Tuesday, October 30, 2007

How Depressing!!

The Associated Press reported today on data collected by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, that shows which occupations have the most employees who suffer from depression. I wasn’t totally surprised, but was certainly disappointed in their findings. Just goes to show you what can happen when you put yourself out there in an attempt to make other people’s lives better.

Number one on the list is...(drumroll) caregivers of children, the elderly, and people with severe disabilities. They came in at almost 11%. That’s high!

In second place is people who work in the food service industry. They have an incidence slightly over 10%.

The third highest group is healthcare workers and social workers, who are at 9.6%.

The full results of the survey can be found at USA.com.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Re: What You Are Doing

Do you REALLY know who you’re blogging with?

Do you care that you’re next blog door to someone who states that they write about “Random thoughts, the world of cosmetics, and being incredibly cute”? Does it concern you that when you scroll through a list of blogs you find posts about topics like pot holes on Beaverton side streets or a C that should have been a B- on a Social Studies test? Does it frustrate you to see your post about a hate crime ignored while a bit of drivel regarding Britney Spears lips has 40 hits? Do you lose some faith in mankind when you become aware that many Americans (more than we want to admit) are more concerned with Marie Osmond passing out than how many civilians have died in Iraq during Bush’s war? I sure do.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Hate's Alive and Well

Megan Williams, a 20 year old black, developmentally disabled woman, was held captive in Logan County, West Virginia for at least a week by 6 sadistic white people. She was subjected to all sorts of hellish treatments including being forced to eat rat and dog feces. She was made to drink out of a toilet with urine in it. She was raped and sodomized by her captors who are 3 women and 3 men. She was stabbed, beaten, and had her hair ripped from her scalp. She was whipped with cables. The whole time this was going on, racial slurs and curses were constantly being thrown at her.

There’s a LOT of information about this on the internet; just Google her name to find it. My question is, why have we not heard about this in the main stream media? Can you imagine the exposure this story would get if she was a rich white girl? Once again you can see the blatant disregard for what is truly real NEWS in this country.

Black AND developmentally disabled AND female AND in the South... not he best demographic combination for having a decent life. I’m fairly certain she’s poor too. Does it make you feel like doing something; ANYTHING around speaking out about injustice in America? I hope so.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Forced "Fun"

My last job was working in what is commonly called an ATE. This stands for Alternative To Employment. These programs provide recreational, social, and inclusive opportunities for people with severe developmental disabilities. Generally an individual will attend an ATE for 20 to 25 hours per week. It’s usually a Monday through Friday schedule during the day. At our site we would usually have 10 people in the morning, and another 10 in the afternoon. There were four of us working with them.

When I wrote “severe” disabilities, that is a very accurate description of the folks we worked with. Many had very little expressive or receptive communication skills. Many were incontinent and needed to be changed each day while they were with us. Many needed to be fed their snack, as they were unable to feed themselves. Many used wheelchairs or needed help with mobility. These are people who require a lot of assistance with most things non disabled people take for granted.

The idea is that folks attending ATEs have chosen to go there. Yearly they have meetings where case managers, residential providers, family (sometimes), vocational providers, and rarely a friend or advocate, get together with the person to figure out what they should do for the next 12 months. Employment is always discussed in these meetings. If a person’s disability is profound enough to keep them from having a job, they are offered a spot in an ATE program. and if they are able to communicate that they don’t want to work, they may also opt for an ATE.

The problem is that there are some folks who are unable to work, and don’t want to attend an ATE. These people are usually the ones I mentioned who have very little communication skills. They don’t get to choose if they WANT to attend an ATE, they are assigned one. Where I worked we put a lot of thought and energy into showing our folks a good time, while being mindful of health and safety issues. We had a fun site. There was always music playing, games being played, arts and crafts being done, people coming and going into the community, and laughter in the air. Unfortunately, some of our folks obviously didn’t want to be there in spite of our efforts.

In the morning there were 3 people who consistently demonstrated through their actions that they’d rather be somewhere else. One would tear at his clothes with his teeth and would often cry and wale. He is unable to talk, sign, or even gesture to communicate. We all knew he didn’t like it. Another man would come in the door extremely angry. He’d pace around clapping his hands hard, hissing, knocking things off tables, and clearly showing his displeasure. He too lacks communication ability, and we knew he would be happier elsewhere. A 3rd guy would scream, spit, and stomp his feet in a tantrum. You guessed it... low communication, and we had to assume he didn’t want to come in. In the afternoon we had a woman who would scream daily. The only thing that might or might not keep her from doing this was playing loud classical music right next to her. That would usually work for a short while, but she’d always make her point that she didn’t want to be there by screaming. Of course it was her only communication.

Why were these folks there if they were showing that they didn’t want to be? There isn’t a simple answer to that question. There are actually a few different reasons:

1.) Group homes and foster homes often can’t afford the number of staff it would take to allow a person to hang out at home. In Oregon they are woefully underfunded. Generally, each person who lives in these homes gets out of the house 5 days per week to work or attend an ATE. It’s a staffing problem.
2.) Contracts. Vocational agencies depend on these folks attending their ATEs to keep their businesses afloat. If people stop coming, they lose money. If they lose enough money they go belly up. It’s a business problem.
3.) Misplaced values. There are some great human beings working with people who have developmental disabilities. However; there are people on all levels, from direct care, to management, to directors, to DHS who would actually serve these folks best if they left the field. They see these folks as a commodity, in place to ensure livings can be made, and careers can be grown. It’s a mindset problem.

