When I embarked upon my legal career, being a special education attorney was not initially on the radar. I specialized in criminal defense for several years, and then suddenly and unexpectedly I was taken on an involuntary journey that changed everything in my life forever. At six weeks old, my eldest son, Brandon, was diagnosed with a brain malformation (Focal Cortical Dysplasia) which caused potentially catastrophic seizures called Infantile Spasms, and adversely impacted his physical and intellectual development. Initially overcome with anger and grief, for a time I was paralyzed with fear and unsure of which direction to take. (Read more about our journey with Brandon here ~ Our Story). But, I then began the process of re-orienting my life and everything I had planned for it. As I am sure all parents of children with special needs often do, I spent countless sleepless nights staring at the ceiling at 3:00 a.m., pondering his future and worrying about ensuring that his every need be met always. Finding the way to effectively help my child in every way I could permeated my every conscious thought. I immersed myself in learning everything I could about the brain, early intervention, special education advocacy, and whatever services existed to help my son conquer his disability to the maximum extent possible. I have since dedicated my life to doing everything in my power to make sure he lives the best life he can, always.
In my journey with my son, the change of my professional course became almost inevitable. I came across so many helpless and desperate parents that were unsure how to access the proper services and supports for their children. They were unaware and uneducated about early start and the special education system and their very complicated inner workings. The reality was and still is that parents are not often given all of the correct information and tools, and school districts are not always candid about the various types of support and services that can and should be offered. I crossed paths with parents eager to help their children but were given misinformation time and time again and hit brick walls repeatedly. When I saw how easily children can fall through the cracks because they were not treated as the law so clearly demands, I undoubtedly saw my calling and although I had embarked on the road to special education law long before I opened my practice, I decided to do so officially and never looked back. So I became a special education attorney and it is the most rewarding and important course I have ever undertaken. I knew that what I did for my son I could do for the children of so many families in need, and I knew these families could relate to my experience and draw benefit from it. I wanted to do my part. So I shifted careers and set out to help as many parents as I encountered whose desire to help their children was as insatiable and tireless as mine.
Sometimes the barriers we face seem unconquerable, but the deep unconditional love for your child and the desire to see him/her succeed will be your motivating force. It may not be easy but it is a fight worth fighting, and frankly you have no choice but to fight if your child stands any chance to be educated appropriately and to gain the skills and tools he/she requires to lead a rewarding, productive and independent existence. Know that with the proper support and strategies, the right education for children with disabilities is possible. Allow me to share with you the wealth of knowledge and information that I have acquired along the way of this life transforming, beautiful and heart-wrenching journey. Below I share with you some very helpful pointers that I believe are imperative elements for parents seeking assistance with special education advocacy.
The biggest and most important piece of advice I can offer you is to BELIEVE IN YOUR CHILD AT ANY AND ALL COSTS, no matter what the diagnosis, disability or challenge he/she is facing. You must set a high standard and believe that your child can accomplish more than anyone thinks possible. If you give up on your child then everyone gives up on your child. As difficult as it sometimes may be, your mind set must be one of eternal optimism. Believe that your child is going to be very capable of great achievements despite what therapists, doctors or school officials opine. Set that accomplishment bar very high, and keep it steady! School administrators, district specialists, special education directors, mediators and Administrative Law Judges must first see your child, not his/her diagnosis or disability and that is up to you to show them. When the school district is telling you that there is no funding, classrooms, and/or personnel services available to help your child, your strong belief that your child can be successful as long as these services are provided is what will keep you determined to fight for them! Those are just excuses that will hindrance your child’s progress if accepted or permitted. It is the resilient and relentless will of parents that yields success in meeting their children’s unique academic needs. DEMAND THAT THOSE NEEDS BE MET!
ALWAYS REMEMBER THIS: The nation’s school districts are under statutory mandate by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act 0f 2004 (IDEA) to tailor educational services to the individual needs of YOUR child. Whenever you hear the words from a school administrator, “We just don’t do that,” or “we can’t offer that service,” you remind them that educational programs are tailored to meet the distinct needs of YOUR child and not to meet the fiscal or administrative convenience of the school district. Do not be afraid to fight back and to invoke the laws that were specifically designed to help YOUR child. But in order to do so YOU MUST do your homework and must educate and arm yourself and become a warrior on behalf of your helpless little one. A parent MUST become an advocate with or without an attorney. You MUST know more information about your child than any one expert or school official can offer and you MUST be familiar with the territory surrounding your child’s disability.
Assert your rights, but remember that it can be done in a diplomatic non-combative manner. I came to the realization that fighting for my child’s rights did not mean that I needed to fight with administrators. Collaboration is key and it is up to the parents to set a cooperative tone, although I am all too aware that emotions are very high and sometimes no matter how much you try to practice diplomacy, the situation can turn on a dime. While advocating vigorously for your child does not mean yelling and screaming, it does mean being empowered with the necessary knowledge to demonstrate that you are completely aware and educated in everything relating to your child’s needs and you are prepared to plunge forward in order to guarantee those needs are met. Be proactive and show the school administrators that you mean business and you are your child’s number one advocate.
It is imperative that parents build a strong team that includes an attorney or advocate, an educational psychologist as your expert, and a qualified pediatrician who understands your child’s deficits and strengths. Armed with this “dream team” make sure that you approach the school district with respect but also with one goal in mind and that is to ensure your child is given access to the proper educational path.
If you reach a dead end at the IEP, the quest for your child’s rights is far from over; In fact it is just beginning. Simply, you “respectfully disagree” with their opinions and educational offer and move on to the next step. You have retribution through Due Process, a system in place to take your case to the next level when an impasse is reached with the school personnel at the IEP. If the time does come when a cooperative means have been exhausted you must adequately arm yourself for the next battle with information and knowledge and a reputable and knowing attorney. This is the time you must have access to the input necessary to file a due process complaint that seeks the free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to which your child is legally entitled. I have had to take this approach for my own child. Even as an attorney filing for and participating in due process proceedings was difficult and stressful. But it was well worth it. My child is currently receiving an education that not only addresses his academic needs but his social emotional ones too.
I promise to deliver the highest quality of representation with the energy and dedication of a mom who shares in your desire and desperation to meet your child’s every educational need. My commonality with my clients combined with my depth of experience, academic credentials and professional affiliations translate into effective and zealous advocacy. Having walked in your shoes and having taught myself to navigate through the complex and intimidating maze that is the special education world, I will fight for your child as I continue to for my own, boldly, passionately and tirelessly. A devoted advocate for children’s rights, I consider it my legal mission and moral duty to ensure that every child that seeks my help not be turned away.