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“If you have first-hand contact with these families that it’s helped, it’s huge in their world,” Johnson said. “The process is complex, to say the least, and expensive. If you go through a private law firm, it’s a couple thousand dollars. These families don’t have a couple thousand dollars to drop on this.” The students conduct interviews, gather data and help prepare initial drafts of pleadings. Consequently, they interact closely with the people whom their work will benefit. “I really enjoyed meeting the clients and their families,” said Julie Larson, a May 2009 graduate who worked on three cases. “Their love and self-sacrifice for one another made a deep impression on me. Obtaining guardianships for their loved ones gave them peace of mind and seemed to assuage some of their worries. It was really moving to see how grateful they were.” Johnson and Hugh Gill, L’95, a partner at Hinkle Elkouri, started the initiative because they both do estate and trust work and recognized a need among their clients. They are not aware of a similar program anywhere else in the country. “Family members of someone with an impairment need legal and financial advice tailored to their situation. It can be a challenge for these families, especially if there are few financial resources,” Gill said. “It is rewarding to help disabled clients and their families make the legal process seem less formidable.” Kevin Fish, executive director of The Arc, said guardianships are an important way for his agency to help families be good care givers. “We have seen the clients we serve end up in debt or in legal trouble, and there was nothing we could do to stop it,” he said. “We can educate families on the importance of legal protection, but it is up to the family to get it done. For some families, the cost is often too much and/or the process is so intimidating that they are afraid to even begin. “Through our collaboration with KU, the Guardianship Assistance Program gives families the support needed to navigate the system at a price they can afford – taking away the two biggest barriers to families.” The agency presented PILS with the Arc Community Connection Award in May to recognize its contributions to the program. Judge Richard Ballinger has bent over backwards to help with the project, Johnson said, clearing a docket for the local attorneys who handle the filings and moving a large group of guardianships through in a single day. Ballinger then issues legal documents to the guardians, allowing them to act on behalf of their relatives. The project focuses on uncontested guardianships, help-

Pat Dorr, left, and her granddaughter, Patti McGee, obtained a co-guardianship that will allow them to make crucial decisions about health care, finances and education for McGee’s son,Tanner Ornelas, center, who has autism and will turn 18 next summer.

Lending a hand Ten KU Law students in the Public Interest Law Society volunteered to create guardianships through the Guardianship Assistance Program in Sedgwick County: Ben Miller-Coleman Brendan Fletcher Nancy Hudson Ellen Jensby Julie Larson

Maria Neal Grant Reichert Jonathan Rupp Sara Schwermer Brett Sweeney

ing clear the backlog so families can get the help they need and Kansas Legal Services can wrangle with more complicated cases. Given the program’s success, Johnson hopes to replicate its good results at another Wichita nonprofit. And PILS hopes to continue filling the GAP with eager law students ready to make a difference for families in need. “The project was very eye-opening,” said Miller-Coleman, who worked with adults with developmental disabilities before entering law school. “The most surprising thing to me is the demand and the help families need with guardianships. When you live in the bubble of the law school, people with developmental disabilities are not in the front of your mind. You are with a very able-bodied group of people and that becomes ‘normal’ for you. It is very worthwhile to be reminded of the variety of human experience that exists in the world. “It is exciting to use our legal knowledge for social justice issues and to make people’s lives easier.”

KU LAW MAGAZINE 11

KU Law Magazine | Spring 2009  

A magazine for alumni and friends of the University of Kansas School of Law. Story highlights include: Alumni spread legal roots in rural Ka...

KU Law Magazine | Spring 2009  

A magazine for alumni and friends of the University of Kansas School of Law. Story highlights include: Alumni spread legal roots in rural Ka...