What to do; what to do... I think the place to start is by getting people to truly understand that it’s wrong headed (as well as unethical) to make a person do something they don’t want in order to preserve a system that doesn’t work anyway. The people in a position of negotiation with funders need to demand more money for these residential programs so they can afford the staff they need. Vocational programs need to expand and become more viable in the community. In this way, they can truly provide quality services without fearing implosion due to money concerns. People need to recognize that folks with disabilities’ civil and human rights are not really being protected in this state, and it’s time to make sure they are.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

No Place Like (Group) Home (For Real)

A number of years ago I was working in a day program with people having developmental, physical, and mental health disabilities. These folks would come to our site in four hour shifts. It was similar to a club house situation. We would play board games, do arts and crafts, go into the community for activities, have snacks, etc. These individuals had several differences in what their support needs were, and we worked with each person accordingly.

One day a man with some serious mental health issues had a major melt down. It began with him striking one of his peers for no apparent reason. It was a pretty serious blow which left the other person understandably shook up. The area that the aggressor was in was cleared for the safety of the other folks, and I was asked to deal with him one on one. It only took a few minutes for his anger to turn to remorse and sadness. He began weeping uncontrollably; repeating over and over; “I want to go home”. I told him I would call his group home and arrange for him to do as he wished. Not so fast buddy boy...

I called his house and spoke with the manager. I went into great detail regarding what had happened, and his desire to come home. This person told me he would not be allowed to come home because he was on our agency’s time, and she expected us to serve him until his ride came to bring him home. Although I wanted to crawl through the phone line to throttle this woman, I called my boss to inform her as to what was going on. My boss was no happier than me about the manager’s response, and decided to give her a call. Five minutes later my boss called me back.

I was told that the manager had changed her mind about this upset person being allowed to go home. The compromise was that I would stay at his house with him until the manager finished the paper work she was doing behind a closed office door. I didn’t think this was the best case scenario for the guy, but agreed to do it if it would make him feel a little bit better. We got in my car and I drove him back to his house.

When we arrived, the manager came out of the office to let us in. The fellow had calmed down considerably and went directly to his bed room to lie down. As I was speaking to this manager, another person came out of the office room. This was a caregiver who was apparently “assisting” the manager with paperwork. Together they let me know in no uncertain terms that they were doing OUR AGENCY a FAVOR by allowing for this change in routine. They failed to mention anything about what was in this guy’s best interest. It was all about who was responsible for him during this time period. They said they’d be done with the paperwork in about an hour, and went back into the office; closing the door behind them.

I sat in the living room within earshot of the guy’s bed room. He began coming out into the living room with a perplexed look on his face. He knew I didn’t work in his home, and seemed confused about my presence. I attempted to explain what was going on, but he wasn’t hearing it. For the next 20 minutes he’d come out of his room, see me in the living room, look at me increasingly upset, and retreat back to his room. Finally he came out of his room and I could see he’d been crying again.

At that point I’d seen and had enough. I walked over to the closed door and knocked. The caregiver opened the door and I told her I was leaving. She asked why, and I told her what had been going on. The manager had been listening and came out of their "cave". She informed me that if I left I could expect to be in trouble due to the agreement she'd made with my boss. I believe I said; “fine”, and left.

I drove back to our office to speak with my boss about what happened. I was commended for taking into consideration what was best for this man instead of “the agreement”. The following day when I came into work I was given a memo which stated from that point forward any requests by our folks to go home would indeed be honored. We sent the memo home with them for their staff to read.

Friday, October 19, 2007

$15 Per Hour Plus Bonuses

Yesterday I was checking out Craigslist for jobs when I came upon a most unusual ad. It was for a caregiver, but not just any caregiver. No; the ad was seeking an “Executive caregiver”, a term I’d never heard of in over 23 years of working in social services. The ad said they were looking for someone who is “exceptional, intuitive, and caring”; all qualities I possess, so I decided to check out the website link toward the bottom of the ad.

When I went to the site, I was a bit confused. The home page had a photo of a table in a grassy meadow, taken on a Summer’s day. On this table sits a bottle of blush wine and a basket of flowers with a green field in the background. I asked myself; “What does this have to do with caregiving?” The question was sort of answered when I scrolled over to the right. It read; “Like the proven quality of a fine wine”, a person’s name, and a quote; “A cut above the rest”. This was kinda spooky, but I was intrigued, so I continued.

I clicked on the “about” button to be taken to another page. This one had a photo of the person laid over another photo of pretty pink flowers. The writing identified this woman as a certified nurse’s assistant with some of the following qualities as a caregiver. It said she’s “Accustomed to affluent clients”, and indeed “a cut above the rest”. At this point I wasn’t totally sure if this was or wasn’t some sort of gag, as I found myself laughing. I couldn’t resist. I clicked on the “background” button to see exactly what this whole thing is about.

This page lists her qualifications on top of yet more pretty pink flowers. It says she does Business development, Biblical studies, Skin care facials, Professional makeup artist, and Personal shopper/High end retail, among other more practical tasks. May God strike me dead if I’m lying! On the “private caregiver” page she says she offers Chauffer service and wardrobe management. I couldn’t take it any more. I had to call this woman to find out if I am Executive caregiver material.

