, and their family, their social worker or their doctor do not know
how to navigate the special education process to get the child what he
Van Stone can provide brief consultations, or, if necessary, direct representation,
or she can refer the family to other community organizations. She works
closely with organizations like Maryland Disability Law Center (MDLC),
building ties between legal service providers, KKI and the families served
by KKI. As van Stone approaches the end of her second year running Project
HEAL at KKI, she’s already made a significant impact. She’s
advised more than 500 families since the program’s inception. In
a typical day she might present a group of social workers with information
on identifying clients in need of legal assistance, attend an Individualized
Education Program (IEP) meeting with a client, field several phone calls
or e-mails from potential clients and schedule meetings, then attend a
meeting for a local community group. Her project is important in its direct
impact on the clients she serves, and also in the network it is creating
and the model it provides for other programs. Van Stone’s Equal Justice
Works fellowship will end in August, but MVLS and KKI are committed to
finding continuing funding for her important work.
Danika Myers is a full-time paralegal for Maryland Volunteer
Lawyers Service. She has an M.F.A. in Writing from George Mason