A Call to Professionals Working with Children with Special Education Needs: Why We Are Failing those with Mental Illness

Published on April 6, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

I was recently contacted by a parent whose child had been diagnosed with numerous psychiatric disorders. Two things became immediately apparent to me in the intake interview:

1) the child was being royally screwed by his school district, and

2) the mother was mentally unstable.

I found myself torn, not for the first time, over whether to take or decline the case. The more I learned about the situation, the more compelled I became to take the case…but I was worried. Worried about my ability to help? No. I was worried about whether these parents might eventually turn their frustration and anger towards the system on me, and whether taking the case was worth that risk.

And it got me to thinking…we are really failing individuals with mental illness in this country. The problem is so massive it is actually hard to comprehend. It includes not only the “usual” systemic difficulties in securing the fundamental civil rights of any individuals with disabilities, but also a cultural bias that colors everything.

This bias against those with mental illness is one of shame and blame, and it effects every single aspect of advocacy, including how those of us who are in the business of protecting children with disabilities treat their parents with emotional disabilities.

I am reminded of a friend whose mother committed suicide, who told me that she felt she had to lie to people about how her mother had died, for fear they would judge her and her family if she told them the truth. The truth is that her mother had died of an illness no less serious than cancer, but our society simply doesn’t see it that way.

There is something very wrong with this. For far too long, emotional disabilities have been overlooked by our society in general, and the much smaller community of special education advocacy in particular. Talented attorneys and advocates who represent children with disabilities routinely decline cases involving students with psychiatric diagnoses when the parents are clearly unstable.

I do believe much of it is based on that same fear I felt when contacted by the mother referenced above. Advocates and attorneys start to wonder: “how will I work with this parent? What if s/he won’t follow my advice? Can I control him/her in an IEP meeting? What kind of witness will he make? If I can’t get everything they want, will they turn on me?”

These considerations are often necessary, but they also undercut the very reason most of us got into the field of advocating on behalf of children with special needs. To begin with, our adversarial system cannot work if only one side has access to good representation. School districts are aware of the great difficulty that a parent who is emotionally volatile will have in obtaining quality counsel, and they exploit this fact both overtly and subtly.

I have taken on more than one case where the school has taken the position “this parent is nuts” as a defense, rather than focusing on the underlying needs of the child.  It is our job, as those who advocate for individuals with emotional disabilities, to keep the focus on the appropriateness of special education services provided the child.  It also doesn’t hurt to remind the district’s attorney of their obligation to provide parent training and counseling under the IDEA if it’s necessary.

The “I won’t take your case because you scare me” approach has turned even the most well intentioned and capable evaluators, service providers, advocates and attorneys into unwitting agents on behalf of school districts. We need to think about this every single time we get that phone call from a prospective client who is not emotionally stable.  Otherwise, we will be complicit in the ongoing systematic deprivation of appropriate special education services to these very needy families.

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