She answered the phone on the first half of the first ring. I told her I was calling in regard to the ad on Craigslist. She jumped right in to telling me what the job is about. She said she wants to train a team of “polished professionals to assist affluent clients” in their homes. She told me it would be similar to being a butler. She never mentioned helping them with any of their medical needs or anything related to caregiving, but she did mention it would involve “serving their guests”. She then said the line about “a cut above the rest”, and I couldn’t help it... I started laughing out loud. I quickly caught myself and managed to say; “I’m not so sure about that, but it is very different caregiving.”

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A True Story... You Won't Believe

I’m going to write about various real life scenarios that I’ve been involved in while working with people having developmental disabilities. I believe it’s important that the community at large understands just how broken the system of care these folks live in really is.

In my last job, I worked with folks with profound disabilities in a day program. One of our guys broke his leg and was in the hospital. It was a serious break of his thigh bone. Now, this fellow was completely unable to bare weight with his legs in the first place, and used a wheelchair at all times when not in bed. He is also unable to get out of his wheelchair and needs people to lift him out of it when needed.

How did he break his leg? No one knew is what I was told. I believe he would have had to been dropped during a transfer. That’s the only logical explanation there is. I know it didn’t happen while he was with us, as we always used three people to lift him the one time we needed to each day. Therefore; it had to happen at his group home where he was the other 19 hours of the day (along with weekends). I guess there was no way to prove how or where it happened, and this guy is not able to speak. He has very little communication ability in general.

During the time he was away from our program, we had to do Medication/Side Effect updates for all our folks. I was assigned to gather the information for him, so I called his group home. They faxed me over a current list of medications he was on. The first page of what they sent me listed allergies. It said he was allergic to Codeine and Acetomenaphine. On his list of medications was Hydrocodone for pain and swelling associated with his broken leg. I was taken back! I believed Hydrocodone was a combination of Acetomenaphine and Codeine.

First I called his house and spoke with the manager. He told me he was unaware if this man was allergic to the drug or not. The assistant manager asked the agency’s nurse who also didn’t know. They agreed not to give him more until they knew for certain. I then called my supervisor to fill her in on what I discovered. She agreed with me that this was bad and asked me to write an Incident Report. I wrote the Incident Report with all the information in it and sent it over to our office.

That was the last day of work for me before I took a week long vacation. When I returned I was informed that Hydrocodone contains a synthetic form of Codeine, so there should be no harmful allergic reaction. My question was; “What about the Acetomenaphine in Hydrocodone?” I was told that he was no longer being given the drug, and my question went unanswered. I don’t know if the Incident Report ever went into his file, but I never saw it again, which was not standard procedure. The manager of the group home left quite suddenly following this debacle. No one said why.

Monday, October 15, 2007

In a Chair

I have a friend who uses a wheelchair. Our relationship was borne out of a time when I was his case manager. My job was to hook him up with, and pay for the services he needed to live well in his community. His biggest love in this world is the New York Yankees. When he found out that I am originally from New York, he decided I was definitely friend material. I met him when he was about 24 years old, and extremely frustrated with his life.

The two things that were bothering him most were that he wanted a girlfriend and hated not being able to walk. He wanted a different life than the one he was experiencing, and that was something I just couldn’t provide him with. We’d spend a lot of time bouncing around in conversation regarding the Bronx Bombers, dating, and his wheelchair.

I was very comfortable talking to him about the Yankees. He’s a bit of a history buff about the team, and would grill me about the championship team in the late 70’s. That’s when I was a BIG fan myself, and could answer all his questions accurately and confidently. The girlfriend thing was harder, but I had my own experiences with women to fall back on, so I wasn’t at a total loss. But when it came to talking about him being unable to walk, and how that made him feel, I’d get quieter and unsure of what to say. I don’t have a clue what that’s like other than conversations I’ve had with other wheelchair users.

There was one aspect of discussing his frustration around this issue that I became increasingly concerned with. He’d always refer to himself as “in a chair”; as though that was what was keeping him from having a girlfriend. I’m not someone who tries to tell people what they ought to do or think, but after a while I was finding myself wanting to address this mindset with him. I wasn’t at all certain how it would go if I brought it up, but decided that if he wanted to seek counseling from me on this, I probably should tell him what I honestly think.

One afternoon I was over his house when he brought it up again. Something like; “Girls don’t want to be involved with me ‘cause I’m in this chair.” I took a deep breath and replied; “Have you ever considered that you are in charge of your wheelchair, and not the other way around? You use a wheelchair to get places, but you are the one who decides where you go. By saying you’re “in a chair” it sounds like you are a victim of it, rather than it’s there to help you go where you want to go. And my opinion is that you are a good looking, smart, funny guy. Maybe you’re trying too hard, and that’s what is putting the women off; not your wheelchair.”

It was like a light when on for him. He said proudly; “You’re right! I am in charge of this wheelchair, I’m not in it. I use it to get me around!” I don’t mind telling you that I was relieved that he didn’t come back with; “Why don’t you mind your own fucking business!” or something along those lines. He wasn’t ready to believe that maybe his wheelchair wasn’t the cause of his romantic woes, but he’d taken a step away from victim hood.

