Parents of developmentally disabled children face a lifetime of challenges related to raising and protecting their family. They cherish the special bonds they hold with their disabled loved ones, yet they frequently find themselves exhausted physically, emotionally, and even financially by their role as caregivers.
Thankfully, due to a growing awareness of the challenges affecting special needs families, groups have begun to form across the country to educate parents and to empower them to protect their children. One such group is Team Parent, co-founded in Long Beach, CA by Michelle Babitz and Robin Trigg.
Unlike many such advocates, neither Michelle nor Robin have their own children with special needs. Their passion for empowering families arose from their combined 45+ years of serving as special education teachers.
“One of our biggest frustrations as teachers was the inability to advise special needs families of their rights. When I was introduced to LegalShield about four years ago, I immediately knew this service would fill a much-needed void and could empower the families of the developmentally disabled children that I served,” said Michelle Babitz.
The Quiet Epidemic
The leaders of Team Parent are acutely aware of the growing need for their work. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “about one in six children in the United States has a developmental disability, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities such as cerebral palsy and autism.”
The largest developmentally disabled group in this country are the 1.5 million people who have been diagnosed with autism. Autism is also the fastest growing serious developmental disability in the U.S. and has been referred to as “the quiet epidemic.” The rates of autism have been dramatically increasing in recent years. While the cause of such a dramatic increase remains unknown, the trend indicates millions of families will continue to face these challenges for many years to come.
Powerful Advocates for Special Needs Families
Michelle originally began working with special needs children when she was in high school. As a theater student, she was invited to support a play that was in sign language for autistic children. She vividly recalls how she felt when she first walked into that room. “I had never heard of autism before. But as soon as I met these children, I immediately knew that I had found my calling.”
Michelle and Robin have now recruited eight others to join them on Team Parent. Together, these 10 independent associates market LegalShield services specifically to the autism-affected community. “Team Parent associates are keenly invested in the special-needs community, particularly the autism community. Several members are themselves parents of children with autism. They fully understand the frustrations of accessing their rights under the law,” says Robin.
Michelle describes three major needs faced by families affected by a developmental disability:
1. They become financially, mentally, and emotionally depleted.
2. They lack the time and resources to secure and understand relevant information on their rights and options.
3. They struggle to coordinate service agencies and school districts to create an effective service structure around the lives of their children, particularly when the child becomes an adult.
Top 4 Legal Issues of Special Needs Families
According to Team Parent, the following are the most serious legal issues for families affected by developmental disabilities:
1. Avoiding Discrimination and Profiling. These challenges not only arise within school or at the workforce, but can also occur with the police; for example, children on the mild to moderate end of the autism spectrum can be incarcerated because they are perceived as obstinate by police who don’t realize that they have special needs challenges.
2. Bullying by Peers. Children affected by a developmental disability can face significant bullying in school and in the community. According to Michelle, these issues can actually be much worse for “higher functioning” children. Parents have a legal right to protect their families from this harassment, but frequently struggle to understand their options. Typically, all that is needed to resolve the matter is a simple letter from an attorney to the bully and/or their family.
3. Bullying by School Districts. In their careers, both Michelle and Robin have witnessed the challenges parents face from school districts. One of the most troubling is the inability to secure an appropriate Individualized Education Program (“IEP”). According to Robin, “the IEP is the vehicle that drives the child’s education.” Parents have a legal right to take the IEP home and review it with their attorney, but very few have the financial resources to do so.
4. Accessing Government Services. Parents face many challenges from Government agencies, including an inability to access needed services such as speech and occupational therapies, health insurance agencies and regional centers. Knowledgeable attorneys can help families access these services. Team Parent is a strong example of how advocates can empower families affected by developmental disabilities to understand their legal rights.
In the words of one family served by Team Parent: “One hour with our lawyer did more to help us than an all-day or weekend Special Needs conference. Having an actual attorney who can be there for us is like having someone in our corner for the rest of our child’s life.”
Autism Family Services of New Jersey – http://www.autismfamilyservicesnj.org/
The Autism Society – http://www.autism-society.org/
Autism Speaks (has links to many more local resources) – www.autismspeaks.org/
FACES 4 Autism – http://faces4autism.org/
Autism New Jersey – http://autismnewjersey.org/
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