“Our kids are not their kids,” says Veronica Mijangos, an Eagle Rock mom of two. That’s why parents of children with disabilities advocate, push, spend hours combing the internet, bug doctors and teachers, join support groups and, yes, sometimes, even seek legal help.
Most parents face challenges now and again and have to become their children’s defenders. But parents like Mijangos, whose 7-year-old son, Lucas, has autism, occasionally hit a brick wall in their quest to ensure their children have happy, healthy, productive and prosperous futures.
“It’s hard to do it alone,” Mijangos says. Her challenge? Finding the appropriate educational services for Lucas, who initially was diagnosed with a speech delay and received his autism diagnosis at age 5. Mijangos worked with the school and secured placement for Lucas in a special-education classroom, but Lucas began regressing. So, during her lunch hours and breaks from her full-time job at a call center, Mijangos did research and kept making calls. She reached out to Eli Economou, CEO and managing partner of Covina-based Economou Law Group, which focuses on education law.
“I just thought he was someone who would advocate for me; I didn’t know he was a lawyer,” Mijangos says. But hiring a lawyer to help her navigate the twists and turns of special education turned out to be the right move for Lucas.
Because most children spend the majority of their waking hours at school, the educational system is often where parents encounter the most frustration – and where legal help often comes into play. School districts don’t always adhere to applicable laws, which also are subject to interpretation. And the administrators and teachers who should be part of the solution are often overworked and undersupported. “L.A. is a big machine. Children may fall through the cracks,” says Sauda Johnson, an L.A.-based attorney who runs her own firm and focuses on special-education law.
Making the call
Because of the complicated nature of special-needs law, Johnson stresses that parents can avoid some discomfort by calling in legal help as early as possible. “The ideal world is if you can afford an attorney, you can bring us in from day one,” she says. Although attorneys are expensive and it’s not always practical, she says you might be able to avoid filing due process claims and going to court.
Hiring a special-education lawyer can ensure that your school district will pay attention to you, but at what point should you pick up the phone? “For some families,” says Valerie Vanaman of Newman Aaronson Vanaman LLP, “it’s as soon as after a child has been identified as having special needs, to explain what this process is going to look like.” For others, the need for legal help doesn’t arise until parents have difficulty getting their school district to agree to assess a child. “We’re finding that more and more,” says Vanaman, whose firm is one of the oldest special-education law firms in the U.S.
For parents whose children are assessed and deemed eligible for services, the next step is an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Economou says creating an IEP, which is designed to meet the child’s unique educational needs, should be a team endeavor. And disagreements between the family and the district over what the IEP should include are another thing that spurs parents to call a lawyer.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was passed in 1990 to replace the Education of Handicapped Children Act of 1975, says that children should be placed in the least restrictive environment appropriate for them. Sometimes, parents and school districts disagree over whether the district’s IEP proposal for a child meets that requirement. “So, parents elect to file for due process on the basis that what’s been offered is too restrictive,” Vanaman says. Economou adds that parents often get stonewalled when a school or a district tells them it’s underfunded, which he says happens because of mismanaging of programs for students with disabilities. “If they say they don’t have the money, that’s an excuse,” Economou says.
The IEP and beyond
Hiring a lawyer to sit in during an IEP meeting can help cut to the chase, but not every lawyer agrees that this approach is the best option for all parties involved.
“There are various elements involved in that process,” Vanaman says, adding that it can depend on the parents’ relationships with the school and those involved in the IEP process. “For the first IEP meeting, some want to have an attorney there to see how it’s done and then don’t need it after that,” she says. “Others reach a state where they distrust or feel they’re not doing right by them and decide, ‘You know what? I think we need an attorney.’”
Johnson says she likes to go to the initial IEP meeting so that she can guide parents through that part of the process. “But understand, it changes the nature of your relationship with the teachers,” she says.
