In Fights Over School Services, DCF Children Getting Bigger Boost
By DENISE BUFFA, email@example.com
More than 100 times a year, advocates for children in state care tussle with local school districts over what kinds of educational services those students should receive and who should pay for them.
The costs to educate a child in the care of the state Department of Children and Families often far exceeds the $15,000 average cost to educate a public-school student. Adding a paraprofessional could increase costs by $30,000 a year in salary alone.
And the cost to teach a special education student — who might have to be placed outside the student's home district — could be as much as $100,000 a year, according to Thomas Mooney, a Hartford attorney who specializes in educational law.
Now, in an effort to ensure that the needy children under the care of DCF get what they deserve by law, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz has established the Connecticut Child Justice Foundation, a nonprofit group of lawyers working for free who will be available to defend the educational rights of DCF's 4,000 children.
The state Department of Education appoints a surrogate parent to every DCF child with special needs, according to department spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly. And, of the 164 complaints about educational services filed with the department's Bureau of Special Education in the 2011-12 school year, 22 were filed by surrogate parents, Donnelly said.
The students also have had educational advocates — including consultants and social workers — working for them. But, by and large, they have had no legal representation, Katz said. And that limited what DCF could do, compared with schools districts that are normally represented by lawyers.
"What's happened for a lot of these kids, their needs are not even being identified. Frankly, many of them are just being shuffled along," Katz said. "They exhibit certain challenging behaviors, and then they end up getting expelled."
Now, the students have almost 30 trial lawyers — including three former judges — who have volunteered their services to the foundation, a nonprofit organization.
Co-founder and administrator Ernest Teitell of the Stamford law firm of Silver Golub & Teitell said he hopes that school districts, which might have found it easy to overlook DCF's needy kids in the past, will be quicker to provide services knowing that the foundation is at work. Many of the kids have physical and intellectual disabilities as well as emotional and behavioral issues.
"They're being passed along without the ability to meet milestones," Teitell said. "You get kids, they're in high school, and they can't read or write. ... That's because no one stepped in and advocated for these kids early."
It's against the law to treat students unequally, Teitell said.
"Every kid has to be treated the same in terms of public education..." he said. "The kids from DCF have the same rights as everyone else — as the kids from Darien, as the kids from New Canaan — and we're here to make sure that happens."
The volunteer lawyers were trained in educational law over the summer — and have already taken on three cases, according to Katz. Two — one involving a regular education student, the other involving a special-education student — have already been resolved through mediation, according to authorities. Further details were not available.
Mooney, who wrote the book, "A Practical Guide to Connecticut School Law," helped teach the volunteer lawyers about educational law.
An "extraordinary" number of DCF students need special education services, according to a pamphlet about the foundation. A percentage was unavailable.
Arguments can arise about whether a student is entitled to classroom paraprofessionals, counselors or therapy.
Issues can also include eligibility for special education, the appropriateness of an evaluation, a district's failure to implement a student's Individualized Education Program, a student's right to a publicly funded independent education evaluation, and discipline, according to Donnelly.
But sometimes districts argue over who will pay for the education of a DCF student placed in a foster or group home — the school district where the home sits or the school district where the child originally resided. Mooney — whose law firm Shipman & Goodwin represents 100 Connecticut school districts, more than half of the statewide total — said he's seen only about 20 of those disputes in 35 years of practicing educational law.
The cases are usually resolved at the district level with mediation. But a handful of cases are appealed to the state Department of Education each year — and on rare occasions are further appealed to state Superior Court for a resolution, Mooney said.
Ron Harris, a lawyer with the state Department of Education, said cases involving DCF students that reach the state level usually involve a question of placement and residency — and who has to pay the cost. In the 2011-12 school year, there were five to 10 such school accommodations cases involving all students statewide, he said.
If a DCF student placed in a group or foster home is in regular education, his new school district can just absorb him without incurring extra costs, according to Harris. But if such a DCF student is in special education, which could cost $100,000 to $150,000 a year, the district where the student otherwise would hav attended pays, he said.
Mooney said he had no qualms about training the other lawyers who, technically, could later become his adversaries.
"We all are trying to do the right things for kids," he said, "and the more we can develop a common understanding of what the rules are, the better it is for everybody."
Mooney says he doesn't think the foundation will be viewed with antagonism by school districts. After all, he said, school districts, by law, must pay to educate children — and the districts might more promptly take responsibility to properly educate DCF's kids because they now have attorneys. Districts do not want to spend money unnecessarily on legal representation of their own, he said.
The goal, Katz said, is to educate DCF's kids so they can become contributing members of society who no longer rely on the state for help.
"Not only is it not costing the citizens anything, in the long run, it's actually saving millions," she said.
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