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Jax Daily Record Monday, Aug. 7, 200612:00 PM EST

Judges, special education advocates team up for foster children

by: Liz Daube

by Liz Daube

Staff Writer

Local literacy and special education advocates are working with local judges to monitor and improve the education of foster children in Duval County.

Circuit Court Judge Karen Cole organized a training session for surrogate parents at the County Courthouse Thursday. The meeting brought together attorneys and special education experts with volunteers interested in advocating for a foster child’s educational needs.

“The goal is to assure that the educational needs of children in foster care are appropriately addressed so that the students can succeed in school and, ultimately, in life,” said Cole. “It’s necessary for all children, but especially to those whose life has been unkind.”

Cole said surrogate parents have traditionally been appointed by school officials to make educational decisions on behalf of children whose birth parents cannot be reached or relied upon. The new training is a response to a 2004 amendment to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The amendment allowed judges overseeing a child’s care to start appointing surrogate parents in July 2005, and Cole said it’s taken a year to plan the training classes at the courthouse.

Juvenile Division Circuit Court Judge David Gooding and Family Division Circuit Court Judge Waddell Wallace will be appointing surrogate parents once they’re trained, according to Cole. She presides over civil law cases, but has been an advocate for dyslexia awareness and special education since her son was treated for dyslexia years ago.

Florida Coastal School of Law Professor Rebekah Gleason helped organize the surrogate parent training. She manages the family and special education law clinic at Florida Coastal. Gleason said the judge-appointed volunteers will help ensure that foster children with learning disabilities are evaluated and treated.

“I’ve been frustrated with the conditions,” said Gleason. “Much of the time their (foster children’s) needs are not met.”

Gleason was a special education teacher for 10 years before she went to law school. She said she wanted to become an attorney to prevent learning-disabled children without money or advocates from “slipping through the cracks.”

“If a kid isn’t progressing and they’re in dependency court, the issue is whether it’s academic or if it has to do with their family situation, or a combination thereof,” said Gleason. She estimates 25-30 volunteers will be trained soon, but she couldn’t say how many will ultimately be needed. “We know that the need is large, but it’s a hard question to answer because we’re kind of taking on this problem for the first time.”

Cole said foster children often switch caregivers and homes frequently. Those changes can pose both emotional and academic problems, Cole said – and cause learning disabilities to go unnoticed and untreated.

“If their residence changes multiple times in a calendar year, you don’t want these children to switch schools multiple times,” said Cole. “Teachers tell me a mid-year school move is tantamount to losing three months of academic progress.“

Gleason said she’s hoping more attorneys will volunteer for the surrogate training. She added the commitment may last for a year or more, but it’s mostly time-consuming in longevity terms. After learning about a child’s academic issues, surrogate parents check in with the child occasionally and keep an eye on education evaluations and services.

“Our longterm goal is maybe some of these attorneys who are becoming surrogate parents will learn more about the law and eventually take on some of these cases on a pro bono basis,” said Gleason. “There’s a consistency in schools, meetings and documents. There’s not a consistency in parents. It’s not that Duval County is any farther behind than any other school systems. It’s just that foster children have problems with education all over the country.”

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