Families rule in favour of Holland Bloorview’s On-Site Legal Services

The Garcia family was stressed. They were struggling with bill payments and the cost of therapies and treatments for their seven-year-old son, Julio, who has autism.

“We were unable to make ends meet,” said Julio’s father, Miguel. “I maxed out my credit card all the time.”

The family came to Holland Bloorview in 2013 where Julio received an autism diagnosis. Miguel earned a good income and they were getting some support through Assistance for Children with Severe Disabilities (ACSD).

But those payments were initially set at $25 a month – nowhere near enough to cover costs.  Their financial worries were like a dark cloud constantly hovering over them. At times the physical and mental stress was unbearable.

“Teresa and I couldn’t sleep at night, we were totally burned out,” said Miguel. “We were afraid that Julio was going to miss out on so many things…Those were sad times.”

Their situation became so bad, the family considered moving back to their home country, Chile But during one hospital visit, the Garcias learned about Holland Bloorview’s On-site Legal Services and figured they had nothing to lose.

Legal support for better health

The hospital’s On-site Legal Services is a free legal assistance program in partnership with Pro Bono Ontario. Through education sessions, workshops and one-on-one meetings with an onsite lawyer, families can get the legal help they need for issues such as immigration, taxes, education, housing, estate planning, funding services and other legal matters. The program provides some families, like the Garcias, access to free legal representation by the private law firm Gowlings WLG.

(The onsite lawyer also trains hospital clinicians on spotting client legal issues, provides advocacy support and organizes public legal education programs for clinicians and families.)

“There are non-medical interventions that can provide solutions to remove barriers to achieving greater health,” said on-site lawyer Hannah Lee, the face of the program. “We provide access to legal services, free legal services, for families to remove those barriers.”

Many families of kids with disabilities just aren’t able to get the timely legal counsel they need, explained Hannah. For some parents it’s a matter of time, as they’re trying to make every appointment and therapy session. There’s simply no time to meet with lawyers.

For others it’s a matter of finances. For example, parents with one child can’t access Legal Aid Ontario’s clinic services if they earn a combined annual income of $27,017 or more.

Considering the cost of raising a child with a disability is about four times that of raising a typically developing child, it’s no surprise legal fees are simply too much of a burden.

The Garcias worked with Hannah who, with the help of Gowlings, helped them put in a request for higher ACSD payments and helped them prepare for a hearing, which resulted in their receiving the maximum payments possible for their family – from $25 a month to $465.

New lease on life

It’s made such a difference in their lives. Miguel can focus at work, everyone is sleeping better and Julio is getting the therapy and treatment he needs to flourish

“Julio now has therapies and medical attention not covered by OHIP,” said Miguel. “He’s made tremendous improvements. Julio has surprised family members in Chile who didn’t recognize him because he has improved so much!”

In fact, Miguel believes this financial support his family has received has been the difference in helping Julio become more independent and happier.

“The increase in ACSD payments literally saved my family,” continued Miguel. “Since then, everything became better. And it’s still getting a little better every day. I feel truly blessed thanks to Hannah and to Holland Bloorview’s On-site Legal Services.”

Since its inception in 2013, the On-site Legal Services has helped more than 657 clients, families and alumni, including 176 in 2017 alone.

It’s projected that this year this service will help just as many families if not more, taking the stress out of addressing legal problems so that they can focus on what matters most – their children’s well-being.