Home is Where the Start Is: Observations from a Client Home Visit

HeLP - Michael Costello

By: Michael Costello, Fall 2018 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

The most significant part of an attorney’s work on a case is to investigate the facts.  The facts will influence the claim to be asserted, allow you to calculate the likelihood of success, and help determine the most persuasive legal theories to advance to advocate for the client.  Importantly, facts may sometimes change over time, or become slightly different when looked at objectively.

Recently, while working on a childhood disability Supplemental Security Income case, my partner and I conducted a visit to a client’s home, which revealed a change to the facts in a case that already has been pending in the HeLP Legal Services Clinic for two years.  A comfortable interview environment for both the parent and child revealed new information that was beneficial to the case.  Also, the opportunity to visually observe how life is for the child in their everyday environment provided new facts that will allow for more persuasive advocacy.  The new facts learned during the home visit will enable us to formulate new arguments to use that will help this client get her child’s benefits reinstated.

First, visiting the home of the client provided for a more comfortable interview setting for both the child and parent.  While reviewing the documents within this client’s file, it appeared the child had never been asked how she actually felt about her impairments.  Interviewing a child can be a difficult task, especially when the interview takes place at an office or in a physician’s waiting room.  Conducting an interview within the friendly confines of a child’s own home, by contrast, lends a certain level of familiarity and comfortability.  Our interview in this setting proved to be very beneficial, revealing certain limitations about the child’s daily activities.  These limitations fell into several of the six domains used to evaluate a childhood disability under the Social Security Administration’s Whole Child Approach.

The casual atmosphere, moreover, proved just as beneficial when interacting with the child’s mother.  Establishing a certain level of trust and building rapport are key elements to the interview of a client.  It appeared that travelling to the client’s home and the continuing contacts with her over time had solidified her trust in my partner and me.  The level of comfort of holding the interview in the client’s own kitchen allowed for more of an open conversation, rather than a “Q&A Session.”  The conversation opened a door into this child’s life that we may never have walked through if the home visit had not occurred.  Furthermore, the mother also volunteered more limitations of the child, resulting from her impairments, that fall into the domains of the Whole Child Approach’s evaluation.

Additionally, the visual observations derived from the home visit gave a clearer picture to paint when advocating for the client.  An outsider cannot fully realize certain characteristics if they go unseen.  Correspondingly, the ability to experience what the client goes through also provides insight that may never have been realized otherwise.  There may be an old, rusted trampoline in the backyard, or a pill box full of medication on the counter.  Likewise, there may be a long commute from a rural town to the doctor’s office in the city, burdened with heavy traffic.  Because these characteristics and experiences are a part of everyday life for someone, an off-site interview may not lead to their revelation.

The observations and experiences my partner and I found on the home visit proved as equally beneficial as the improved interview environment.  Uncovering these observations and experiences would have been impossible if the visit had not taken place.  Consequently, the advocacy for this client would not have been as thorough and could have led to unsuccessful results.

In short, the visit allowed for an opportunity to investigate and gather more facts.  These new facts opened new avenues for persuasive advocacy and additional legal theories to help this client succeed.  At this time, we can now start drafting briefs and preparing for hearings, things that could not have been done as successfully without the aid of the home visit.  Many people use the phrase, “home is where the heart is,” but for this case, home is really where the start is.