Mom Advocates for Daughter's Special Needs: Interview with Debbie Gin

In this interview, an adoptive parent shares her story about how she secured the school district’s funding to partially cover the costs of residential treatment for her daughter’s special needs.


“It’s kind of sad but you need to have several failures in order to determine that residential treatment is the last and only resort. You only get help when your child has hit rock bottom. As a mother, I know in my heart if my daughter was not in residential treatment she might not be alive today.” Adoptive Mom


Q: If you could share one message with other parents as they begin this process, what would that be?


A: Never give up hope. Always have a plan B.  If the school says no to a psychological evaluation, don’t give up. If the school doesn’t agree to your requests, get an educational advocate. When the school says no, get a lawyer, go to mediation, and, if necessary, go to court. Never stop fighting for your child, because they can’t fight for themselves at this time in their life.


We all have to help each other. It’s too much to handle alone. We shouldn’t be embarrassed or feel we are failures because our kids have special needs or require a residential treatment center (RTC) We are all stronger for the RTC experience— teens, parents, and siblings.


Q: How did you get funding for residential treatment from the school district?


A: There are a lot of factors involved. FAPE, a law that says every child should have a free and appropriate public education, is the only protection a student has. If the school district cannot provide a free public education, then they have to find other school options. You have to prove that your child has special needs that the school district cannot fulfill, in order to receive funding.


It’s a very long process. I would suggest that parents start early doing documentation from the very beginning. You need to keep a file of all your written documents for the school district such as psychological testing, medical records and hospitalizations. Several years ago the law stated that County Mental Health would determine if your child qualified for special services. Then Schwarzenegger came in and made it the sole responsibility of the school district to make a determination.


It was better when the County Mental Health system was involved because people understood mental illness. The school district doesn’t really understand mental illness. They have very limited resources to fund the masses. It’s very difficult for them to fund one child.


Q: What prompted you to start the process?


A: My daughter is adopted and she is very bright. It’s very hard to get the school district to provide services when the child is not falling behind academically. She was the star of the week in elementary school. Her reading level was very high. Her English scores and writing were very good.  She wasn’t starting fights or being disruptive in class, however, she couldn’t get along with other kids. She didn’t have any friends and the kids were teasing her.


I thought it was because she was adopted; but I didn’t really know the extent of it. She didn’t have many friends and when she did have them she couldn’t keep them. She did sports for ten years and most of her friends were her teammates. It was during middle school that a lot of the behaviors started coming out. She started to have terrible temper tantrums. She would get upset and yell and scream, pull out her cabinets, and throw all her clothes on the floor. She pulled her bookshelves down to the ground.


Q: Was she mostly acting out at home?


A: Yes. They didn’t see it at school; if they had, it would have been a little easier. I started working with the school and they start you very slowly. They begin with SST (Student Success Tract). They let the teachers know to watch the kid, but offer no special services. I asked for my daughter to be evaluated but they wouldn’t evaluate her. I asked for an individual IEP and the school denied me. We went for a year or two without an IEP because she wasn’t acting out at school. It got so bad that she was hospitalized. She started cutting and didn’t want to go to school. She went to John Muir Hospital where she was admitted for depression, reactive attachment disorder, and oppositional defiance.  Because she was twelve, she had to be taken by ambulance from our home to a special facility for children in Walnut Creek. You have to be fourteen or older to be admitted to an adolescent facility.


When she came out of the hospital I asked for an IEP, and they still said no because she was not behind academically. I asked for an evaluation and they said no. If you want an IEP you need to request it early in the year, September or October. I always started in April and May because she would be okay at the beginning of the year, but towards the end of the year her acting out escalated and then we lost time because of the summer break.


Parents need to start the process early in the fall semester because then you have a year to work the system. The sooner you start, the better.


Q: Would it have been helpful if you had an educational advocate?


A: I did have a very good one. She worked in the school district and how to help parents. She has a collaborative way of working with the schools and is well respected. When it’s an adversarial relationship things don’t go as well. I liked her style; she was very effective.


Q: What did the advocate accomplish for you?


A: She went to the meetings with me. When you meet with the school, I recommend having an advocate because they take you more seriously.  A lot of the parents go in without understanding what’s going on and it can be overwhelming. After the second hospitalization the school said let’s have an IEP meeting. I am glad I had an advocate because when I walked into the room there was the Special Education Teacher, Speech Therapist, Psychologist, Middle School Assistant Principal, High School Special Education Representative, County Mental Health Psychologist and more. The advocate speaks their language. There is no way a parent can represent their child’s case. They act like the parent isn’t there. I didn’t understand what I should ask for.


Since they wouldn’t evaluate her I had a psychological assessment done privately.  I had to fight with my insurance to get it covered. That took many months. I was able to have a psychologist do an assessment. Her psychiatrist and her therapist said get an IEP which helped me to get the IEP. The school eventually said she qualified for an IEP under special education for emotional disturbance.


I finally got the IEP when she was finishing middle school and going into high school.  With an IEP they start with the least restrictive setting. They assigned her one class of Special Education and one hour a week with the County School Psychologist.


In the fall, at age 14, when she started high school she had only been there one month when she went into the hospital for the third time. Going to a large public school was overwhelming for her.


On her third hospitalization the staff at John Muir told me, “If your daughter’s been hospitalized three times then she’s not stable. She really needs residential treatment.” That was three hospitalizations within two years. The school needs professional documentation from the hospital to recommend residential treatment. It’s kind of sad but you need to have several failures in order to determine that residential treatment is the last and only resort. You only get help when your child has hit rock bottom.


The school district doesn’t understand our children and their special needs.   