We talked recently as the Yankees were getting their as#es handed to them by Cleveland in the playoffs. He brought it up. He said he never refers to himself as “in a wheelchair” any more. I asked him if he’d mind if I wrote about it on my blog. He said “Go ahead; maybe it will help somebody else.” Who knows?

One More Thing...

I just got to thinking, that I went on in great length regarding the joke of an education my nephew received in Portland Public Schools special education, without telling you what he’s doing now. After the hearing we pulled him out of Marshall due to the same old same old. We gave ‘em one more chance at Lincoln High while we were waiting for them to pay up on the remedy, but within a week we knew that too was a bust.

After he was finished at Sylvan Learning Center Joseph got a job where the idea was for him to develop work appropriate behavior in order to become competitively employed. He’s been there for the last 4+ years as one of their best employees. The problem is that he’s still not doing what he loves most... working with numbers. Last Spring we decided to do something about that.

We put together what is called a “Person Centered Plan”, where the people involved in a person’s life gather with a facilitator to discuss someone’s hopes, dreams, and strengths. When we were finished, we had a solid plan on steps to assist Joseph with getting into the numbers racquet (couldn’t resist). He now is moving in the right direction.

First we got him a calculator/adding machine. He’s learned to make a monthly budget and has done really well with this. We purchased a laptop with a printer and software having to do with accounting type stuff. He’s enrolled at Clackamas Community College, where he’s taking some basic computer classes this fall. By all accounts he’s doing great. This winter he’ll be taking a class on Excel and may get an internship doing some data entry or basic accounting. He tells (yes, he can say most of what he’s thinking these days) anyone who asks him that he wants to eventually work in a bank. For Joseph; he'll go as far as he wants to go.

Joseph was never unteachable. He was never physically aggressive. He was never any more difficult to educate than any other kid. He was failed by the education system in Portland.


The Judge's Final Order

The Administrative Law Judge issued her Final Order regarding the hearing on 7/3/01. There were errors in some of what she wrote, and it appeared as though she didn’t want to come down very hard on Portland Public Schools. There was no mention of perjured testimony, or him having his civil rights violated at Grant which was disappointing, but we weren’t supposed to win this thing in the first place.

She wrote that what she found was that PPS had not lived up to its obligations to Joseph, and had in fact denied him a Free Appropriate Public Education as a student in special education. She ordered them to pay for real academic training at Sylvan Learning Center. She said it was outside her jurisdiction to make them fix the mess which was his student file. She wrote of a way that we could go about getting this taken care of, but we weren’t about to jump through more hoops with those people.

The district dragged its feet about paying up, but eventually came through with the cash. This came shortly after we wrote that we believed they were nearing “contempt of court”. Funny how that went...
Joseph received a check for somewhere between 18,000 and 19,000 dollars. He spent almost 1 ½ years at Sylvan. The teachers he had taught him real math, real reading, and real writing. They were very fond of Joseph. He never attacked them, worked very hard, and LEARNED. They were so impressed with him that I believe they gave him more hours of instruction than the money paid for. When he finished they gave him a party with gifts of books, pens, and lots of writing tablets. Suzanne and I never had 1 problem with them.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Due Process...Day 2

As the 2nd day of testimony in Joseph’s Due Process Hearing began, we really had no idea what was to come. The vice principal from Grant was first on our list. He is the one that I told we were going to sue the district, and here he was, being sworn in. There were quite a few observers in attendance, as word got out quickly among the special education community that we had kicked some district butt the day before. I think that many of these folks were frustrated with what was going on in their own disabled children/students educations, and were getting some vicarious pleasure from the proceedings. Day 2 certainly didn’t disappoint.

He started out by saying he was administrative vice-principal at Grant, and was in charge of supervising special education there. He went on to say in that capacity he didn’t know if an Expulsion Hearing ever took place. Next he told me he announced BEFORE the Manifestation Determination Hearing that Joseph wouldn’t be allowed back in that school, which is a direct violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), thus a violation of Joseph’s civil rights. Actually, he wasn’t invited to that hearing in the first place. Next he said the first time he met Joseph was at that hearing, so there couldn’t have been the required disciplinary conference when he suspended Joseph. Another civil rights violation. Next we found out that what we’d gotten from Joseph’s file was his transfer slip and withdrawal form put together to look like 1 form. The ALJ wasn’t pleased with this new piece of information, and made him have Grant fax over the 2 separate documents. Turns out, what was covered up on the withdrawal form was the line where the parent or guardian (us) signature goes. Then he goes on to tell me that the lawyers recently explained to him a rudimentary term related to special ed. Well informed “supervisor of special ed.”, huh? He admitted to determining the suspension and possible expulsion based on 2nd and 3rd hand information. Then he suddenly remembered there was no expulsion hearing. Then he told me he’d said Joseph couldn’t return to Grant DURING the manifestation determination. The lawyer then interrupted, saying; “I think that’s been asked and answered, Your Honor; several times”. I’d like to ad; in several ways. Next, I went about proving that he was unqualified to “supervise special ed.”, but the ALJ stopped me. His testimony ended with the ALJ asking him if he spoke with Joseph when he suspended him. His answer was; “ No. My understanding is that Joe doesn’t talk.” The ALJ didn’t like his answer and replied; “ Well, “speak” is a broad term, communicate with.” She then sort of rolled her eyes and excused him.

