Airborne lead dust from abandoned housing, like this one in Sandtown Windchester, pose dangers to children and adults. (Photo by Deborah Bailey)

At the time of his death in April 2015, Freddie Gray was living off of a “pennies on the dollar” lump sum lead poisoning payment arranged by Access Funding, a financial company that purchases court-ordered settlements meant to be paid out to victims, often called “lead babies,” over many years.   This month, members of the Maryland General Assembly and the Maryland Attorney General are seeking to make it more difficult for vulnerable victims of lead poisoning and other payees to sell their settlements to “predatory companies” according to Attorney General Brian Frosh.

HB 535/SB 734 sponsored in the House of Delegates by Michael Busch, Speaker of the House and delegate Samuel Rosenberg, representing Baltimore’s 41st district, would require more protections for persons like Gray and his sisters, who also won structured settlements for their lead poisoning cases. The gray family all sold their settlements to a financial company in exchange for a lump sum payment.

The bill would require that victims who are awarded court-ordered settlements receive independent financial counseling to determine if a lump-sum settlement is in their best interest.

In testimony submitted on behalf of Structured Settlement Reform legislation before the House Judiciary Committee last week, Rosenberg said “some bad faith actors specifically targeting families in need (have emerged) stripping them of their settlements and, in the case of many lead paint and serious accident cases, their future livelihood.”

According to The Washington Post, Freddie Gray agreed to sell $146,00 of his structured settlement to Access Funding for close to $18,000.  Gray’s two siblings made similar arrangements with Access Funding to sell their settlements – all together totaling $435,000 for all three siblings – for an amount close to $54,000.

According to court documents, Gray’s family allegedly contracted lead poisoning from a West Baltimore property owned by Stanley Rochkind where they resided with their mother during their early childhood years.  Although Gray’s case was settled out-of-court, Rochkind was fined $90,000 by the Maryland Department of the Environment in 2001 and was required to remove lead paint from 480 of his Baltimore rental units.

“We were lobbying for this bill the moment we heard about it,” said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, one of the nation’s leading advocacy organizations for children and families impacted by lead poisoning.  “How predatory can you get to prey on poisoned kids and basically steal money from a kid who is lead poisoned,?” said Norton in an interview with the AFRO.

“The Attorney General’s Initiative is a good proposal but my question is ‘Why are we not preventing lead poisoning in the first place?’” said Saul Kerpelman, a nationally recognized attorney based in Baltimore exclusively representing children suffering from lead poisoning. Every single child living in a rental property in inner-city-Baltimore is getting a much higher lead exposure than the children in Flint”, Kerpleman said.

In 2012 The National Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that there is no safe blood lead level for the human body.  Previously, blood lead levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter or lower in children were considered safe.  Gray and his sisters tested with blood lead levels exceeding 10  micrograms of lead per deciliter – a dangerously toxic level of lead even before the 2012 CDC ruling.

Effects of lead poisoning include brain damage, memory loss, hearing impairment, student growth, hyperactivity, kidney damage, seizures, coma and death, according to the Baltimore Public Health Department.

The Baltimore City Health Department retains a list of apartments and housing with recent lead violations that have not been repaired. Currently, more than 400 addresses are listed on their site.

The bill is awaiting a report before going to the full House of Delegates for debate.  Senate Bill (SB)734 (an identical version of HB 535) is awaiting a report from the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee before being debated on the floor of the state senate. SB 734 is sponsored by Mike V. Miller Jr., President of the State Senate and Senators Janes Raskin(District 20), James Brochin (District 42), Brian  Feldman (District 15), Lisa A.  Gladen (District 41), Cheryl C. Kagan (District 17), Susan C. Lee (District 16), C. Anthony Muse (District 26), Catherine E.  Pugh (District 40), and Victor R. Ramirez(District 47).