How Legal Aid Addresses The Opioid Crisis

Opioid addiction and overdosing is a public health crisis affecting nearly every community in America. The White House Council of Economic Advisors estimated that in 2015 the economic cost of the opioid crisis was $504 billion.1 Each day, 91 Americans die from opioid overdose.2 In rural communities, the rate of drug overdose deaths is disproportionately high, surpassing rates in urban areas.3 States with rural populations such as West Virginia, Kentucky, and New Hampshire have the highest opioid death rates.4

This crisis requires a multi-disciplinary approach that includes policymakers, medical professionals, mental health experts, social workers, and case managers. However, legal aid organizations also play a pivotal role in confronting this issue. Civil legal aid attorneys can help those affected by opioid addiction with legal problems such as housing, jobs, healthcare and family law. This casework not only addresses the consequences of opioid addiction and overdose such as child custody issues or unemployment, but also helps promote stability, recovery, and independence for those affected.   

With 133 local legal aid programs and more than 800 offices nationwide, LSC grantees aid thousands of Americans suffering from this crisis. In a 2017 survey of LSC grantees, more than 94% of grantees who replied reported that they provide legal services to a client population that includes users of opioids.5 Respondents reported closing 2,821 cases involving clients affected by opioid use in 2017, assisting a total of 7,312 individuals.6  

Legal aid programs have helped those affected by the opioid crisis in the following cases 

  • Family law (including child abuse and neglect, child support, child custody, and guardianship cases) 

  • Domestic Violence and Protective Orders 

  • Housing 

  • Elder Abuse 

  • Expungement or sealing of criminal records 

Opioid Task Force 

LSC Board of Directors created an Opioid Task Force in April 2018 to study the significant civil legal issues raised by the opioid epidemic in areas such as health care, family law, domestic violence, child and elder abuse, housing, and employment, and highlight the critical role legal aid programs are playing, often in conjunction with other service providers, in helping people address those issues. LSC Board members Robert Grey and Victor Maddox and Sidley Austin partner David Hoffman are serving as co-chairs. Members of the Task Force include 26 leaders from the legal and medical communities, federal and state governments, and social services organizations.  

The primary goals of the Task Force are to: 

  • Educate public health officials and treatment providers about the legal obstacles patients face in obtaining and remaining in treatment; 

  • Educate judges, law enforcement officials, child welfare workers, and employers about the civil legal issues connected to medication assisted treatment for opioid-related disorders; 

  • Engage with public health officials, treatment providers and others to promote a comprehensive model of recovery that includes legal aid attorneys as resources for individuals and families affected by the opioid epidemic; and  

  • Provide a forum for study and discussion of potential best practices for engaging legal aid attorneys in the recovery process, and identify and make recommendations to promote such practices.