Next up was the big, burly dude that Joseph had battered. I did the questioning. He talked about how Joseph used to “get all up in people’s faces”, and how that bothered his peers. No one ever mentioned that to us. They were supposed to, they just didn’t. He talked about a witness to Joseph’s behavior; or more accurately, the sound of his behavior, but he couldn’t remember her name. This was someone he worked with. Strange...

Suzanne interviewed Joseph’s Multnomah County case manager next. He refuted their claim that I yelled at the vice principal at the Manifestation Determination. He also said that the “supervisor of special ed.” at Grant did in fact kick Joseph out of school prior to that hearing. Suzanne then began asking questions about district staff keeping agreements made in meetings. He was answering that they hadn’t, but the ALJ ended this line of questioning, saying that wasn’t in our issues. I think by this point she was doing a bit of protecting the district.

I questioned his current Life Skills teacher at Marshall next. She’d been an ally when Joseph started there, but once we filed for due process that quickly changed. She was able to help out with some of the dates around him beginning there. It became more obvious that someone had indeed falsified that information. Once she realized she was being helpful her memory went on her. She didn’t know if school was in session on Veteran’s day or if that is a day their closed. As she began contradicting the other folk’s testimony by accident she became increasingly nervous. I pointed out how the communication book had been altered after the fact while Joseph was in her class. She had no idea how that could have possibly happened.

We only had one more witness to call, and he hadn’t made it there yet. The ALJ decided this would be a good time for Suzanne to question me. We used this time to make perfectly clear how the district had dropped the ball. We pointed to the lies that were told, the documents altered, and the misdeeds that they attempted to cover up. The ALJ jumped in asking questions. She’d already made up her mind that the district had failed to provide FAPE, and was getting clarification of facts. When she was done with that she asked what we sought for remedy. At that point I knew we’d won! I laid it out there for her. We wanted compensation for all the wasted time in PPS. We wanted them to pay for real academic training outside the district. And we wanted the falsified documentation in his file to be fixed. It was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had.

Our friend and advocate finally made it and Suzanne asked him several questions to further demonstrate their sliminess. He also refuted the “angry” label they attempted to lay on me. He was at the meeting of November 6th, and shed a lot of light on what REALLY was said. The ALJ also asked him some questions regarding his understanding of rules and terminology that had been discussed throughout the hearing.

At that point we broke for lunch. Suzanne and I were giddy when we walked out of the building. All the time and energy we put into this process was about to pay off.

After lunch the district’s lawyer was allowed to make a closing statement. She essentially said that we were not lawyers, and did not fully understand the law. True. But we had a damned good understanding of right and wrong.

Suzanne read a closing statement she’d written. It was truly beautiful. I’m typing it here:

“In closing, I would like to make a statement on behalf of Joe. Because I remember when we had a hearing after the suspension that Joe didn’t get a chance to speak. But then we all know that Joe never says much. He pretty much faces his challenges in silence. Though some may have their doubts, we know that someday Joe will find his own voice. In the meantime, we’re having another hearing. And he is counting on us to speak for him. I think he’s figuring that we know what’s best for him, and he’s sure we’ll work it out.
It must be interesting to be Joe. He doesn’t see the world the same way we do, and it’s confusing for him. In Joe’s world, the sounds are too bright, and the lights are too loud. Language and social conventions are a complete mystery. And people are walking around acting like they understand it, only to change the rules midstream and in every minute. It must be stressful. I guess I’d learn to focus on the numbers, the clock, and the calendar too. They’re consistent. If you list things inside the boxes, they take a much clearer form. Two plus two is always four. The formula works up to multi-digits. If you check the clock frequently, you can’t miss the natural rhythm and order of it. Time ticks away at a steady pace; yet both the clock and the calendar hold the potential for highlighting the fact that at any moment something could happen that you hadn’t planned for.
This isn’t to say that anyone should feel sorry for Joe. That would be a mistake. And I think it’s a mistake that folks make all too often. He has his strengths too. For one, he really loves to learn. And, he’s a quick learner. He really likes people. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that isn’t always true for most of us. I think he studies our faces closely, because he really finds us fascinating. That’s been a gift to me.
Joe’s always been kind to me. Certainly, I’ve never been afraid of him. That is except for before he came to live with us. Before I knew him I was sometimes afraid. Mostly because I wasn’t sure I really knew how to be good for him, and because I was ignorant of things like autism. Joe has taught me a lot about autism. And David has taught me. And all the people I’ve met since he came into my life have taught me.
So I face most days unafraid, especially of Joe. I have to wonder if anyone else thinks the school made a mistake when they placed a judgment on Joe’s potential, before they got to know him. I wonder if anyone else thinks he deserved a second look; whether shuffling him around from school to school was just lazy or mean?
We were surprised to hear that they were afraid to teach him. I wonder if anyone else thins that zero tolerance discipline policies just might be wrong? Or that when we find we’re approaching the jobs we have to do from a place of fear, if it doesn’t lead us to seek out more information, we soon may be guilty of prejudice. I don’t know. And I don’t know if you, or Joe, or anyone else knows. But maybe if we check the time again, someone will change the rules.”

The ALJ had been gently crying halfway throughout, as had most of the people in the room.

To Be Continued...

