Friday, April 17, 2009

Class Action Lawsuit Filed

The AZ Center for Disability Law announced a few days ago that they filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all AzEIP eligible or potentially eligible children ages 0-3.
Here is an article at the ACDL website about the filing. You may have to create an account to read it, I'm not sure. Some excerpts from the article:
"Early intervention provides immediate and long-term benefits for children with disabilities and developmental delays,” said J.J. Rico, managing attorney for the Arizona Center for Disability Law. “During a child’s first three years, it is important to focus on a child’s developmental needs and take advantage of his or her natural ability to learn. Early intervention provides children with disabilities with the opportunity to learn everyday routines, including walking, eating and avoiding injury.”
“To our knowledge, Arizona is the only state who has approached the problem of reducing the state deficit by cutting eligible children with disabilities from critical early intervention services.”
(emphasis mine)

Here is a link to the PDF of the actual lawsuit that was filed. There are three individuals named specifically, but the lawsuit also covers "all others similarly situated"
"It has long been recognized that “(E)arly experiences determine whether a child’s developing brain architecture provides a strong or weak foundation for all future learning, behavior and health1.... The period between birth and three years is a time of rapid cognitive, linguistic, social, emotional and motor development.2 Children who are not ready to learn when they enter kindergarten are more likely to struggle in elementary school, and are more likely to become teen parents, engage in criminal activities, and suffer from depression.3 For these reasons, early intervention services are essential building blocks for the future success of infants and toddlers with disabilities."

The lawsuit goes on to say that due process rights were violated when services were cut without regard to the needs of families or children who were receiving therapy. The plantiffs are seeking pendancy "stay put," as well as compensatory services to make up for those lost.
I'm particularly interested in the Statement of Facts section (starts partway down pg. 9 in the PDF). No matter how many times I read it, the fact that the state made such sweeping cuts to services for such a vulnerable population leaves me almost speechless. Keep in mind, the ONLY reason that kiddos are still getting services is that the judge issued an injunction. The state has appealed it- twice that I know of. Fortunately they've lost both times.
This was new to me:
"The State of Arizona, through Defendants, has a current contract with the U.S. Department of Education for a grant of federal Part C funds. The contract expires on December 31, 2009. In that contract, Defendants assure the U.S. Department of Education that, throughout the period of the grant award, they will “operate consistent with all requirements” of Part C of the IDEA." (emphasis mine)
The defendants, of course, are the DES. What catches my attention is that the contract with the US Department of Ed. expires at the end of 2009. In light of the budget issues, could the state simply opt not to renew that contract, and thus "get out" of having to provide services to kids ages 0-3? I really don't know. Federal law is law. Early Intervention is covered under Part C, which is part of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). IDEA is the law that governs special education in public schools. Schools can't simply "opt out" of IDEA and not provide services because of budget issues.
Sigh. After doing some further checking, it appears that it is possible that the state COULD indeed "opt out" of Part C. At least that's how I read it- I really hope I'm wrong. The text of the actual law is here (Part C starts about halfway down), but it doesn't specify whether the program is optional or not. Here's what I found on the Wrightslaw website- a very good resource for advocacy info btw.
"The Program for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities (Part C of IDEA) is a federal grant program that assists states in operating a comprehensive statewide program of early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities, ages birth through age 2 years, and their families. In order for a state to participate in the program it must assure that early intervention will be available to every eligible child and its family. Also, the governor must designate a lead agency to receive the grant and administer the program, and appoint an Interagency Coordinating Council (ICC), including parents of young children with disabilities, to advise and assist the lead agency. Currently, all states and eligible territories are participating in the Part C program. Annual funding to each state is based upon census figures of the number of children, birth through 2, in the general population."
So currently all states have Early Intervention in some form, but the exact services vary from state to state. If it is a grant program, though, then it stands to reason that the state could choose not to have EI, and forego that grant money. Again, I don't know this for sure (maybe someone else can clarify?), and I'm not trying to start a panic here, but that's where my train of thought is headed at the moment.
Right now, I think the only thing that can be done is hopefully what is already happening- attend meetings when they happen, talk to legislators, call, write, e-mail, etc. People who don't have kids with special needs don't realize how crucial these services are, and how much it benefits kids when they start EARLY. So keep talking!

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