Elephant in the Room: Who Is Worthy of an Education?

The Elephant in the Room is a new series written by LAF attorneys discussing their experience representing individuals in situations impacted by systemic racism. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

kidsPop quiz: who should decide which children deserve access to special education assistance?

  1. A) Parents
  2. B) Teachers
  3. C) Medical professionals
  4. D) Process improvement experts

If you are in charge of the country’s third largest school district you opt for process improvement experts who have no experience in special education or the unique needs of Chicago Public School students. Recently, a WBEZ investigation revealed how Chicago Public Schools underwent a secretive process to overhaul their procedures on how students may access special education services. CPS, through its process improvement auditors, created a “Procedural Manual” aiming to equally distribute services with more standardization. However, the new procedures ultimately resulted in CPS providing less financial support for all schools along with higher burdens placed on parents who must advocate and fight for their children’s services. According to the WBEZ report, the auditors focused less on connecting students with needed services and more on identifying ways to reduce costs by cutting services the auditors deemed unnecessary. Worse yet, CPS did not inform most parents of the manual’s existence leaving them in the dark as to why their children’s essential services were denied. CPS students are primarily students of color, living in poverty. It’s common for poor minorities to be viewed with suspicion when they seek help, yet one would think that small children with disabilities would be excluded from this type of distrust. Sadly, they are not. CPS’ new process resulted in an increase of hurdles, requirements, and delays in desperately needed services. Students with disabilities and their families, already marginalized, suffered the brunt of this harmful new policy.

For those of us that practice in special education law the result is no surprise. Students of color, particularly black students, are frequently left out of the Special Ed equation. They are less likely to be referred to programs; less likely to be given modifications and accommodations; and schools with high populations of minority students are less likely to receive the funding necessary to provide for those students with special needs. The lack of access to appropriate special education services leads to more problems. For example, students with unidentified and unmet social-emotional needs are commonly subjected to discriminatory school disciplinary actions and exclusions. Others students simply fall behind academically and are unable to fully participate in their education.

LAF has been at the forefront of this issue for years. In 2013, we sued CPS for discriminating against children with disabilities, seeking a court order to stop one of the 49 school closures that occurred that year. Those closures resulted in a disparate impact on students with disabilities, because the formula that CPS used to select schools for closure did not include a reasonable accommodation for schools that served large populations of students with disabilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Now students with disabilities face a new barrier to appropriate services.  Last school year, when CPS created the Procedural Manual, CPS parents began to call us to help their children, who suddenly were going without their much needed resources. We advocated for dozens of individual clients who were denied special education services due to the new goals set forth by this manual.  We also began fighting for transparency and systemic change. We collaborated with other local agencies including Access Living, Legal Council for Health Justice, Equip for Equality, and the Children’s Law Group. After months of advocacy, CPS amended their manual with some improvement. However, there is still a long fight ahead to ensure that our city’s most vulnerable youth are granted access to programs and assistance they so desperately need. LAF intends to continue our fight both for our individual clients and for larger systemic change — so that all CPS students with disabilities are given the services they are entitled to under the law.

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The Intersection of Domestic Violence, Families, and the Law

IMG_1380Last week, the Young Professionals Boards of LAF and the Family Defense Center (FDC) co-hosted a panel discussion on domestic violence (DV) and family law at the University of Chicago Law School. Moderated by FDC Staff Attorney Líadan Donnelly, the panel included LAF Staff Attorney Teresa Sullivan, former LAF attorney Elise Tincher who now works as Chicago Pro Bono Counsel at Kirkland & Ellis, and Ashley Parr, an associate at Barnes & Thornburg who recently represented a survivor of domestic violence in an important pro bono case with FDC.

Ashley’s client was a young mother and survivor of DV charged with neglect for endangering her child by being in an abusive relationship. Their child had never been subjected to his abuse, but the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) found both parents equally responsible for creating a dangerous environment and charged them both with neglect. Ashley and FDC got involved and represented the mother in her appeals hearing. “DCFS argued their neglect finding was appropriate because she didn’t move out immediately, didn’t do enough to keep her child safe,” Ashley explains. But she had been looking for work, calling shelters, going to police stations to get information on obtaining an Order of Protection—all of which are measures she took to keep her child safe. “Their finding of neglect would just ensure she has a more difficult time providing for her child on her own,” says Ashley. The judge agreed, overturning DCFS’ finding of neglect and removing it from the young mom’s record. In her decision, the judge incorporated many of the actions their client took that Ashley’s team identified as precautionary measures, meaning survivors blamed for neglect can rely on them as evidence in future cases.

For most people with any understanding of DV issues, punishing the survivor for not being able to break free from abuse seems entirely backwards. “Something I hear a lot from clients is, ‘I was so happy when DCFS showed up at my door—I thought they were going to help me. But I’m never calling the police again because now I might lose custody of my kids’,” Líadan says. “If the judge doesn’t understand the dynamics of DV and the fact that it’s a cycle, they might say, ‘you should have left immediately’ or you should have done this or that—which is we we’re trying more and more to bring in DV experts who can explain these dynamics to the judges.”

That’s why private firms, legal aid organizations, and advocacy groups have been on the front lines fighting to change how we protect survivors. In fact, Illinois recently replaced a DCFS rule known as Allegation 60, which criminalized survivors to an even greater extent. Kirkland & Ellis was one group at the helm of that advocacy work. “We had close to 50 of our attorneys from 7 different offices working on a 50-state survey to assist with changing Allegation 60 and getting better support for survivors of DV through the DCFS process,” says Elise. The new rule took effect in 2014 and requires DCFS to demonstrate that a parent blatantly disregarded their duty to protect their child by failing to take “reasonable precautionary measures,” like those that Ashley’s client took while she was fighting to break free from abuse.

And while it’s easy to forget, the Illinois Domestic Violence Act is actually one of best DV laws in the country—it provides survivors exclusive possession of their residence and charges police officers with an “affirmative duty” to help them when presented with domestic violence situations. In fact, LAF recently filed an amicus brief for a case in which police officers failed to carry out that duty when a victim’s son called the police for help. “All the police did was ask one question: are you scared? She didn’t respond, so they didn’t offer to take her to get an OP or connect her with any resources,” Teresa explains. The trial court essentially held that because the son didn’t use the magic words ‘domestic violence,’ police didn’t have an affirmative duty to offer her help. “But that affirmative duty is set up because DV victims tend not to self-identify. They often don’t affirmatively seek help,” Teresa says. “We think the law is set up appropriately but are advocating it be applied more universally, to help victims and survivors get the resources they need.”