At the height of this country’s HIV/AIDS crisis in the late 1980’s, Prof. Deborah Weimer started Maryland Carey Law’s HIV/AIDS Legal Clinic in partnership with medical and social work providers at the pediatric immunology clinic at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC).
The Clinic’s early focus was on access to health care, employment discrimination, Social Security disability appeals, and standby guardianship. Nearly thirty years later, significant medical and legal progress has been achieved so that clients are living longer lives with better legal protections. But this also means new legal challenges for Clinic clients.
People with an HIV positive status are more than twice as likely to be living at or below the poverty line, which is reflected in the legal issues they face.
“We’ve always known that it takes more than good medicine for people to be healthy,” says Prof. Sara Gold, who now co- teaches the Clinic with Prof. Weimer, “and the challenge is to meet clients’ legal needs so that they can focus on what is most important—their health.”
The Clinic now sees clients with legal issues more typical of a general poverty law practice, from concerns about substandard housing, to how their desire to return to work will impact their social security benefits, to increased visitation with their minor children. “To be frank,” says Prof. Gold, “thirty years ago our clients weren’t living long enough to experience many of these legal problems.”
The HIV Legal Clinic has evolved to address these additional legal problems by expanding partnerships and developing new initiatives. Recognizing the large number of housing issues that HIV Legal Clinic clients faced, Prof. Weimer created a Landlord Tenant clinic focusing on the need for stable, safe housing for people living with HIV. Student attorneys in that clinic have prevented evictions, persuaded judges to abate rent, and compelled landlords to make repairs to unsafe housing.
In response to the tremendous demand for Social Security advice, as well as other legal needs including health care and financial planning, clinic students began delivering on-site, brief advice once a week at another outpatient clinic associated with UMMC. Similarly, the Clinic continues to develop expertise on the name and identity change process to assist the many clients who are transitioning.
Recent graduate Nickeitta Leung ‘15 says that her experiences in the HIV/AIDS Legal Clinic formed her approach to being a lawyer.
“I learned to look at clients as whole people, not just legal problems,” says Leung.
Her caseload included several Social Security overpayment cases, a paternity suit, an unemployment case and a landlord-tenant dispute with an underlying contracts issue. “I became so invested in my clients’ lives, I signed up to work for three additional semesters in the HIV Legal Clinic.”
Leung credits Prof. Gold with building her into a sympathetic, trauma-informed lawyer—an invaluable foundation on which to begin her career in the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society of New York.
Not surprisingly, Leung’s passion translated to real results for her clients. As one client, Mr. O., explained, “I have struggled to return to work for many years, but was in constant fear of Social Security’s wrath.” After receiving legal counsel from Ms. Leung and fellow student attorney Victoria Ekeanyanwu, Mr. O. says that he is “forever grateful for the treatment and assistance [he] was given. . . Thank you so much for this beneficial program, which has alleviated many sleepless nights and emotional stress.”
Stories like these keep the work fresh and fulfilling for Profs. Weimer and Gold, who look forward to building even stronger and broader relationships within the University of Maryland system in the hopes of achieving a goal that once felt out of reach—reducing the spread of HIV infection. In the immediate future, the Clinic will participate in interprofessional learning opportunities through the Preparing the Future (PTF) program spearheaded by the University’s JACQUES Initiative at the Institute of Human Virology, and strengthen their existing collaboration with the Family Informed Trauma Treatment (FITT) Center.