“You Can’t Research What You Don’t Know”: Navigating Legal Services for People with Disabilities
Navigating the world with a disabled family member can be difficult on many fronts, and the Denver Colorado-based advocacy organization Cross-Disability Coalition has a Legal Services Assistance Program.
CCDC’s social enterprise legal program, Probate Power, was founded in 2015 and assists with special needs planning, guardianships, guardianships and probate administration.
Services like these can help people with disabilities navigate the administration of an estate while retaining state benefits.
Chris Brock, the program’s first director attorney, provides an essential service to people with disabilities that can be hard to find.
“We are a legal program run by two lawyers with disabilities, and our goal is to help individuals and families with disabilities plan for the future,” Brock said.
He explained that the solutions are not black and white in many probate situations.
“It’s really hard if you’re trying to support someone after you die — that you can’t just give them that money,” he said.
Linnette Chitla, whose family lives in Denver, met Brock at a special needs fair years ago. When her disabled son approached 18, she realized she had to call Probate Power.
“When my son was 18, we went to see him, (and) he helped us a lot,” Chitla said. “I tend to do things on my own, but when I saw all the paperwork I went to see it. Everything was so smooth.
The cost of legal services is a barrier that may exile some. Probate Power aims to provide affordable services to families and people with disabilities.
“It wasn’t expensive either; it was doable,” Chitla said.
One of the hardest things for the Chitla family was the lack of information and understanding when to seek services.
“[It was difficult] knowing in advance what to do…debating a lot if we needed to and then I found out you had to…because they treat your son like an adult and you can’t decide,” he said. she declared.
Chitla refers to the guardianship her family had to put in place when her son turned 18. A guardian must be appointed by the court so that parents can continue to make decisions for their disabled child after he becomes a legal adult at 18. .
Brock worked with the family throughout the process and eased Chitla’s concerns.
Understanding legalese and best practices can be overwhelming for families and people with disabilities, and as Chitla points out, sometimes that initial lack of information can keep you from learning more.
“You can’t research what you don’t know,” she said.
Brock understands that this lack of information exists, and that’s what he’s trying to change with Probate Power.
“It’s not something a ton of lawyers do,” he said.
Nearly one in four people in the United States has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disabilities take many forms and can be visible and invisible.
According to the World Health Organization, disability can have three dimensions: impairment, activity limitations and participation restriction. Disabilities can present at birth, be associated with developmental disabilities, be related to injuries, be associated with long-term impairments and can be progressive, static or intermittent.
Brock understands the importance of involving the person with a disability in the legal process and strives to interact with them regardless of their disability.
“I still want to at least meet the respondent in the case,” he said.
With the exception of hospital staff advising the Chitla family that they should consider guardianship in the future, information on bringing up a disabled child was hard to come by. Chitla said she wanted there to be a central location to find information about services for people with disabilities.
“When you have a child with special needs, it’s like a whole new world…there should be a database with everything in there: waivers, what to do when turns 18, etc.” Chitla said.
Although a service like this has yet to be established, Probate Power is working to expand its services. In 2021, the program served more than 75 cases, up from 50 the previous year. Probate Power plans to expand services and staff early in the new year.
For those seeking disability legal services, Brock said the best thing to do is reach out and start the conversation. Probate Power offers free consultations, and more information and contact forms can be found at ccdcprobatepower.com.