When a former boyfriend would not leave her alone, Louisville native Qunita McGinnis felt helpless. She did not know what to do to keep him from approaching her in public, at home and at work. And with working full time and raising three children, she had little time to even begin to figure out where to get help.
And while she worried about safety, her ex-boyfriend called local authorities and told them that McGinnis was selling drugs out of her subsidized home, an allegation that threatened to get her evicted. While the allegation was false, McGinnis said she got a letter from the housing authority requiring her to submit information and to attend a hearing.
McGinnis told IL that losing her home likely would have meant her losing job as well, and with it, her ability to take care of her children: Zaniyah, 4, Qumontay, 8, and Tonniesha, 15.
McGinnis works in customer service at a grocery chain. Government assistance pays about three quarters of her $410 monthly rent. Without that assistance, she would not be able to stay in her home in the West End.
“Me and my kids probably wouldn’t have anywhere to go,” she said.
Family members in the Louisville area were afraid to get involved because of her ex-boyfriend.
“It was … nerve-wracking … not knowing what’s going to happen,” she said.
Her fortunes changed when she took Qumontay to a doctor’s appointment and spotted a flier for Doctors & Lawyers for Kids (DLK), which provides free legal services to people in need.
McGinnis called the agency’s then-staff attorney, Andrea Hunt, who immediately provided her with information on how she could protect herself and her children.
Hunt helped McGinnis identify and fill out the proper paperwork and represented McGinnins in court a week later when a judge granted a protective order.
“It made me feel a lot better,” McGinnis said.
At that point, she knew her ex-boyfriend would face legal repercussions if he approached her.
But the potential eviction still caused her sleepless nights, though she was confident Hunt would help.
Even with Hunt’s backing, McGinnis said the hearing last August was tough.
“My heart was beating fast,” she said.
McGinnis said Hunt advocated on her behalf, presented evidence of her employment and other documents. Hunt also told authorities she would be willing to appeal if McGinnis lost her Section 8 housing.
When the ruling went in her favor, McGinnis felt as though an enormous weight had been lifted.
“I was crying and everything,” she said.
And, she said, she felt thankful for Hunt’s assistance.
The connection between legal problems and health
Beth Robinson, the attorney and University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law grad who now fills Hunt’s role, said people who live in poverty typically have two or three unmet legal needs, from custody issues to housing and domestic violence.
Much like the idea that preventing health problems is better than treating them, DLK hopes to practice preventive law, which means catching legal problems early when a phone call or a letter from an attorney can still make a difference.
Legal problems can have a significant impact on people’s mental and physical health. And while most people, including those in poverty, have a doctor, few have an attorney or even access to one. DLK connects people who seek help from medical doctors with attorneys who can help them with their legal problems, too.
Legal services are part of the puzzle of medical care that is needed to make people healthy and stable, Robinson said.
For example, a family may live in a home with mold that is making the parents and children sick. The family may follow all the directions from the doctor to the letter, but so long as the mold is not removed, the family’s health likely will not improve.
Tenants may talk to the landlord or send him a text message to complain, but sometimes the landlord may be inclined to try to evict the tenant rather than address the mold problem. If the family does not know where to get help, they may lose the home. And with an eviction on their record, the tenants will have a tougher time finding another apartment. Moving also can affect whether the parents can get to work or the children can get to school.
“The problems mount and mount and mount from there,” Robinson said.
DLK officials hope to intervene early in the process to prevent a negative outcome for the client or a drawn-out court battle.
Sometimes a phone call from an attorney can persuade landlords to take action, Robinson said. And clients have access to the legal services in the same trusted office where they received medical care, removing the client’s need to spend more time to find and travel to a different office.
Robinson said the most common challenges her clients face involve housing, domestic violence and guardianships. Grandparents or other relatives sometimes function as a child’s quasi parent, but without being the child’s designated guardian, relatives cannot sign documents for the child at school or even speak to the teachers.
“There are a lot of different fronts where you can run into problems,” Robinson said.
It has a staff of two, Robinson and a half-time paralegal, Whitney King. The bar association also provides attorneys who handle cases free of charge. Robinson said she and King spend most days in one of the pediatrics offices of the University of Louisville.
DLK President Martha Hasselbacher said local leaders saw a need for a collaboration between doctors and lawyers in Louisville about five years ago and launched DLK, modeled after similar organizations in other cities. About a quarter of families with children in Louisville have incomes below the poverty level.
Since it opened, DLK has helped more than 300 clients.
The organization recently expanded its reach through a partnership with Family Health Centers, a nonprofit that provides access to primary and preventive health care services.
The partnership expands DLK’s reach to a population to which it previously did not have access.
Family Health Centers provided a grant of $15,000, which was matched by the bar association, to help pay for the expansion, which includes a half-time layer.
The expansion will begin at the Family Health Centers clinic in the Portland neighborhood.
Authorities have good reasons to expand the efforts there. Life expectancy in the Portland neighborhood is 68.3 years, a fraction lower than in war-torn Iraq and about nine years below the Louisville average, according to the Louisville Metro Health Equity Report from 2014.
Among the city’s 24 neighborhoods, the Portland area also has the second-highest rates of deaths from heart disease and drug/alcohol abuse, the second-highest unemployment rate, the third-highest suicide rate and the fifth-highest homicide and poverty rates.
Qunita McGinnis said her life has improved immensely since DLK helped her solve her legal problems. Her lawyer spoke up for her and articulated what she did not know how to say.
“I’m thankful that they came up with a program like that,” she said.
Now McGinnis is in the process of buying a home.