Monday, October 08, 2007

Due Process... Day 1

We filed for Due Process against Portland Public Schools on 12/11/2000. Joseph had attended 3 different High Schools here in less than 1 year, and had yet to receive any real education. We decided to represent him ourselves as we were clear on how he’d been denied a free appropriate public education (FAPE), and believed we could prove it in court.

We knew going into it that in Oregon it is rare that school districts lose in these hearings. We also were aware that parents representing their children without an attorney almost never came out on top. In order for us to win this thing on Joseph’s behalf, we would need to learn Special education law. That’s what we set about doing. Actually; Suzanne set about doing that. My time was spent sifting through all the evidence we had that demonstrated dishonesty, sneakiness, and incompetence. Believe me, there was a lot. In fact; the closer we looked at what had gone on, we saw more than we realized was there when we initially filed.

Our best evidence was the communication logs that had been going back and forth between home and school(s) for the last year. We discovered new evidence that we didn’t even realize was there until we began to study these logs. Fortunately; PPS was playing a delay game in going to hearing. This gave us more time to prepare, so we didn’t argue about it. We called 13 witnesses to the stand in the 2 days of the hearing. 9 of these witnesses were employees of the school district. Of these, we believed 7 were directly involved in denying Joseph FAPE. You might say they were hostile witnesses. The district was represented by their own special ed. Attorney (the one who had stepped into the picture when Joe was kicked out of Grant) and an attorney from Miller Nash here in Portland. The hearing took place on May 1st and 2nd 2001. It was held at the Child Service Center, which was by no means any sort of neutral site.

From the moment we walked into the room things were interesting. The lawyer from Miller Nash was extremely snippy; refusing to shake my hand. In response I began singing Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” as we set things out on our table. The district’s lawyer snidely asked Suzanne if she “slept well last night?” They were obviously trying to lift a leg up on us, but it wasn’t working. Suzanne smiled at her and said; “I slept quite well, and you?” The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) entered the room and we began.

The district got things going with their lawyer reading a statement from the Director of Special Ed. She said that she believes everyone loses in a due process hearing. She spoke of how hearings drag educators away from their students, are costly, and that Joseph was merely 1 of 6,300 Special Ed. Students in the district. Her guilt tripping wasn’t working so well, as we believed we were representing those other 6,300 kids in exposing those who supposedly cared about their education.

Next, I made an opening statement. I said that although Joseph had learned very little in PPS, Suzanne and I had learned much from them. We had learned that while they weren’t willing to teach him spelling, cursive writing, or keyboards, they were what seemed like eager to alter or conceal documents pertaining to his education. I then briefly laid out how PPS had denied Joseph FAPE. I pointed out that the location of the hearing was totally non neutral, and that the Director could avoid due process by actually providing an education to students. I closed with talking about how the ALJ had apparently summarized our issues based on the district’s pre hearing brief.

Before we began questioning witnesses I spoke about missing pages in the copy of communication logs in Joseph’s school file which we had obtained prior to the hearing. There were other pages that had been altered and I wanted to make sure we were all on the same page literally. They had also added pages from his communication log that were dated after we had filed. It was basically a mess that took 20 minutes or so to sort through before we could start questioning folks.

Then the ALJ swore in the first witness. It’s important to note that she began each swearing with; “Under penalty of perjury...” Though some of these people blatantly perjured in their testimony, none suffered any sort of penalty for doing so. Suzanne was questioning the Life Skills teacher from Jeff; school #1. She told Suzanne that she had determined Joseph wouldn’t participate in regular ed. Classes after observing him for 2 or 3 weeks in her class. She also used an old IEP (they hadn’t seen his most recent one yet) from California to help her with this determination. She went on to grill the teacher regarding what other students in her class were doing academically. Not much. In her testimony she shared that the ridiculous g educational goals she came up with were based on the 2 weeks she worked with him (along with the other 15 or 20 kids in her class). She also admitted that she believed he was “mentally retarded” which he is not. She was busted by both Suzanne and the ALJ on several contradictions in her testimony and left the stand with a bright red face.

Next, it was my turn. I questioned the vocational staff person from Jeff regarding what led up to the incident with the beefy big dude Joseph supposedly assaulted. He had been the one who initially set Joseph up with this gig. Although Joseph was not doing well with staying out of his coworker’s personal space, this fellow never reported to us that this was going on. He was supposed to, he just didn’t. He also was involved in some altered math related goal documents. A terrible memory this man has. He was unable to recall much of anything that occurred, and continually asked ME questions to refresh his memory.

Suzanne questioned the next witness; Joseph’s Speech Pathologist while attending Jefferson. Her ability to recall was even worse than the witness before her. Suzanne kept her questioning brief as the “I don’t recall” mantra indicated she wasn’t going to share much of anything.

Joseph’s 4 day teacher from Grant was next on our list, and I questioned her primarily about the day of the incident where Joseph was kicked out of Grant. She shared that although no one from Grant knew or trusted Joseph regarding safety issues at that point, they let him go from the worksite by school bus back to the school unaccompanied following his alleged attack of his supervisor. She also testified that she didn’t remember any disciplinary conference with Joseph which is mandatory for a suspension to occur. Her memory regarding time lines was inconsistent, but over all she was helpful.

