Remember that ice storm back in 2003 that took out everyone’s power and lots of roofs? With a gaping hole in my own roof, I camped out that week with some friends in their home (who had no electricity, but had a gas fireplace and gas oven). It was actually pretty fun, all things considering. We played board games by candle light, and slept on the living room floor in front of the fireplace. (I was accused of hogging the fireplace. This may be accurate.) I also remember we ate a lot of cookies that week, because we kept using the gas oven to try to keep ourselves warm.
Only years later, as a public interest attorney, would it occur to me that for many Kentucky families, the oven is the only thing heating their home all winter.
I gave a presentation last week at the Kentucky Asthma Partnership meeting, along with a colleague from Louisville, Attorney Andrea Hunt, of Doctors and Lawyers for Kids. We are both civil legal aid attorneys, who practice in a pediatrics clinic, for programs called “medical-legal partnerships.” These are programs that bring lawyers into the medical setting, to do legal work for patients who have legal problems affecting their health.
Andrea began her portion of the presentation with a story of two children with burned hands, and a photograph of a tiny toddler palm with severe burns. The burns were caused by touching a hot oven. However, this wasn’t an accidental burn while Mom was baking Christmas cookies and turned her back for just one moment on an over-eager child. Sadly, these burns happened because the oven door was left open to heat the family’s apartment. In the middle of winter, the family had been left without heat, not because of a power outage, but because a landlord had refused to repair the heater, violating the law and endangering the health of the family.
Unfortunately, this story is so common that we’ve also had that same case. Same facts, same story, different children, different city. The same stories repeat across programs. And the problems aren’t just with a lack of heat, but a lot of issues that endanger children’s health. For instance, we see the child with uncontrolled asthma who lives in a home with toxic mold growth. (No amount of corticosteroids can control the child’s asthma so long as she breathes in her allergen.) We see the child who is suddenly confined to a wheelchair who can no longer access his upstairs apartment, but the landlord refuses to allow them to move to the vacant downstairs apartment. We see the child who is denied a home at all, because a landlord discriminates on the basis of familial status or race, or attempts to evict a family for illegal reasons.
These are just a few of the cases we’ve seen concerning our patients living in rental housing. In most cases, landlords are willing to make the repairs or accommodations once they’re notified in writing that it is needed. Many families simply don’t understand their rights under the Uniform Residential Landlord-Tenant Act, which has been adopted in Lexington and Louisville and in a few other areas across the state. They get frustrated when an apartment manager hasn’t returned their phone calls and repairs aren’t completed, and don’t know what to do, don’t know how to reach the difficult to find, out-of-state landlord from local property records and state business filings, and certainly can’t front the cost of expensive repairs themselves.
Sadly, the only thing they might know to do is to turn on the oven.
CAT Legal Clinic, and other Medical-Legal Partnerships across the country seek to prevent these problems before they become tragedies like the child with the burned hands. CAT attorneys are available in three pediatrics clinics (Kentucky Clinic, Family Care Center and Polk-Dalton) to meet with families who have these kinds of legal problems that affect the health and safety of their children.
This holiday season, please keep in mind the families across Kentucky whose health depends on access to civil legal services. CAT Legal Clinic is a partnership between Kentucky Children’s Hospital and Access to Justice Foundation to provide preventative law as preventative healthcare.
Every penny counts! Please make a donation to CAT Legal Clinic at: https://www.bggives.org/community/access-to-justice-foundation/
Andrea K. Welker, JD, MA
CAT Legal Clinic Coordinator/Attorney
J251 Kentucky Clinic
Lexington, KY 40536