Parents get aid cutting special-ed red tape


POSTED: Monday, November 17, 2008

A condition called Tourette's syndrome makes Gary Williams, 17, susceptible to violent outbursts. He once threw a chair at school.

His mother, Anna Williams, says she was told by school officials that he should be incarcerated, but she has not given up trying to keep him in school. She further believes he should qualify for special education, which would allow him to stay in school until age 21, but the Department of Education has balked.

“;They're pushing him under the rug,”; she insists.

“;Val,”; another mother, says her son has had trouble at school as well.

“;He's had a hard time reading since elementary school,”; she says. “;I've been asking for help all this time, all this time, and nothing, nothing.”;

The two women have more in common than frustrations with the DOE.

Both are homeless.

This fall, homeless families who have long battled to get services for their disabled children are finding hope in a new project that is teaching them how to navigate the state's special-education system.

Seven mothers at the Onelauena Shelter at Kalaeloa are taking weekly workshops called “;Empowering Parents as Advocates.”;

The workshops, conducted by Legal Services for Children with a $21,113 grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, are meant to end the cycle of educational neglect among homeless children, who are at risk of failing in school, says Ho'oipo DeCambra, executive director of Legal Services.

“;For the first time, this gives us hope,”; said Williams, who has three disabled children. “;There have been so many roadblocks and red tape.”;

This is the first time Legal Services has offered its program at a homeless shelter.

“;We've removed the barrier of accessibility by going where they live,”; DeCambra said.

One child per family will be used as a case model for parents to learn procedures that can be applied to other special-needs children. Parents are learning what resources are available, where to get help, whom to contact and how to acquire school records and specialized curricula called individual education programs, or IEPs.

The text for the workshops is “;From Emotion to Advocacy: The Special Education Survival Guide,”; by Peter and Pamela Wright.

Onelauena is part of the Kalaeloa Emergency/Transitional Shelter, which provides residential services to the homeless and teaches them how to live independently and productively. Many homeless people do not get the services they need from the schools and are afraid to approach outside agencies for such services as psychotherapy, DeCambra said.

Val's son, who is 14, is not eligible for special education.

“;I've been asking since he was in the first grade,”; she says. “;They say he's not special ed. So I tell them, 'Then why isn't he learning?' I help him all I can at home.”;

She has never taken him to a psychiatrist to be evaluated, she says, because she cannot afford it.

DeCambra urged Val to get the DOE to re-evaluate him and to ask for a comprehensive psychological examination.

The constant moving from place to place makes it difficult for the kids to attend the same school for long and harder to get services, Val added.

“;Most of us are MedQuest (a state-subsidized health plan) and have lived on the beach,”; said Williams. “;It could be our financial level, that we're not offered services. Or the social worker just does her annual run-through of her list of people who need help just to be able to report, 'I did my call.'”;