The Director of Special Education at Portland Public Schools was next up. I questioned her. Firstly; she referred to notes she would take as being what she used as her memory. Also, right up front she wanted to make sure we knew it was the Teacher’s Union that allowed for Joseph being excluded from Grant. I asked her why all the heavy hitters (including herself) were at the meeting following Joseph being kicked out of Grant. It’s not like we asked her, or the 2nd in charge, or Grant’s principle, or 2 area supervisors to attend this meeting. Her reply was that I seemed so angry that they decided they should act fast. Of course they were 1 day beyond the legal limit for keeping Joseph out of school, but I guess her notes didn’t reflect that. I then asked a lot of questions regarding dates of actions taken following that meeting being out of order, not making sense, and being bogus. She claimed ignorance of any such activities. I asked her about her referral to Eastside Education Center. Again, she was unaware that they’d be totally inappropriate for educating Joseph. Halfway through my questioning she came out with; “You know what? I think you’re badgering me now, and you’ve crossed a line.” I could hear the stifled laughter of the special ed. parents who were there as observers in the back of the room. Me thinks she doth protest too much.

The last witness on day 1 was the area supervisor of special ed. in the Jefferson cluster of schools. Suzanne took her on. This administrator and Joseph’s teacher at Jeff had been in direct conflict as to why he had such worthless goals for a year. They each blamed the other for this screw up. This administrator allowed Joseph’s civil rights to be violated at Grant. This administrator was responsible for back dated important documents. Suzanne didn’t go easy on her. She jumped on the director’s band wagon in attempting to portray me as this frighteningly angry man, but nobody was buying it. Of course like her colleagues she couldn’t remember anything until emails, letters and faxes were brought into evidence. Then her memory would come back clear as a bell.

With all the testimony from these professionals we knew we were coming out on top. The lawyers jumped at every opportunity to admonish, correct, and silence us, but it wasn’t working. The ALJ knew we weren’t lawyers, and afforded us the opportunity to ask questions in occasional backward fashion. Overall day 1 went quite well.


Friday, October 05, 2007

Educating Joseph Part III

Marshall High

Joseph began at Marshall High on November 8th, 2000. He was to be assigned an aide, I guess to prevent him from beating people up. The District didn’t get it together to find an alternative location for him to receive academics, so we reluctantly agreed he would get these needs attended to at Marshall along with life skills training. At this point we had very little faith that he would be educated in Portland Public schools, but we had no where else to send him that wasn’t too expensive. We managed to get him a keyboarding class and a Title I math class, but there wasn’t much else they were willing to do.

An aide finally entered the picture during the week of December 4th. He left the picture the next day and a new aide was brought on board. He jumped overboard a week later, and another aide was enlisted. If you don’t know anything about autism, this is probably the most accurate fact you need to know... People with autism need consistency. Especially Joseph. The aide that stuck with him during his 2 cups of coffee at Marshall is the son of the Director of Special Ed.’s assistant. In early January he wrote in Joseph’s communication log that he realized we were new to Joseph’s situation. He’s gonna tell me I’m new to my nephew’s “situation” who I’ve known from birth? Enough about the aides.

Let’s talk about their attorney instead. She began showing up on cc lists within the District in November. I’m not sure if this was an attempt at intimidating us, but the result was that it really pissed us off. By the end of November we were gaining confidence that this school/situation wasn’t going to work out either. Very few of the agreements they made were coming to fruition, even though they were written into Joseph’s ISP. Tension was constantly in the air whenever we dealt with them. By the end of November we decided to look for our own attorney to go after them in Due Process. We found someone who took care of the paper work in filing. She had good intentions, but there was 1 problem. She thought we should settle with them out of court. We weren’t interested in settling. Beside the way these players had denied our nephew a free appropriate public education (FAPE), they were likely to do the same to other kids unless we exposed what they had done.

Joseph continued to be under educated at Marshall until we could no longer watch his time being wasted. He had learned more at home than in the schools he attended here, so we pulled him out and home schooled him until PPS showed a REAL desire to educate him. We’d experienced tampering with documents, lies, sneakiness, and blatant incompetence. I believe some of it was due to fear and insecurity, but I also believe some of it was a result of our taking PPS to court.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Educating Joseph Part II

Before I move on to the second part of this story about my nephew’s Special Ed. experience, I need to straighten something out. He transfered to Grant High in October, not November.

Grant High
Joseph started at Grant High on October 18th, 2000. We had a good feeling about this change. His new teacher had begun to revise his IEP to include some very positive educational goals, and he now had a vocational gig at the Red Cross detailing cars. He’d started there when school resumed and was doing well by all reports. That changed in the blink of an eye with a phone call on the 22nd.

The call came from the Vocational Coordinator at Grant telling me there had been an incident at Red Cross that same morning. I was told that Joseph had “charged” at his supervisor and injured the guy’s hand. A few things need to be mentioned here. Joseph has always been a very gentle fellow. In fact, when he first arrived here we had to work with him on not hugging people all the time or kissing women’s hands. Secondly, his supervisor was this burly big man, who I definitely would not want to meet up with in a dark alley. To this day, this is the ONLY act of aggression he’s ever been accused of in the 8 years he’s lived in Portland. Anyway, the vice principal suspended him from school. The 20th and 21st had been a weekend, so he was suspended on his 3rd day at Grant. As they say in the big leagues, he was there for a cup of coffee.

