Brooke Heymach
University of California - Hastings College of the Law
EJA Fellowship recipient, Summer 2002
Staff Attorney, Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County

“EJA gave me the opportunity to launch my public interest career.”

Raising a young child with disabilities is no easy task, especially for parents with limited incomes. Connecting a child with the services he needs is never as simple, or as quick, as it should be. Fortunately for families in San Mateo County, California, Brooke Heymach is there to guide them.

Take one little boy named Jose. Jose was born prematurely and soon began showing signs of developmental delays. His pediatrician referred him to Early Intervention Services. Often called “Early Start,” these federally required services are supposed to start within 45 days of a referral. But Jose's mandatory eligibility assessment was delayed 6 critical months.

At two-and-a-half years old, Jose's mother took him for a check-up and the clinic diagnosed Jose with autism. The clinic recommended that Early Start provide autism-related services. But the county's Early Start provider failed to assess, diagnose or provide services to Jose.

That's when Heymach got involved. Desperate for some kind of help, Jose’s mother came to her at the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County when she heard about Heymach in a parent group. “As any mother would be in her situation, she was completely overwhelmed,” the 2002 EJA fellowship recipient says. “Her little boy, who was almost three, was non-verbal and barely made eye contact with her.”
Heymach immediately contacted the county's Early Start provider, advocated and negotiated for Jose and prepared for the possibility of an administrative hearing. In the end, Jose obtained all the recommended services and his mother became a strong advocate for Jose and for herself. “Jose has done so well since then,” Heymach says. “Recently, for the first time ever, Jose was able to tell his mother that his favorite snack was a graham cracker.”

A delay of four or five months seems like nothing to a large bureaucracy, Heymach points out, but felt like ages to Jose and his family. Each month is developmentally significant for these little ones, she says, and the whole purpose of early intervention is to get an infant or toddler service as soon as possible. Through her work at Legal Aid, Heymach is able to enforce this right.

Heymach didn't originally intend to become an attorney. After receiving her master's degree in social work, she worked for a nonprofit that dealt with health care policy in Missouri. There, Heymach says, she realized how families could be devastated by illness, and the resulting stress, worry and debilitating debt, when they lacked access to health care.

She then resolved to become a legal aid attorney to fight for health care rights, and entered the University of California – Hastings College of the Law. “I was fortunate enough my second year to apply for the Equal Justice America fellowship and get it,” she says, “and start working in this field at Legal Aid. EJA gave me the opportunity to launch my public interest career.”

Because of her work at Legal Aid as an EJA Fellow, Heymach developed the idea for the Children's H.E.R.O. Project (Health, Education, Representation and Outreach), which helps children get access to health care and health services. The program places special emphasis on assisting infants and children under three who show signs of developmental delays.

Heymach believes firmly that access to health care “is not a privilege, it's a right.” And in San Mateo County, the word has spread that she can help families claim that right. “People in the community talk, and they know what I do now,” Heymach says. “Whenever there's a problem, they call me immediately.”

Heymach, now in the second year of her post-graduate fellowship, hopes to continue her work as a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. She credits Equal Justice America with enabling her to do so much for families and for children like Jose. “Honestly,” she says, “without the fellowship I wouldn't be where I am now.”

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