Student Perspective: Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic

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Ben Link ’23 (r) with client John Sutherlin after the Medical-Legal Partnership helped Sutherlin obtain a new birth certificate reflecting his legal name since his adoption in 1981.  

By Ben Link ’23 

Mr. Sutherlin was first referred to the Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in fall 2020 because he was having difficulties proving his legal identity. Although he was legally adopted by his stepfather, Roy E. Sutherlin, in 1981, and a Baltimore Circuit Court decree was entered indicating his surname change, his birth certificate was never correspondingly updated. In the years since, Mr. Sutherlin faced obstacles accessing services as his identification documents did not uniformly indicate his legal name. This hurdle served to exacerbate some of the challenges he already experienced in his daily life, as he was battling addiction and experiencing homelessness. Then, shortly before connecting with the Clinical Law Program, Mr. Sutherlin lost all of his belongings—including his birth certificate, Social Security card, and driver’s license—when the house he was staying in caught fire.  

Mr. Sutherlin came to the Clinical Law Program with the goal of restoring his legal identity by recovering copies of the documents he had lost and by obtaining a new birth certificate reflecting his legal, adoptive name. Over the course of three years, he worked with the support of an interdisciplinary team consisting of Medical-Legal Partnership Clinic student attorneys and a social worker and registered nurse from his medical clinic to methodically recover each of his vital record documents, culminating in obtaining a new birth certificate.  

The journey involved patiently waiting through the long delays that came with government service agencies adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic, overcoming the challenges of re-entering society following rehab treatment, and navigating several emergency room and doctor visits. A testament to the effectiveness of an interdisciplinary approach to care, his support team was able to work hand-in-hand to holistically tend to his legal, medical, and other needs. Despite the long journey, Mr. Sutherlin’s persistence and willingness to work with his interdisciplinary team enabled him to meet his goal of securing copies of his vital identification records that now uniformly reflect his legal name. He is relieved to no longer have to carry multiple documents just to prove his identity. 

Since he first approached the Clinical Law Program, Mr. Sutherlin has been able to find his way to a more stable living situation and is thankful to have reconnected with many important family members who have been an invaluable source of social support and encouragement, including his Uncle and Aunt Edward, Jessie Watson, and Glen Wagner. We commend Mr. Sutherlin on the amazing progress he has made in the past three years and all the courage and fortitude he has shown in that time. He hopes his story can inspire others who may be struggling with some of the same challenges he has faced and overcome.