Advocating for a child in regular life circumstances can feel like quite a challenge. When you add a pandemic to the situation, it can feel overwhelming! I first learned about the necessity of advocating for services in the school system when my husband and I first adopted. When I pointed out concerns I had to our daughter’s teacher, she reassured me that the issues would likely resolve on their own and were attributed to the adoption process. I waited a year, seeing our daughter’s frustration growing, as her needs were not being met in the classroom. I will always regret the delay in accessing services.
Since March, when the COVID19 pandemic hit the United States, schools were shut down throughout the nation. The challenging process of requesting specialized services through the school district became additional challenging as all services went remote. Requesting testing and evaluations became next to impossible as school districts scrambled to provide the services that were already assigned, let alone trying to evaluate and determine new services for a child who had not completed any sort of evaluation.
Special education evaluations and services can and should be provided despite the pandemic situation. The Special Education Services Team for our school district met with parents last week (online) and shared that in-person evaluations will continue despite the pandemic. Masks, shields, Plexiglas or whatever PPD was necessary to keep both the child and evaluator safe, would be implemented. Some testing will be conducted via remote online programs where appropriate and some might utilize the parent as an in-person helper. We have seen our district come up with very creative solutions to the many challenges of providing speech and occupational services online, along with learning programs for all levels of students.
I am concerned that families may delay the request for evaluation or services due to issues with the pandemic. Obtaining services for a child through the school system can seem like an impossible task. It is important to address any concerns right away and not rely on a professional assigning the issue to stress over a foster or adoptive placement. Your child is eligible for evaluation at the time of placement, regardless of the pandemic.
Any advocating or request for services from your school district for your child must be in writing. For example, if your child is struggling in learning to read and write and you think your child might have a learning disability, it is critical to identify what you have been seeing and put it in writing to your school principal, requesting an evaluation for an Individualized Education Plan or IEP.
As a parent, whether adoptive or foster parent, we have learned that we are our child’s biggest and sometimes only advocate. We best know our child and can best describe what they need. It is best to begin with your child’s teacher, helping to identify the issues and needs of your child. The next step is to write a letter to your child’s principal. It is important to identify the issues you have observed with your child, noting any detrimental effects on your child’s ability to learn and benefit from the classroom environment.
The IEP letter should include a request for testing and a full evaluation, to determine whether your child is eligible for an individualized education plan or IEP. The IEP process is a formal process that is federally mandated and governed. If your child needs special education services those services would be provided under the IEP program. Testing will not begin right away, but your letter formally starts the process. If you just speak with your child’s teacher or the principal that does not initiate the special education or IEP process. A verbal request for evaluation or services can be ignored whereas if the request is in writing, it begins the formal IEP process. Typically several months of testing will follow. At the end of the evaluations, there will be a meeting of the IEP team, which includes the principal, and the many therapists and specialists that have evaluated your child and you as your child’s representative. You might also check with your pediatrician and see whether the pediatrician notes any issues as well that should be included in the IEP evaluation. You can bring outside reports into the IEP meeting for consideration of services.
Throughout the IEP process, from initiation to the provision of services, it is important to stay diligent and to make sure your child’s needs are always at the forefront of the discussion. It is important to continually advocate for your child. We learned through the years as we have gone through more than our share of IEP meetings, that unless the parent is willing to politely make a case and push for services needed by their child, they are less likely to be successful. It makes a difference if the adult in a child’s life is assertive about the child’s need for services.
If your child is on an IEP or you believe your child should be on an IEP, I would highly encourage you to track down the parent group for special education in your district. This committee might have different names, but each district should have such a parent committee. The parents on the committee might have some good advise for you as you advocate for your child. One or more of the parents in the group may have experienced a similar issue with their child and might be able to offer some advise on how they were successful obtaining services. I also would encourage anyone whose child is in need of services or is receiving services to read through the www.wrightslaw.com website. It is full of fantastic resources, information and programs available to help you with advocating for services your child might need as it is run by Pete Wright, an attorney advocate in Special Education Law. He has written several books on how to obtain special education services and won cases in front of the Supreme Court.
Despite the challenges we are currently facing as we live through this pandemic, your child’s academic, behavioral, emotional, developmental and social needs need to be supported and services obtained through your school district when necessary. Advocating for your foster or adopted child might sometimes feel like you are pushing a boulder up a steep hill, but the outcome is so worthwhile. Your are your child’s best advocate and there is nothing like the experience of seeing your child complete a task that seemed impossible prior to the therapy that was initiated through your advocacy.
written by Rhonda Jarema, MA