April 1 — 2:44 pm, 2011

Children in city Family Court system need timely evaluations by School District

The District is responsible for educating some of our most vulnerable children – children with disabilities who are among the 6,000 or so foster home children in our Family Court dependency system.

"Dependency" arises with an allegation that there is a lack of parental care so that the court legally assumes the parental role; in these cases, the child is dependent on the court to advocate for their education.

A national study of children involved with Child Protective Services confirmed that foster care children have dramatically higher rates of emotional, developmental, and medical disorders. Fewer than one-third of foster care children receive necessary mental health services. Many children with learning disabilities and mental health issues remain unidentified.

These national statistics are played out daily for children who are involved in a dependency matter at 1801 Vine Street. The Family Court dependency system is overwhelmed by its responsibilities for these children, especially those who may have disabilities.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires all districts to have in place the "Child Find" system – by which it will in a timely manner locate and evaluate any children who may have disabilities. This system places primary responsibility on school districts, rather than parents.

The District is expected to have knowledgeable professionals who can help determine which children have disabilities. There are specific procedures for parental consent for these children and for comprehensive evaluations. If the child has a disability impacting educational performance, the District must provide the child with special education services – special help for the child in academic areas, as well as counseling and other services.

The law does not presume that all children in Family Court have disabilities. Nor does it expect that a parent or the Family Court must make the initial request for evaluation. Rather, the District has the exclusive Child Find duty to have in place a proactive system to identify children with disabilities.

With the assistance of Family Court judges, the education subcommittee of the Philadelphia Bar Association recently organized a training session on special education for 300 court personnel. Audience questions included: "How do I get an evaluation for a child?" and "Who is the parent?" – fundamental questions to providing special education services. Audience members pointed to problems with Child Find in Philadelphia and with ensuring that the children are evaluated in a timely fashion.

Anyone concerned about a child who may have a disability can contact the school principal or special education liaison and refer the child for assistance, activating the standard procedures for parental involvement and evaluation. The Family Court has its own School District special education case manager, Ms. Tavares, who can be reached at 215-686-7797. A form that can be used to request an evaluation can be found at www.pattan.net/files/Forms/English/

The training session comments reinforced historical concerns about whether children in the system are being located and getting timely evaluations for disabilities.

The District should review its Child Find system and act with dispatch so that children in Family Court, who may have disabilities, get timely evaluations, parent figures are properly informed, and necessary special education services are provided. Convening interested parties to discuss the Child Find system would be a positive first step.

the notebook

Our news is free to read, but not to report.

support local journalism