A lot of the therapeutic boarding schools are $8,000 - $10,000 a month.  That’s a lot of money and many of the students are there for a long period of time. It could be as much as $200,000. Do you know how much the school district can do with $200,000?  They could hire counselors or teachers, have a music, art or sports program. They are very reluctant to give it to one child.


Q: How did you find the right setting for your daughter?


A: After my daughter’s third hospitalization I hired an educational consultant. They recommended three different schools. They interviewed her to find out what type of setting she was comfortable in. They didn’t feel she needed wilderness because she was very willing to go straight into residential. She knew things weren’t going well and she needed help. There are a lot of students who benefit from wilderness. The school district will not reimburse the cost for wilderness and some kids stay 6-10 weeks or more which can cost up to $40,000.


When you transfer your child out of public school into residential treatment and you want reimbursement; you need to alert the school district. Usually they do an emergency IEP meeting to discuss it. Since my daughter was already in the hospital I had no time to discuss it. I had to take her directly to the residential treatment center upon her discharge.


Another important point is, if you want your school district to reimburse you, you need to select a “California Approved” residential treatment program. Not all residential programs will be reimbursable by your school district.  The residential program must be evaluated and pass stringent California school requirements.


Q: Did you hire an attorney?


A: Yes. I hired a lawyer with years of experience in special education litigations. He drew up a legal document called a Unilateral Transfer, which means that time is of the essence and it’s a life-threatening situation. We met with the school district after I returned from placing her in an out of state school.  The school district had just granted my daughter an IEP at the end of 8th grade.  She was only in high school two months when she was hospitalized.


The school district didn’t want to send her away yet. It was a big fight, because I had to prove that my daughter needed residential treatment. The school district wanted me to go step-by-step.  They wanted her to go to special education classes first, and if that failed, go on to a therapeutic day school through the school district. If that option failed, then she would go to a residential treatment center.


As a parent, I really couldn’t afford to take a chance on that because my child was getting worse. Who knows? She already made a suicide attempt. I couldn’t afford to have her unsupervised. She needed a structured environment with intensive therapy and medication monitoring. She needed an environment where she didn’t feel stressed out and safe enough so she could heal and learn coping schools.


Q: Did you pay out of pocket for the residential treatment center?


A: I paid out of pocket for six or seven months. The school district wanted to stretch it out as long as possible. They tried to frustrate me and discourage me to quit the process. The next meeting with the school district, my lawyer wasn’t present. The advocate came with me. The school district thought they could offer the same services as a residential program through their therapeutic day school and wrap around services.


I didn’t think that was going to work. Who was going to watch her at night? That was when she was the most vulnerable. When you come to a disagreement, then you go into mediation. The school district hired a mediator who listened to both parties and tried to help both sides come to an agreement.


Q: What happened during the mediation process?


A: At the first mediation meeting, the school district didn’t have my daughter’s medical records yet. They asked for all of her signed releases. That was one wasted meeting. Then we had another meeting. They said, they hadn’t heard from the doctor and others. I said, I have copies of everything. I had a huge binder, probably 500 pages, and I gave it to them to copy.


We met a third time and they kept on delaying. They wanted to know why she couldn’t go to a program in California? Why did she have to go out of state? In reality, the California schools are just as expensive as those in other states, but the school district prefers them.


It took us several meetings going back and forth. We arrived at an impasse. The next step would be to go to a hearing, which is very expensive. It’s a week-long process. They hire a judge. They call all the professionals, the psychiatrists, therapists, and teachers. The psychiatrists and therapists don’t want to testify in court because they are concerned with liability issues.


The school district initially offered a lesser amount because they didn’t think I was serious about going to court and I told my lawyer, “I’m going all the way to the hearing if necessary. ” I had 6 strong letters from 2 physicians, 2 therapists, an educational consultant and a residential academic director, who all recommended residential treatment for my daughter.


I think that when the school district realized I was serious about going to take it to court they started counting the cost involved. It’s very expensive. That’s seven days of court, seven days for our legal system, seven days for the lawyer, and the fees were probably higher than they wanted to pay.


Q: How did you eventually get funding from the district?


A: We had another meeting. It went back and forth. Eventually my lawyer withdrew our first petition and submitted a new petition saying we would sue the middle school and the high school. So we were going to sue two school districts. That was a stronger case because the cost was split between two school districts. We went to mediation again and finally won the case.


They gave me a lump sum. It will cover about half of the cost of treatment. I fought the one time settlement. However, my lawyer encouraged me to accept the offer. He said it’s very difficult emotionally to go to hearing. When you go to the stand they are going to blame you for some of the family issues. The court’s decision is a crap shoot, because every judge is going to rule a little differently. When you go to court you may get more, or you may get less.


You are emotionally and financially drained. If your settlement is less than the school district’s initial offer, you have to pay all the legal costs for your lawyer. If your settlement is more than the school’s initial offer, the school district will pay your legal costs.


Q: What parameters did the school district require?


A: The school district made me sign an agreement that said, the district was not at fault.  It’s a no fault situation.


Q: Do you have any final thoughts that you want to share?


A: There are so many variables to get funding from your school district. Every case is different. Each school district is different. One school district may grant you full funding while the same case in another school district, might grant noting. My lawyer offered me another option, in that, if I could not get any funding I could move and we would start the case all over again in a new school district.


Residential treatment is very expensive and it places an additional burden on the parent in an already stressful situation. Every month I had to scramble to put enough money together to pay for the monthly tuition. There are also additional costs involved—airfare, hotels, rental cars, food, and shopping.


Once I got some funding, I could relax a bit and spend my energy more wisely in family therapy and really working to improve my relationship with my daughter. She’s slowly getting better. She will never be 100% but this treatment is helping her to have a better chance in life, to be happier, and successful.