Surrogate Parents Fill Needs of Special Kids; Children with Learning Disabilities Gain Extra Help from Volunteers

Article excerpt

Byline: DEIRDRE CONNER

When children become wards of the state, a flood of new people come into their lives - investigators, caseworkers, psychologists, guardians and foster parents. But when those children have learning disabilities, none of those people can make important decisions about their education or ask for testing that would get them extra help.

Their family lives in upheaval, facing multiple moves and sometimes multiple schools, all foster children are at risk of falling behind in school. Throw in the possibility of having a learning or other disability, and it can be a recipe for disaster.

Enter the "surrogate parent."

A relatively new phenomenon in the field, a surrogate parent is appointed either by the school district or a dependency judge to advocate for the education of children with special schooling needs. They don't take the place of foster parents, though: They aren't there to house the child, sign field trip forms or help with homework. They can request testing, meet to set a course for the child's education and fight to make sure they get the help they need in school.

"These are kids whose needs are great and whose resources are few," said Judge Karen Cole, who is coordinating the recruitment and training of more volunteer surrogate parents.

JUDGES APPOINT SURROGATES

New rules now require judges to appoint a surrogate parent for all foster children who have or are suspected of having a disability. The main problem, advocates say, is that there aren't enough surrogate parents to go around. Some volunteers have up to five surrogates, whereas no more than three would be preferable. Guardians and foster parents can sometimes be appointed as a child's surrogate parent.

When foster children get in trouble at school and later get arrested, the problem often can be traced back to undiagnosed learning disabilities or lack of appropriate education, said Rebekah Gleason, an expert in special education law and associate professor at Florida Coastal School of Law. Intervening earlier leads to fewer lawsuits and fewer "crossover kids," a term used to describe foster children who end up into the juvenile justice system.

Beverly Brown, a former surrogate parent to three students, said that ensuring special services early means kids will have fewer problems later in life. She points to a little boy she was appointed to help a couple of years ago.

He had been held back in kindergarten, was in four schools in a two-month period and was committed to a psychiatric ward - twice.

Now, because of special interventions, he has an A grade in conduct, Brown said.

"I was able to step in and say, 'I want him tested, now,' " Brown said. "For the most part the school is just dying to have someone take responsibility, too."

That's true, said Sherry Kaufman, who coordinates the surrogate parent appointments for Duval County Public Schools.

There are no specific requirements for surrogate parents, and they come from a wide range of experiences, Kaufman said: They are everyone from retired principals to parents of special needs children who have opened their hearts to help another. …