Looking Beyond the Symptoms


When a child struggles with asthma, most parents don’t think to call a lawyer. So Children’s Law Center teams with pediatricians across the District, training them to recognize when a lawyer can be a life-saver.  

That’s how *Carlos Rodriguez and his niece, *Laila, came to Children’s Law Center.

Rodriguez, who works in school maintenance, faced $12,000 in hospital bills resulting from Laila’s emergency care for life-threatening asthma. He couldn’t pay the bills and worried about the debt collection agencies.   

Rodriguez has cared for Laila ever since her grandmother passed away several years ago. Her grandmother brought Laila to the United States from El Salvador when Laila was 9 years old, after Laila’s father murdered her mother. He is serving a 30-year prison sentence. 

Since arriving in DC, Laila has become a good student who loves to learn. But her asthma has persisted and, with it, trips to hospital emergency rooms when she cannot breathe.

Because of the unpaid bills, Rodriguez has to decide during every asthma attack if it is serious enough to warrant an expensive trip to the hospital.

A social worker knew Children’s Law Center has a lawyer onsite at Mary’s Center, a local health clinic, and urged Rodriguez to call. He did, and attorneys Kathy Zeisel and Thayer Hardwick got involved, negotiating with the hospital to get Laila’s bill reduced to just $100. They also got her Medicaid coverage reinstated so future bills would be paid. 

Children’s Law Center knows a child’s well-being requires security in all areas of her life – family, health and education. And Zeisel realized Laila’s well-being was at risk in two additional ways. First, her uncle did not have legal custody of her and, thus, would be hampered in securing quality health care for Laila. Second, and perhaps more importantly, although Rodriguez is a U.S. citizen, Laila did not have legal immigration status. Without it, she was subject to deportation and could not participate in DC’s summer teen jobs program and would not be able to secure financial aid for college or a job. 

Zeisel knew that if Rodriguez filed for custody, it would help Laila qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), a first step toward permanent legal status. So she filed a case in family court and got the necessary custody order needed to pursue SIJS. Children’s Law Center then connected Laila to a lawyer who is working to get her permanent status and a Social Security card of her own. 

Today, Laila is a studious 15-year-old who thrives at a public charter school. In her spare time, she loves to make pupusas for her family and friends. 

Rodriguez’s goal for his niece? The chance to own a house, which represents the security he lacked growing up poor and without an education in El Salvador. With Laila’s medical bills resolved and her immigration status being addressed, Rodriguez is helping her make this dream a reality, starting with a high school diploma and a college degree.

*We work hard to protect the confidentiality of our clients. That's why Carlos and Laila's names and image have been changed. All other details are true.