Staying Strong for Your Children: One Mom’s Asthma Advocacy

Imagine standing in a tiny room where the oxygen is running out—or one filled with smoke and dust that cause you to choke, wheeze and gasp to catch just one full breath.

That’s what asthma can feel like for a child. It’s a serious illness that Janee Henderson knows all too well.

When we met Ms. Henderson, her young son Messiah was a regular visitor in the emergency room. The Henderson family was stuck living in an unsafe, mold-ridden home, and moving was not an option. She reached out to her landlord over and over again, asking for repairs and advocating for her son, with no results.

“We had problems with the AC unit, the air filter had never been changed, we had a mice infestation, there were holes in the walls—you could stick your entire hand in the wall, that’s how deep the holes were,” she recalls.

These unsafe housing conditions exacerbated Messiah’s chronic asthma and led to frightening, dangerous asthma attacks.

“My son basically couldn’t breathe,” Ms. Henderson remembers.

Her landlord’s only solution to her son’s worsening health condition was giving Ms. Henderson mouse traps. That’s when her Children’s National doctor referred Ms. Henderson to Children’s Law Center (CLC), and she met CLC attorney Elizabeth Bowker.

Within two days of the initial call with Ms. Henderson, Bowker visited her home to evaluate her living conditions.

“As soon as you walked in the apartment, you could easily see the issues,” Bowker said. “They were leading to dangerous, chronic asthma attacks.”

That same week, the CLC team took legal action to make sure Ms. Henderson’s landlord completed the appropriate repairs—repairs that were so critical for her family’s health and safety.

As a result, Messiah’s condition started to improve. Today, he feels better—and is no longer a regular in the ER.  

“He hasn’t been in the hospital since September, since I worked with Elizabeth,” Ms. Henderson said. “We’re still struggling with some of those asthma issues, and we still have to stay strong. But he’s in a much better environment for him, and that’s so important.”

When asked what advice she would give parents with sick children, Ms. Henderson says the most important thing to remember is that you can’t give up on your child—you must stand up for them, time and time again.  

And that’s exactly what she’s done.

Becoming Healthy Together

Ms. Henderson and her family are not alone. Today, a child with asthma in Ward 7 or 8 is 20 times more likely to end up in the ER for asthma than a child living in Ward 3. When a child struggles with chronic asthma, it impacts the entire family. Children with asthma often miss school because of their illness, parents miss work and medical bills pile up—not to mention the stress these families face.

That’s why at CLC, we partner with clinics within DC neighborhoods, working side-by-side with pediatricians. As a matter of fact, CLC attorneys are embedded in Children’s National, Mary’s Center and Unity Health clinics across the city. By working together, we can find and fix the root causes of a child’s health problem—issues such as unsafe housing conditions that lead to poor health, like we saw with Messiah’s case.

CLC is partnering with the DC Department of Health and Children's National Health System's IMPACT DC (Improving Pediatric Asthma Care in the District of Columbia) as part of a nationally recognized program, to find long-lasting solutions that will protect children with asthma in low-income neighborhoods. Together, through our BUILD Health Challenge grant, we are focusing on the intersection of pediatric health and housing conditions law and building a nationally replicable model to reduce childhood asthma.

You can learn more about the partnership—and how we’re working together with our clients and partners to help end the asthma disparity in DC—here.

Our hope is that one day, all families like Ms. Henderson’s will live in a safe, healthy home.