Lt. Gov. Denn, Legislative Leaders Unveil Bill Helping Parents Of Children With Special Needs
Bill would assist parents in fighting denial of educational services for their children
DOVER – With members of the Delaware disability community voicing their support, Lt. Governor Matt Denn and legislative leaders unveiled a bill on Monday that would assist parents of special needs children in obtaining appropriate services for their children.
Currently, when children with special needs are denied educational services, they must go through a hearing process set up under federal and state law. The process often requires the parents or guardians to hire an expert and/or have diagnostic tests administered, which can be prohibitively expensive. Many parents are unable to advocate for their children with special needs because they cannot afford to pay the costs for experts or tests. As a result, many children with special needs do not receive services that their parents and medical providers firmly believe are necessary to the children’s educational success.
“If you are the parent of a child with special needs, appealing a school’s decision to withhold services from your child is incredibly intimidating and incredibly complicated. The law and procedures surrounding special education appeals are hard even for lawyers to understand, much less parents trying to advocate for their kids,” said Lt. Governor Denn. “As a result of the process being so intimidating and so complicated, many parents can’t effectively advocate for their kids with special needs, and their kids don’t get services they should.”
House Bill 365 would allow parents who successfully challenge denials of services to their children with special needs to be reimbursed for the costs of hiring expert witnesses that they have been forced to use for their successful appeals. Only parents and guardians who prevailed in their appeals of service denials would be entitled to recover the costs of their experts.
Rep. Quinn Johnson, who is the lead sponsor of the bill, said that while the legislation doesn’t guarantee that parents will be reimbursed for experts or tests, it gives them a certain level of comfort that they will be if they are successful.
“School districts have a full arsenal they can bring to the table during these proceedings. Often times, districts come in with experts, while the parents come in by themselves. It’s a real David versus Goliath situation,” said Rep. Johnson, D-Middletown. “This bill will make sure parents are on an even playing field when fighting for services that their children need.”
The legislation would restore a right that parents of children with special needs had under federal law until that right was revoked by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006. The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington.
The bill is supported by members from groups such as Autism Delaware, the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Exceptional Citizens, Community Legal Aid Society’s Disabilities Law Program, the Developmental Disabilities Council and the Parent Information Center of Delaware.
“Parents are desperate in a lot of these cases because they can’t afford to pay for these things out of pocket,” said Pat Maichle, senior administrator for Delaware Developmental Disabilities Council. “I’ve experienced over the years with my daughter that parents are fighting a large institution. The mom and dad are sitting in a room with 10 or 20 professionals from the school district telling them that they have to do things in a certain way. The parents know what is good for their children, but they face this large institution and it’s very difficult and stressful.”
“When this Supreme Court decision came down in 2006, I was disappointed from an advocacy standpoint because I could no longer tell parents that they could fight the system and get reimbursed,” said Wendy Strauss, executive administrator of the Governor’s Advisory Committee for Exceptional Citizens. “But just last week, I told a single mom in Sussex County who is fearful that she would not be able to fight for her child with special needs that this bill was coming and that help might be on the way.”
“The many different ways in which autism manifests means specialized knowledge is always required to determine the best supports. A parent’s ability to access such expert opinions is critical to their child’s progress,” said Theda Ellis, executive director of Autism Delaware.
HB 365 will be formally filed when the House reconvenes on Tuesday.