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OU College of Medicine, Legal Aid Services Partner for Family Support, Healing

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OU College of Medicine, Legal Aid Services Partner for Family Support, Healing

March 8, 2024

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLA. – When families receive counseling after a substance use disorder has wreaked havoc on parents and children alike, the desire for healing is often hampered by looming legal issues. To address both needs, the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine received a grant to launch an innovative medical-legal partnership.

Embedded within the college’s Child Study Center, whose clinics provide developmental and behavioral health services, is an attorney from Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma. This nonprofit organization provides free civil legal services to low-income people throughout the state. During therapy sessions with families who have faced a substance use disorder, OU psychologists screen families for issues that can be addressed by an attorney, ranging from crushing debt to unresolved bug infestation at home to job discrimination. By referring families to an attorney in the same building, psychologists can focus on mental health and parenting needs, and families receive free legal help that they may have never thought possible.

“Families can find it difficult to engage in treatment when they are facing so many barriers in their lives. They want to be good parents, but they need support from both the mental health side and the legal side,” said pediatric psychologist Elizabeth Bard, Ph.D., an associate professor in the college’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

The partnership has been yielding positive results. Michael Figgins, Esq., executive director of Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, said people face issues that tend to compound and explode at the worst times. Often, these challenges follow a pattern of loss, denial and subsequent negative experiences. If people lose their home or car, they may be unable to get to work. Then, they may be denied food assistance or another attempt at housing. Substance abuse, domestic violence and homelessness may ensue.

“Without an ability to resolve those issues in a timely way, they accumulate. And if you look back, they all started with one legal issue that wasn’t addressed,” Figgins said. “The concept of this partnership is that there are issues that impact people in such a way that it’s harder for them to get well and stay well, and it’s harder for health professionals to treat them. By showing people there are solutions, we can lift them out of poverty, and they can focus on their treatment.”

OU College of Medicine pediatric psychologist Elizabeth Bard, Ph.D..
Elizabeth Bard, Ph.D.

Typically, people with a mountain of problems think that either they can’t afford legal help or that an attorney will entrap them, Figgins said. Because Legal Aid Services is housed within the clinic, families more quickly understand the benefits and don’t have to travel elsewhere for services. In addition to providing legal solutions, the attorney can often connect families with eligible benefits, such as unpaid child support, Social Security or VA assistance.

The concept of a medical-legal partnership isn’t new, but this is Legal Aid Services’ first partnership with an academic health center that provides patient care, conducts research and educates future health professionals. Bard and her colleagues see families who have been affected by substance use in some way — sometimes prenatal exposure to drugs, the risk of children being removed from the home because of drugs, and behavioral problems in children who have encountered substance abuse and trauma.

Before the partnership with Legal Aid Services, Bard would spend hours trying to connect families to resources, with no guarantee that families would be able to pursue the help on their own. Psychologists use a screener that provides specific examples of legal issues that families recognize, allowing for a smooth handoff to an attorney who is poised to act.

“This partnership relieves some of the burden on therapists when we can hand off the legal issues to an expert,” Bard said. “And when we can relieve families of some of these legal stressors, we’re able to engage them in high-quality treatment that we know from research has a long-term positive impact. It is wonderful to see families becoming stable and bonding with each other and for parents to learn how to be good parents sober.”

Michael Figgins, Esq., executive director of Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.
Michael Figgins, Esq.

Bard, Figgins and their colleagues have documented their successes for their funding entity, the Foundation for Opioid Response Efforts. Although the grant is ending, they hope to find additional support to continue the work.

“This is a wonderful partnership that gets results,” Figgins said. “The two professions of medicine and law are surrounding families with the support they need.”

About the University of Oklahoma

Founded in 1890, the University of Oklahoma is a public research university located in Norman, Oklahoma. As the state’s flagship university, OU serves the educational, cultural, economic and health care needs of the state, region and nation. OU was named the state’s highest-ranking university in U.S. News & World Report’s most recent Best Colleges list. For more information about the university, visit ou.edu.


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