Economou says he attends IEP meetings on a case-by-case basis. “My presence tends to make it so no one is terribly comfortable sharing,” he says. If parents don’t bring a lawyer to the meeting, Economou says he recommends that they have a lawyer review the IEP before they sign it. “Go, participate, ask questions, but don’t sign consent the day of,” he advises. “Then, you get the best of both worlds: a fruitful meeting but also the benefit of having us review it.”
Leaving an IEP meeting without a signed IEP can be uncomfortable for some parents, but Johnson notes that IEPs are subject to the stay-put rule, meaning that a child’s previous IEP remains in effect and the school has to comply with it until a new IEP is agreed upon and signed.
Sometimes, even with an agreed-upon IEP in place, parents need to seek legal help. This can happen if the family doesn’t feel the child is progressing or responding well to the services the school is providing. That was Mijangos’ case: Lucas was placed in a classroom for children with disabilities, but she didn’t feel as though it was the right environment for him. “He was a child in-between,” she says. “He was too high-functioning for the class he was in. He was picking up bad habits.”
Mijangos called Economou, who helped her get Lucas placed in a school and a classroom where he’s now thriving. “He’s flourished. He’s learning how to read and he’s good at math,” she says. “And he’s making friends.”
Why parents hesitate
As parents, advocating for our children is one of our most all-encompassing jobs. But picking up the phone to call an attorney isn’t always in our nature. Parents sometimes “naively believe that they can work out things with the district,” Vanaman says.
Cost can be another factor, but finding legal help doesn’t always mean spending big bucks. “Don’t be afraid to call an attorney just to talk,” Johnson says. “Some charge for consultation, but I don’t.” One call might be enough to give you an understanding of what your next steps should be if you’re hitting a wall with the school or the district.
Johnson adds that if you think you need legal guidance and advocacy through the IEP process or in other areas, you can talk to a lawyer about setting up a payment plan. And you might avoid having to go to court if you bring in a lawyer earlier. “At least call and get some guidance,” she says. “Don’t be afraid.”
Economou says that some lawyers offer free classes and training sessions that can connect parents with important information. And he adds that parents who do end up suing for services can recoup legal expenses if they win their case.
Cost aside, some parents are just reluctant to hand over the reins of the process to an outside party. “We’re like bulls in a china shop,” Johnson says. “There can be conflict; my job is to figure out what’s in the best interest of the child and what they’re legally entitled to, not what parents want.”
Securing their future
However uncomfortable the process might be, Mijangos says that it’s worth the trouble. “We can’t be complacent. We want to see them grow,” she says. “My son wouldn’t be where he is today if I hadn’t pushed.”
For Mijangos, her struggles with the district and the schools weren’t just about getting Lucas into the appropriate classroom for the school year. She and other parents like her are focused on planning for their children’s futures. That starts with making sure they have the same opportunities that other children do and have access to the services that make those opportunities possible. Mijangos says she is putting in the hard work now so that her son will have a bright future.
Connecting with a good lawyer can also help at other points in your child’s journey. Economou says parents often consult a lawyer to help establish a conservatorship, which becomes important when a child turns 18 and is legally considered an adult in many cases. “Parents look to get conservatorships to facilitate decision making,” he says. “The school district will say, ‘Hey, he’s 18. He can sign his own IEP.’”
A lawyer can help with estate planning, too, as well as to establish a special-needs trust to ensure your child continues to receive the services and support he needs throughout his adult life. “I’m not going to be here forever,” Mijangos says, adding that having an attorney has helped her find services she didn’t even know about.
With or without an attorney, Mijangos advises parents to take classes and accept any additional help that’s offered – and to keep up on research. “Educate yourself and learn what your rights are,” she says. “I had to call so many different places and so many numbers to get anything started. Never give up. It gets hard, and you feel like there’s no light in the tunnel. But our kids are worth it.”
Carolyn Graham is a freelance writer and mom of two. Her work has appeared in L.A. Parent and a variety of other publications.