The partnership comes to legal aid in the medical care of children

One day in September 2017, the foundation of Marckly Charles’ world crumbled.

His widowed mother died at age 50 of heart disease, leaving him the breadwinner and parent figure to his three younger siblings. He had no parents to help him.

Charles was 20 years old.

“It was tough,” he said. “I didn’t know where to go or who to talk to.”

Charles had a long-held goal – to become a nurse – which kept him focused after his mother’s death. He and his older sister worked, and he paid the mortgage and other bills and kept the family straight ahead. But he ran into legal hurdles when he tried on his own to gain custody of his younger siblings, settle his mother’s estate and secure public benefits for the family. He started saving money for a lawyer to help him navigate.

A few months later, his brother suffered a serious leg injury while playing high school football. Doctors at Nemours Children’s Specialty Care-Jacksonville said he needed surgery, but there was no legal guardian to give consent. Again, Charles didn’t know who to talk to.

But Nemours put him in touch with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, which had a program created just for cases like his. The Northeast Florida Medical Legal Partnership, which is currently fundraising for an endowment, helps about 200 local children a year who have medical issues complicated or exacerbated by legal issues. The partnership connected Charles with attorneys who, at no cost to him, established his guardianship, settled his mother’s estate, and helped secure public benefits for the family.

“It took a lot of stress, to say the least,” he said, “which made it easier for me to do what I set out to do in life. “

The partnership was founded in 2002 by Jeffrey Goldhagen, then a pediatrician at the Florida Department of Health. Legal Aid received direct patient referrals from its agency, UF Health Jacksonville and the Sulzbacher Medical Clinic for the Homeless.

Legal services included assistance with access to health insurance and other public benefits; advocating for education, housing and family law; consumer protection; and assistance with immigration matters.

“Legal advocacy is often essential to addressing issues underlying a child’s medical condition,” said Jim Kowalski, president and CEO of Jacksonville Legal Aid. “‘By working together through the Northeast Florida Medical Legal Partnership, the medical and legal communities can truly transform the lives of children in our community.”

In 2010, Legal Aid received a grant from the Florida Bar Foundation to add a pro bono component to the medical-legal partnership that would expand services through pro bono attorneys in addition to staff attorneys. Capacity has increased by more than 200%. Later, other medical partners joined, and the list now includes Wolfson Children’s Hospital, Nemours Children’s Specialty Care-Jacksonville, UF Health Specialty Pediatric Clinics Community PedsCare, a community-based pediatric hospice and palliative care program. Additionally, onsite admission is available at the Sulzbacher Clinic and the VA Outpatient Clinic.

The partnership is funded by Baptist Health, Wolfson’s parent organization. But a planned endowment, announced in 2018, will provide funding in perpetuity. Legal Aid aims to raise $1 million over the next five years, with Baptist Health providing a 125% match to bring the total endowment to $2.25 million.

“We spend our lives here looking for money to provide services,” said Katy DeBriere, who was hired as the partnership’s general counsel in 2015. “With an endowment…we can spend all of our time helping the people.”

Legal Aid has raised $638,000 so far, including $365,000 from the Baptist Health game and $284,000 from private donations.

Few partner clients have as wide a set of legal needs as Charles, she said.

“Amazing. What a remarkable story,” she said. “There was a lot going on [with the family] at the time. He had just started nursing school. »

Nemours referred the Charles family to legal aid as a “hard case,” DeBriere said. But Marckly Charles and his situation touched many legal hearts, so he had no trouble arranging pro bono service.

“He was so easy to sell,” she said.

These referrals were a result of the training that Legal Aid provided to hospital and clinic staff. They have been taught to spot legal issues that have a negative impact on children’s health. In addition, Legal Aid provides staff with additional training on specific legal topics, such as employment law and leave rights for parents of children with complex medical needs.

The scale of the program left Charles dumbfounded. He only wished he’d heard of it sooner.

“I was surprised. I didn’t know it was possible,” he said. “The help they have provided, everyone, has been tremendous.”

Charles, now 22, didn’t have to give up his aspirations or the nearly full scholarship he won. He is on track to graduate from Florida State College in Jacksonville this summer and begin his career as a registered nurse. Her favorite specialty is emergency room or trauma care.

Her sister, Marie, now 21, is also in college and also preparing for a career as a nurse. Her brother, Kelly, 18, had Medicaid-funded surgery to repair his torn ACL. With the help of physiotherapy, he runs again and, like his older siblings, aims for a career in health care. The youngest sister, Neisha, 12, attends Darnell Cookman Middle-High School for the Medical Arts.

They follow the career example of their mother, who was a licensed practical nurse.

“She would be proud,” Marckly Charles said, breaking down briefly in tears. “She pushes me.”

Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109

Northeast Florida Medical Legal Partnership

For more information or to donate to the endowment, go to or contact Director of Development Dennis Harrison at (904) 356-8371 ext. 296 or [email protected]

Jacksonville Area Legal Aid serves Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Columbia, Dixie, Duval, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Lafayette, Levy, Madison, Nassau, Suwannee, Taylor, and Union counties. There are three offices:

• Downtown Jacksonville

126 W. Adams St., Jacksonville, FL 32202

Phone: (904) 356-8371

Toll Free: (866) 356-8371

• St. Johns County Legal Aid

222 San Marco Ave, St. Augustine, FL 32084

Phone: (904) 827-9921

Toll Free: (877) 827-9921

• Clay County Legal Aid

Inside the Clay County Courthouse

825 N. Orange Ave., Room 308, Green Cove Springs, FL 32043

Phone: (904) 284-8410

Toll free: (866) 284-8410

For more information, visit

Jacksonville Area Legal Aid