Connecticut Legal Rights Project
Connecticut Legal Rights Project ()

The Connecticut Legal Rights Project has been operating under the radar since 1990.

The group provides legal services to low-income adults with psychiatric disabilities living in Connecticut, primarily on matters related to their health care treatment and civil rights.

“Having a separate, nonprofit law firm helping people inpatient is a pretty rare thing and necessary thing because of all those constitutional civil rights issues that are involved in my clients’ lives,” said Kirk Lowry, legal director at CLRP. “I think that’s why the legislature and bar support the mission and support the need for the legal services to that class of client.”

For the group’s legacy of providing free legal help, the Law Tribune’s Editorial Board will recognize the Connecticut Legal Rights Project with its Pro Bono Award at Honors Night ceremonies on June 19.

CLRP was established as the result of a lawsuit filed in 1989 by what was then called the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union against the state agency now known as the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The complaint in Doe v. Hogan alleged that residents of the state’s psychiatric hospitals were being denied their constitutional and statutory rights to legal assistance. As part of the settlement, CLRP was born.

Similar to other legal aid groups, funding comes from various sources, including the state and the Connecticut Bar Foundation. The agency has 19 staff members, including six attorneys, handling cases. Headquartered at the Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown, CLRP also maintains offices in other state-operated mental health facilities and satellite offices in communities throughout the state.

According to Executive Director Jan VanTassel, the group’s attorneys spend much of their time making sure clients in inpatient facilities are getting appropriate care and that their concerns are being heard. The group also represents clients in housing cases and discrimination claims.

VanTassel said given the organization’s modest staffing levels, it’s tough to help everyone who asks for it. “Like any legal aid program in the state, there is more demand than we can meet,” said VanTassel. “We could spend all our time working with people inpatient or with housing. That’s just the way it is.”

Lowry said CLRP still manages to assist those who need it most.

“If somebody’s going to be homeless, we’re going to take that case for sure,” said Lowry. “If it’s not a significant loss of liberty or housing or subsidy of some kind — like someone wants access to their medical records — it would be a different priority.”

CLRP does not typically handle family law issues, criminal defense, immigration or personal injury cases resulting from, for example, a car accident.

Several large psychiatric facilities have closed since the organization’s inception – including Fairfield Hills in Newtown and Norwich State Hospital in eastern Connecticut. But that hasn’t made the CLRP’s job easier. Instead, it’s required its efforts to be more diverse, as the lawyers help clients access mental health services in the community.

“There has been more of an emphasis put on timely treatment and discharge planning in the hospitals, to get [adults with mental illness] back living their lives and not keep them hospitalized,” said VanTassel. “The emphasis is not on the kind of long-term treatment for years and years, which used to happen before. That has created more demand for our services to make sure people are getting timely interventions.”

Lowry said a common complaint among inpatient clients is about the use of electroconvulsive therapy. The technique, which used to be called electroshock or shock therapy, electronically induces seizures to help treat such conditions as major depressive disorder, mania and schizophrenia.

“I’ve probably seen more than 300 ECT hearings,” said Lowry. “Many people have a significant benefit from it. It’s interesting and certainly making a comeback. Our clients generally don’t like it and don’t want it.”

VanTassel said housing cases probably take up about 40 percent of the agency’s work. She said housing discrimination is a common complaint. Clients with poor credit histories for reasons associated with their disability often claim that landlords won’t rent apartments to them. In some instances, VanTassel said, the group’s lawyers can show that the client will be a reliable tenant because they now are being cared for by a conservator, or that someone else is paying their bills.

“Sometimes you run into straight discrimination,” said VanTassel. “It’s remarkable in this day and age how blatant the discrimination still is about people with psychiatric disabilities. [Landlords] are incredibly open about not wanting those people because they see them as different.”

The group also deals with other discrimination matters. For instance, it represented a student with a 3.9 grade point average who was suspended by the private college she was attending after college officials learned that she had been hospitalized and treated for depression. VanTassel said there were no hints that the young woman could be a danger to herself or others. If there had been, then the school could have justified removing her from campus. CLRP lawyers were able to get the suspension lifted without going to court.

VanTassel recalled another case in which a grocery store unknowingly hired a mentally disabled person. A staff member from a mental health organization called the store to inform managers they could quality for a tax break because of the employee’s condition. The managers got upset after learning about the employee’s illness, and began asking specific questions about the disability that were in clear violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, VanTassel said.

VanTassel said her lawyers intervened and filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. The disabled worker was able to keep the job.

Lowry, who has worked in the private sector, said he thinks it would come across as smug or self-righteous if he said the type of work he’s doing now is more rewarding. “I just like my clients,” said Lowry. “It’s very interesting work.”•