We received no communication from Grant about the length of the suspension or the disciplinary level that was being applied. We did attend what is called a Manifestation Determination meeting which decides the fates of disabled students who have aggression problems. At the beginning of this meeting the vice principal who suspended Joseph proclaimed; “I just want to lay my cards up front: it doesn’t matter what is decided at this meeting, Joe will no longer be allowed to attend Grant.” Suzanne and I asked “Why not?” He then said; “The decision has already been made. Joe can’t attend Grant.” To which I replied; “Then I will sue you.” By now we were learning Special Ed. law, and knew what he was doing was illegal. We later found out that on the same day of the meeting the VP had signed a transfer slip (not expulsion) to transfer Joseph to “another placement.” Kinda like; “Not in our neighborhood.”

That afternoon Suzanne called the Principal at Grant. She asked if the Principal was in agreement with this decision. She said she didn’t know anything that was said at a meeting she didn’t attend. Her answers to all of Suzanne’s questions were vague, and evasive. Suzanne asked her if an Expulsion Hearing was scheduled and she said it was. We decided that seeing how it was Joseph's disability that caused this behavior (or not) that we weren't going to participate in any such hearing. We never did receive the results of this hearing because we don't believe it ever took place. On November 3rd we were sent a letter from the Area Supervisor saying Joseph was still a student at Grant, but he couldn't return there. Figure that one out.

There was another meeting on November 6th which included the Director of Special Education, her assistant, the Grant principal, the Area Supervisor, and the teacher from Grant. We were told the school district’s Attorney would be there, but she didn’t show up (yet). By now we knew we needed witnesses at these meetings, and had 2 education activists from the Education Crisis Team with us. The Director asked us where we thought an appropriate setting for Joseph was and we answered “Grant.” That didn’t seem to be an option so we asked her what she thought. She told us that Eastside Education Center might be a good option. She also suggested Marshall High and Madison High. We agreed to check these out and get back to her.

The next day I checked out Marshall and Madison. Of the 2, Marshall seemed less bad, so we decided to send Joseph there, where he would work on life skills. We were looking at Eastside for academics but couldn’t get in to see them. I finally got in on November 29th to talk to the folks there. No one on their staff had ever worked with students having autism. That’s probably because it was a school for juvenile delinquents and kids with serious emotional/mental illness. We came to the conclusion that the Director of Special Education either didn’t know what she was doing, or she was trying to set Joseph up with a profile of a very troubled person. On December 11th we formally filed for Due Process.

To Be Continued...

Monday, October 01, 2007

Educating Joseph

I’ve decided to write the story of my nephew’s adventures in Portland Public Schools Special Education. As I told another writer this morning, the general public seems to be under the impression that because a child or adult with a disability is receiving supports in the community, they MUST be doing ok. I believe it’s the JOB of those of us who know the real skinny to educate folks on the reality of life in a dysfunctional system. This is a long story that I’m going to break up into smaller segments. Sort of like a sitcom, which is what this experience was like any way. This first part will be called:

Jefferson High

My sister died at the age of 44, leaving behind a 16 year old Autistic son. Prior to her death there was much family discussion as to what would be best for him once she was gone. It was decided that he’d move to Oregon from California to live with my wife and I. After all, I’d been working with folks having disabilities for the previous 13 years, and had a good idea how to best assist him in making the transition from boyhood to manhood. That’s the promise I made my sis as she lay on her death bed.

This happened back in December of 1999. He flew into Sea-Tac Airport with a friend of his mom’s on December 23rd. I remember the first look we had of him. He was sitting on the floor with a blue blanket, rocking and looking totally freaked out. I turned to Suzanne and whispered; “we have our work cut out for us.”

I’d already done most of the up front work of getting him enrolled in school before he arrived. I’d met with school officials to discuss his individualized needs, and they decided it would be best to place him in a Life Skills Special Education classroom. I figured that they were the experts and went along with their recommendation. He started at Jefferson High right after the Winter break.

It took a bit of time to get all his paperwork from the Cali. School, but by March we received his Individualized Education Plan. As we looked it over, we were amazed at the difference between what he’d been doing at Alameda High and what he was doing at Jeff. He’d been doing pre Algebra (he has a real knack with numbers), was being taught to read, was manning a nacho cart with assistance, and was doing some courier work around the school on his own. Here he was counting plastic pennies, identifying signs (like “Stop” and “Men’s Room”), was participating in what seemed like weekly cupcake parties, and had 30 minutes of Speech and Language therapy weekly. This was what was decided as "appropriate" for a student whose bigest barrier was communication We shared this document with his teacher, but she didn’t seem overly concerned.

We decided that if we were going to get this kid educated we’d need to be more proactive and insistent. We began meeting with the Special Ed. Folks on a fairly regular basis. We set him up with a communication log that went back and forth between home and school each day. They’d write in it what he did that day, and we’d provide input, ask questions, or comment on his progress (or lack thereof). We figured a paper trail might come in handy some day. It wasn’t going well.

By the end of the school year we were on the cusp of disgust. He continued being entertained but not educated, and our frustration with the school was no secret. Following assurances that the next school year would be better, he started back in September following Summer school. Of course, very little was different, and our pleas to have them work off his old IEP fell on deaf ears. By November we’d had it. We met with Administrators and had him transferred over to Grant High.

To Be Continued...