Campus News

Home health care topic of Mitchell lecture

Published June 19, 2014

The UB Law School’s 2012 James McCormick Mitchell Lecture will explore the legal and social challenges of providing personal and medical care for elderly and disabled persons, a topic of current relevance for health care, social security, welfare and employment law reform.

The lecture, titled “When Caring Is Work: Home, Health and the Invisible Workforce,” will begin at 2 p.m. Oct. 19 in 106 O’Brian Hall, North Campus. The Law School’s signature lecture, it is free and open to the public; a reception will follow.

It is one of the events celebrating the Law School’s 125th anniversary

“Though the ideal of individual autonomy remains central to our legal and political system, in reality most adults will at some point depend on extensive personal caretaking help for their daily survival, and many others will orient their daily lives to the demands of responding to this dependency,” say Dianne Avery and Martha T. McCluskey, professors of law and co-chairs of the event. “This intimate fact of life raises fundamental questions about law and its relationship to the broader social institutions of family, market and the state.”

Speaking at the lecture will be three distinguished scholars who will address social, historical and legal aspects of family caretaking and the home health care industry. They are Hendrik Hartog, Class of 1921 Bicentennial Professor in the History of American Law and Liberty and director of American studies at Princeton University; Jennifer Klein, professor in the history department at Yale University; and Peggie R. Smith, Charles F. Nagel Professor of Employment and Labor Law, at Washington University Law School, St. Louis.

“With these presenters,” says McCluskey, “we have a story through time about the different ways home care gets arranged for people who are elderly or disabled.

“Hendrik Hartog’s historical study of inheritance and property distribution (“Someday All This Will Be Yours: A History of Inheritance and Old Age,” Harvard University Press, 2012) raises many hard questions that we still struggle with,” McClusky says, “such as what exactly is the responsibility of family members toward those who need extensive personal care, and what is the responsibility of society? Is caretaking work for relatives deserving of compensation? If so, who should pay?

“Jennifer Klein,” she notes, “looks at paid caretakers with similar questions, starting around the New Deal era and ending with contemporary times. This is a time period when home care becomes more professionalized, a private paid service outside the family, more of a government and medicalized service. It also becomes associated with women of color, immigrant women and others who are outsiders in some way, and begins to be treated as a kind of welfare system.”

Avery adds that Peggie Smith’s work explores the labor issues underlying “the move from institutionalized care to home care. People generally want to stay in their homes, but many can’t afford to hire caretakers to come in. The question becomes not only what legal arrangements for caregiving are more efficient and least expensive, but what’s better for the person needing the care? And, how should the law protect workers in the home care industry from abusive employment practices?”

The Mitchell Lecture was established in 1950 with a gift from Lavinia A. Mitchell in memory of her husband, James McCormick Mitchell, who graduated from the Law School in 1897. Among previous Mitchell lecturers Justice Robert H. Jackson, Richard Posner, Derrick Bell, Catharine MacKinnon, Clyde Summers and Stuart Macaulay.