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A Cry for Help by Sherri Rodriguez

Posted Apr 12 2009 11:39pm

As this country faces the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, President Obama has wisely called for investing in America's future by making fundamental reforms to healthcare and education. Our educational system--once the envy of the world--has failed our children but none more so than children with special needs.

Many teachers and school administrators have dedicated their lives to helping children with learning disabilities and emotional trauma. However, their efforts bear little fruit when these children lack access to an effective educational environment. In overhauling public education, we must also tackle the systemic obstacles and underlying budgetary constraints that prevent a special needs child from getting the kind of education and support required to become a productive member of society.

As adoptive parents, my husband and I are acutely familiar with the hurdles before lower and middle class families trying to educate a troubled child in the public school system. We adopted our son [Michael] from Russia when he was nine years old, and on the surface, he appeared to be a healthy, eager to please and charming young boy. Michael was a modern day Oliver Twist. Raised in an orphanage where he cared for other children, we were told that he had been living there for two years but discovered during the adoption, that he had actually resided in several orphanages for five years. We were also provided with documentation that Michael did not have any siblings and later learned as we were about to bring him home to the United States, that he did in fact have a younger brother in another orphanage who suffered severe physical and mental developmental delays.

After welcoming Michael into our family with open arms, we began our journey on what seems to have become an emotional roller coaster. While we thought that by providing him with a safe and nurturing environment where he would acclimate to his surroundings and thrive, we've discovered the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, coupled with neglect in a Russian orphanage have left him mentally and emotionally unstable.

Six years later, we are only gradually learning the truth about his background and why he suffered from a myriad of neurological, emotional and mental problems. We sought help for our son's learning disabilities and emotional problems by getting him extensive private psychological counseling, private psychiatric non-insurance covered specialists, private evaluations, and academic assistance, severely straining our modest income. Eventually, I was forced to stop working so that I could become a full-time advocate on Michael's behalf.

Extensive testing and multiple clinical reports showed unequivocally that Michael required a small, structured therapeutic day school, not only to minimize his at-risk behaviors (he is self-mutilating, punching brick walls, cutting himself, stealing, and threatening suicide) but also to enable him to become a happy and usefully whole human being. Without such a supportive environment, we were told that Michael's future was imprisonment or suicide.

It's hard to imagine what Michael endured before he became a precious part of our lives. In addition to fetal alcohol syndrome, Michael suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and reactive attachment disorder as a result of early abuse and neglect. When a child fails to be nurtured in his formative years, a component that is critical to emotional and mental development, he also fails to build self-esteem and acquire social skills. Survival becomes his overriding objective, and my husband and I are dealing with the collateral damage of this terrible reality every single day.

However, despite the diagnosis and recommendations by accredited hospitals, psychiatrists and therapeutic counselors, the public school system in our county has chosen to ignore the conclusions of Michael's MANY professional assessments, which have all advised placement in a therapeutic day school. Instead, our public school has joined the ranks of those schools which, in President Obama's words, are engaging in a "race to the bottom," by giving Michael an academic model that artificially inflates his grades--despite his poor performance--and is dangerous to his emotional well being. Rosa Parks Middle School has recorded these mutilations and incidences at school, as accidents, despite horrifying pictures of cut carvings on flesh and wounds we have taken as proof which counters any possibility of a child falling, or another natural or unfortunate accident.

The school's decision has nothing to do with education and everything to do with the bottom line. The State of Maryland partially reimburses Montgomery County for providing resources to children with special needs. Each time a child leaves a school to go into an outside program that the county has to subsidize, it reflects negatively upon the school. Thus, the budget of the Montgomery County public school is driven by a school's success in keeping these outplacement statistics low, thereby furthering the incentive to provide less service.

Middle class parents like ourselves, are left with three almost impossible alternatives to this heartbreaking dilemma. We can try to prove that our son's placement is not appropriate but his mental health is often unpredictable or measurable; we can place our child in a private therapeutic school, or hire a specialized high-end attorney to fight our case--but these latter two options are far beyond our means.

Children such as Michael fall through the cracks every day. Denied access to available therapeutic and educational support, they engage in risky behaviors that often land them in prison, where they join a growing population of inmates who cost the taxpayers significant dollars while putting their lives as well as the well-being of others at risk. Wouldn't our tax dollars be better spent by providing the right educational environment for all our children so that kids like Michael become contributing members to our society instead of a tragic casualty of cynical budget decision makers?

As Americans, we have witnessed the effects of school systems that have failed mentally unstable students. From Columbine to Virginia Tech, it is astonishing that educators and lawmakers in middle class communities are still turning a deaf ear to the pleas of parents and families who cannot afford private preventative and therapeutic placement for their children. My own family has spent countless hours advocating on behalf of our child and it is our hope that these actions are not futile. I pray every day that we will not lose Michael because the system has failed to protect him. We are committed to our belief that our son can be healed but that will not occur unless this injustice is corrected before it's too late.

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