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SickKids program adds lawyers to family support teams

Sometimes it takes more than the assistance of doctors, nurses and social workers to help parents cope with the challenges of caring for an extremely sick child.

So, in a unique program - believed to be the first of its kind in Canada - Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children is now adding lawyers to its family support team.

"Some solutions need the expertise of a lawyer," said Ted McNeill, SickKids' director of social work.

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For instance, a family of an asthmatic child may require legal help to prod a landlord into removing mould from a building. Or a parent may be unjustly fired after taking time away from work to care for an ailing child.

Dr. McNeill noted a host of non-medical problems, requiring expert legal knowledge to address, can impede a family's ability to focus on the health of their children.

"But not everyone can afford a lawyer," he said. "This service is really targeted at those families who face financial challenges and who might otherwise not be able to access a lawyer."

The hospital has joined forces with Pro Bono Law Ontario and two local law firms - McMillan as well as Torkin Manes Barristers and Solicitors - to provide free legal care to those in need.

One lawyer has already set up shop at SickKids. Cases requiring very specific legal training - such as immigration and tax issues - can be referred to other lawyers.

In many respects, the program springs from a field of study known as the "determinants of health," which has shown that poverty, discrimination and related stressors can have a profound influence on a person's physical well-being.

"If we only understand health in the narrow terms of the biology of disease, we are going to miss addressing those very important determinants that shape our health," said Dr. McNeill.

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