Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Foster Care and Kids with Disabilities: My Journey to Special Education Law

May is National Foster Care Month, which is intended to provide an opportunity to focus attention on the year-round needs of children and youth in foster care in America. Foster Care Month focuses not only on promoting awareness and community education about issues related to foster care, but also acknowledges the work and commitment of the people involved in the lives of foster care youth - foster parents, social workers, and organizations.

As I have been reading information on the website for this campaign (, I am struck by the relationship between issues facing foster care youth and those facing kids with disabilities, and I'm reminded of how I got involved in special education law in the first place.

I always knew I wanted to go to law school, and that I wanted to focus my career on being an advocate for people who were disadvantaged, vulnerable, and needed a voice. During both of the summers while I was in law school, I went back to my home state of Georgia and worked in the Office of the Child Advocate as a legal intern. The OCA is a state government agency that acts as an "oversight" to the Department of Family and Children's Services offices throughout the state of Georgia. As an intern, I was involved in investigations of cases in which an individual alleged that the system had failed to follow procedures for child protective services cases or foster care cases. In this capacity, I worked on many cases in which the child involved was an older foster care youth, and I started to notice a pattern: many of these kids had disabilities, including learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, developmental disabilities, etc. Many more were probably experiencing disabilities, but were labelled as "behavior problems" or "defiant" instead. I knew nothing about IEPs or what the school districts were legally obligated to provide, and it wasn't my job to look into that. But I started to realize that these kids were being failed by multiple systems; sometimes their family system, the child welfare agency, unfortunately sometimes their foster care placements, and even the school system. They "disrupted" their placements (both school and home) again and again because their needs were not being met.

I'll never forget one situation in particular. The youth in this case was a teenager who had a diagnosis of Bi-Polar disorder. She had been in and out of various foster homes, and returned many times to her parents' home only to then be removed a few months later. The department had been investigating allegations of abuse and neglect, and meanwhile she was in and out of attending school, switching schools, often truant, and failing. The school was aware of her disability (there was a psychoeducational evaluation in her file from her school district). When I spoke with someone who was involved in her foster care case, that individual opined that there was not "abuse" happening in the house because it was just a "volitile relationship." Then later, when I was trying to get information from her school, and asked what was being done to support her, I was given the same opinion - this is just a "volitile student," what can we do. This was a huge shock and wake up call to me. I wanted to scream - but she has a DISABILITY, she's Bi-Polar and not being treated by a doctor for that, or recieving therapy, she has no services or supports at school, of course she is truant and failing and disrupting her foster placements.

It was then I realized the vulnerability of students with disabilities and the need to advocate for services within the school system. My third year in law school, I discovered that Pepperdine was offering a special education law clinic, and I signed up right away. The clinic and the special education law class provided me with the knowledge and understanding about the rights of students with disabilities that I had not previously been exposed to. I learned that students were entilted to Individualized Education Plans, and that students, like many of those I had previously dealt with who had behavior difficulties, had legal protections. I went to IEP meetings with families, and started learning about various disabilities, about the assessment process, and about interventions and services that were available.

Eight years after I worked on those foster care cases, I'm now representing students with disabilities and assisting parents in obtaining appropriate services and supports from their school districts. Although my job does not currently entail representation of foster care youth, I never forget what I experienced and learned those two summers. I found special education law because I was looking for a way to help affect change in one of the systems that is supposed to be supporting these students. Kids with disabilities are some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and to have that overlap with being in the foster care system or the child welfare system increases that vulnerability thousands-fold. This Foster Care Month, I hope that advocates and attorneys for children all over the country - whether they directly represent kids in foster care or not - promote awareness about all of these issues so that as a whole, our community can learn and affect change.

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