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Developing a Maternal Medical-Legal Partnership to Improve Health Outcomes

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Photo of Courtney Mendoza

By Courtney Mendoza, 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow cosponsored by Katherine Borsecnik & Gene Weil and an anonymous funder. Courtney is hosted by Mental Health Advocacy Services.

When health issues are legally and socioeconomically rooted, it is difficult to sustainably improve health outcomes with medicine alone. My Equal Justice Works Fellowship addresses the social determinants of health that contribute to the racial disparities of infant and maternal mortality, pre-term births, and mental health disabilities experienced by low-income mothers of color in Los Angeles County, California. By partnering with the county’s Nurse-Family Partnership (“NFP”) program, which provides physical and mental health care to low-income pregnant and postpartum mothers through a home visitation model, my maternal medical-legal partnership project provides free direct legal services in conjunction with NFP’s medical care. Through this partnership, I address health-harming legal issues, such as food and income insecurity, family violence, access to insured and affordable health care, housing instability and habitability issues, and more—all of which have become increasingly consequential for family stability during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

I was raised by a single mother who emigrated from the Philippines. My passion to advocate for families stems from my own upbringing and my exposure to the prevalent cycle of homelessness, hospitalization, and incarceration for people with mental health disabilities.

My passion to advocate for families stems from my own upbringing and my exposure to the prevalent cycle of homelessness, hospitalization, and incarceration for people with mental health disabilities.

Courtney Mendoza /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

It has been a unique privilege to work alongside new and expecting mothers, their nurses, and their therapists to ensure that these growing families are completely supported. After creating relationships with these mothers over the course of their legal cases, it has been so gratifying to receive “thank you’s” from my clients in various forms, including pictures of their newborns after delivery, joyful screams from their children on the phone who’ve learned my name, and heartfelt conversations with mothers who just need to vent and be heard.

On the other hand, it has been a challenge learning how to balance compassion with boundaries to prevent emotional burnout. Not all cases have happy endings, and vicarious trauma can so easily be compounded when working from home. Most of my clients are single mothers juggling their mental health, child care, job schedules, and legal issues. As a result, I’ve been learning how to walk the fine line between honoring my work boundaries while still accommodating my clients’ time and priorities—whether I meet them in their first trimester, near their due date, or postpartum.

It has been a challenge learning how to balance compassion with boundaries to prevent emotional burnout…I’ve been learning how to walk the fine line between honoring my work boundaries while still accommodating my clients’ time and priorities.

Courtney Mendoza /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

Since I started my Fellowship in 2020, I’ve helped almost 100 mothers obtain various legal and non-legal remedies to feed their children, sleep in affordable and safe homes, protect themselves from abusive partners, and more. Ensuring these basic needs gives these families stable footing to thrive, and for mothers who have been separated from their children, it gives them the best chance at family reunification. In addition to my legal work, I’ve engaged in advocacy work with organizations fighting domestic and intimate partner violence, as well as with grassroots groups filling the gaps in support for Black mothers. I’ve also written to federal government officials in support of reasonable accommodations for pregnant and parenting workers.

With the positive outcomes, we’ve collected from the maternal medical-legal partnership, my host organization is hoping to secure funding to keep it going beyond the fellowship which ends later this year. I hope to continue working in medical-legal partnerships throughout my career and maybe one day teach a medical-legal partnership clinic at a law school!

At Equal Justice Works, we are proud of Courtney and other Fellows for helping to improve health outcomes for women with mental health disabilities. To learn more about Courtney’s Fellowship, visit her Fellow profile here.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow