Friday, December 22, 2006

Pilot program to help foster parents of special needs children

They're a bridge over troubled waters -
Mentors help foster parents of disabled children navigate the difficulties
Kreimer, Peggy. Kentucky Post, Feb. 16, 2006, pg. A1.

Lisa Schneider remembers when doing homework with her children meant sitting at the kitchen table crying.

"They were crying, I was crying," said Schneider, of Taylor Mill, Ky.

It's a common scenario for children with learning disabilities. And the pain can be compounded when the children are in foster care and parents are not only new to the child but to the special education system.

Schneider and her husband, Mark, adopted three foster children with learning disabilities -- sons Charlie and Joe and daughter Savannah -- and learned the frustrations firsthand. So when she had a chance to join a pilot program to help other foster parents navigate the education system for their disabled children, she didn't hesitate.

Schneider will graduate in May from Northern Kentucky University with a degree in social work. The pilot program she's in, called Building Educational Success for Foster Care Youth, started last fall. It introduces students in NKU's social work and education departments and Chase College of Law to the laws, regulations and realities of how the education system serves children with disabilities.

Such youngsters have rights to special accommodations in school, but parents and guardians can find themselves mired in unfamiliar regulations and baffling jargon.

"I have grandchildren who have disabilities. I know what it's like working on an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), understanding assessments, regulations," said Deborah Henry, who developed the program and is is the field coordinator in NKU's social work department.

Parents learn the ropes gradually, often starting with programs for infants, she said.

"Foster parents step in when a child is older," Henry said.

"If someone has never dealt with this, if you don't understand what's occurring, it gets overwhelming. You want to do the best and may not know what to ask for or what to look for, what your child is entitled to."

Henry's program starts with a course to introduce students to juvenile law, special education regulations and how the state's Cabinet for Families and Children works. The program includes internships with the Children's Law Center and The Point's One by One Advocacy program, two Covington-based agencies that help families from the eight Northern Kentucky counties deal with legal and educational issues for their disabled children.

This year, two social work students and four law students from the seven-week fall class of 16 were chosen to be interns. Another class is scheduled for this fall.

"Our hope is these students will some day be attorneys and social workers and educators who have a better insight into special education and the needs of parents and children in the system. In the meantime, we're helping foster children and their families today through the internship," Henry said.

"It's not something you can just read a book about. Every child's different. Every situation's different. We're letting these students observe and get hands-on training."

Agencies that provide services to foster families see a need for NKU's program. Judy DeSalvo runs The Point's One by One advocacy program, which pairs families with mentors who can act as tour guides and advocates, attending meetings with parents or guardians and helping them identify their child's needs and find ways to meet them.

"We're hoping through this program we'll identify people who are willing to go through some training and become lay advocates," DeSalvo said.

Prime candidates for mentors are parents who have been through the system with their own children, or retired educators who know the system from another perspective.

"We need people who are willing to sit down with a family and help them do the best for their child. We don't want to be adversarial towards the school or the parent. We work to get these two key entities working on behalf of that child,." DeSalvo said.

The Schneiders became foster parents of their two eldest sons, Charlie and Joe, when they were 6 and 7, respectively. The boys, whom they have adopted, are now 15 and 16 and attend Scott High School in Taylor Mill.

"We had no other children, and I had no experience with learning disabilities," Lisa Schneider said. "When Charlie was in the first grade, he would be crying and I would be crying. He's such a bright child, but he was just not getting it.

"With kids coming from the foster care system, there are so many questions -- is this a grieving issue, an attention issue, a learning issue? You look and feel pretty stupid because you don't know what you're dealing with. What are the laws and what are the schools supposed to be doing for my child? I didn't know that."

Almost 10 years later, the Schneiders know the ropes, and Lisa Schneider's plans to be a social worker are likely to include working with families dealing with similar issues.

The Schneiders added two girls to their family, Savannah, 7 -- who was a foster daughter before the Schneiders adopted her -- and their biological daughter, Emma, 9. Both go to Mercy Montessori in East Walnut Hills, which individualizes its learning programs for each student. Savannah has learning disabilities and has thrived in the individualized program, Lisa Schneider said.

Lisa Schneider said her family got its introduction to dealing with learning disabilities from Springer School in Hyde Park neighborhood, which specializes in children with learning disabilities.

To help
* The Point's One by One Advocacy program needs volunteer mentors to help parents of children with disabilities navigate the education system and understand their children's rights. Training is provided. For information on volunteering or getting an advocate, call Judy DeSalvo at (859) 491-9191

* The Building Education Success for Foster Care Youth program is funded for two years by a $73,000 grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation and a $10,000 grant from the Kentucky Bar Association.


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