A few years ago, when Jahnice Johnson would play with their son Ja-lijah, she kept noticing he wasn’t speaking new words or making new motions despite being enrolled in speech and physical therapy.
As a young child with a developmental disability, Ja-lijah was entitled to educational and therapeutic services through Early Intervention — a federal program that pairs toddlers with a range of therapists to improve their skills. However, the providers frequently missed visits and Ja-lijah wasn’t progressing.
Then, the services abruptly stopped with little explanation and no accountability. Eventually, Ja-lijah was reapproved for services, but the service provider still failed to show.
“It was sad because he was missing out,” Jahnice said. She greatly feared his learning would regress.
To ensure Ja-lijah got the services he deserves, Jahnice enlisted Legal Council for Health Justice, a United Way of Metro Chicago community partner. Across the city, lawyers at Legal Council provide free legal aid to people living with life-changing health conditions.
Last year, they helped more than 2,000 clients access the necessities of a dignified life: a safe home, an education, a steady income, family security and healthcare.
In Ja-lijah’s case, Sarah Hess, a staff attorney at Legal Council helped The Johnsons reconnect him to therapeutic services. “I want him to have the best and everything he needs,” Jahnice said. “It meant a lot to have her. She was on it. It was amazing.”
Despite some major hurdles and frustrations, today, Ja’lijah, a vibrant three year old, is thriving in a new learning program. Monday through Friday, Ja-lijah attends Head Start, a pre-k program through Chicago Public Schools. He has everything he needs to succeed — a personal teaching aide, therapy, transportation and an extended school year.
“I can tell he’s different, like with his hands and mobile skills,” Jahnice said. “He loves his [toy shopping] cart and putting food in it…When I read books to him, he loves that.”
And while Legal Council and Sarah deserve great praise for their commitment to Ja-lijah’s success, none of it would be possible without Jahnice’s relentless advocacy.
“You can have all the lawyers in the world but if you don’t have an advocate mom like Jahnice, there’s nothing you can do,” Sarah said. “This all happened because she was ready to fight for it.”