Military helps families find care for special-needs kids

Military families who move from post to post have in the past struggled to get consistent support for their special needs children. Recently the Army and Marine Corps began providing caseworkers and legal aid to help parents negotiate for more resources.
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 28, 2009

When her husband, a Marine Corps colonel, was transferred last summer from the Pentagon to a base in southern California, Karen Driscoll was forced to confront her autistic child's new school district and the intricacies of federal special education law.

The Poway Unified School District near San Diego offered Driscoll's 11-year-old, Paul, the support of an aide for 10 hours a week -- fewer than half the 21 hours Fairfax County had provided and said he deserved under federal law.

"They slashed his services in half and said, 'We believe this is comparable,' " Driscoll said.

Until recently, Driscoll would have had to fight the school district alone. But under a new Marine Corps initiative, she had reinforcements: a caseworker and a special education attorney, provided by the military, to accompany her to meetings with school officials and, if need be, to court.

That initiative is part of a larger military effort, led by the Marines and the Army, to address the medical, educational and emotional challenges faced by special-needs families.

"The Marine Corps is really standing behind our military families and saying, 'We will take care of you and help you through this process,' " Driscoll said. With the U.S. military in the room, she said, the Poway school district seemed more willing to negotiate. Without setting foot in a courtroom, Paul was assigned a full-time aide.

The Defense Department says that about 220,000 active-duty and reserve service members have dependents with special needs, but only 90,000 are enrolled in the military's main program to serve them. For the past two decades, the program has ensured that families are transferred only to bases that have doctors available to address their needs. That has prompted concern among service members that it will interfere with promotions and has caused the program to be underutilized.

But in 2007, the Army began offering as much as 40 hours a month of free respite care for soldiers who have dependents with disabilities. The Marine Corps followed suit in 2008 and then went further, creating about 60 new positions at installations across the country to help Marines and their families make the transition from place to place more smoothly.

Each Marine Corps family is assigned a caseworker who helps them understand each state's differing disability regulations and navigate the bewildering process of accessing special education services. Three staff attorneys have been designated to help parents with legal issues related to disabilities, including pressing school districts for those services.

"They needed to do something so that service members could deploy without worrying," said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the Alexandria-based National Military Family Association.

Negotiating with school districts over special education services is particularly difficult, families said. Federal law guarantees a free, appropriate public education for students with disabilities, but what that means is a matter of interpretation and varies widely. When parents want something other than what the district offers, there's little recourse without going to court -- a lengthy and expensive proposition for a family that likely will move again in fewer than three years.

"Special education, the way it's set up right now, it's very hard for parents to hold school systems accountable," said Air Force spouse Jeremy Hilton, who has moved five times with Kate, his 7-year-old daughter with special medical and educational needs.

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