AUSTIN, Texas – The Navy has hired two special education attorneys as part of a three-year pilot program to expand support for service members attending the Exceptional Family Membership program.
The two civil attorneys, who have a background in special education law, began helping families trying to get services for children with special needs through federal laws that are being implemented differently in school districts across the country, Lt. Cmdr. Nick Stampfli, Head of Legal at the Legal Services Office for the Mid-Atlantic region. Marine families may be at a disadvantage when it comes to special education as they regularly move into new school districts with different rules and resources due to frequent moves.
“We really want to level the playing field with what a family that doesn’t move often gets,” he said. “We see a direct impact on readiness when a family is being cared for and seafarers are not concerned about a problem at home, especially a problem with their children. Deployment is much easier. “
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The Department of Defense’s Extraordinary Family Membership Program, known as EFMP, is a compulsory enrollment program run by the services for military personnel with an immediate family member, usually a child or spouse, who has special medical or educational needs. The program is designed to help during the job assignment process to ensure that service members are sent to locations where they can access the required resources.
The Navy has 24,046 family members in its program, according to the Pentagon. Since 2016, the program has expanded, and engagement among Navy employees and families has tripled, said Ed Cannon, director of fleet and family readiness for the Navy Installation Command, which oversees the EFMP.
Families in the program also receive case management services that give them access to the resources they need, localized information and recommendations, customized service plans and support while aligning with local school districts. EFMP families can also receive social security benefits, Medicaid support, and guardianship consultations to ensure continuity of care during life-changing events.
“We know it will cost money and it will take people, but most importantly it requires full focus to ensure that … we are using these resources wisely and looking at where that demand is most critical” said Cannon.
Legal assistance for special education in public schools is one area families have asked for help, he said.
The three-year pilot program is running in the Navy Regions Mid-Atlantic, headquartered in Norfolk Naval Station, Virginia, and Southwest, headquartered in Naval Base San Diego, California.
The new attorneys will assist families in assessing the eligibility of special education programs and helping them gather and present their children’s needs for individual education programs and other related services such as speech therapy and special transportation needs. In certain cases, attorneys can attend meetings with school staff to advocate for their clients. They also help when judicial intervention is required.
The lawyers will also provide training for families and develop strong relationships with regional legal aid and pro bono networks, as well as local court and guardianship clinics. They also plan to regularly check customer records to ensure school regulations are followed and set up informative town halls to help families be their own lawyers.
Some of this work has already started, Cannon said.
A higher level of support
Cannon examined the budget, which has grown by about $ 5 million over the past five years, and noted some efficiency gains. The Navy was able to raise funding for the lawyers, two regional special education liaison offices for each coast, and 10 new case liaisons to help families until a lawyer is needed. Four liaison officers are in Norfolk and six in the south west.
“It’s really just adding that extra level of support,” Cannon said.
While the liaison officers work for the Navy Installation Command, the attorneys report to the Attorney General’s office. Together they hope to help families who are facing challenges.
“Each system works a little differently,” said Alexandra Little, the new EFMP attorney in Norfolk. She has worked at Hampton Roads for much of her legal career and said it was important to get help from someone with local knowledge.
“It’s hard enough for a student with special education to make a transition from elementary to middle school to high school, but doing so in an entirely different environment with greater frequency is a major challenge,” she said. “Most bat families are looking for a well-funded school system that has the resources and institutional knowledge that will give them an edge. We will ensure that families have the opportunity to provide legal assistance and to do the best they can for their particular family member. “
The pilot program was born from feedback from Navy families and is loosely modeled after a similar program for the Marine Corps’ EFMP, Stampfli said.
Families “ran into issues that they thought might need legal assistance when it comes to school districts and individual education plans,” he said. “We have heard from EFMP families that they found this a valuable resource and helped maintain readiness as they moved from duty to duty dealing with a new school district they didn’t know.”
While there is a desire to continue the program beyond three years, Stampfli said the pilot will allow the Navy to review progress and determine costs, staff and locations that need the most legal assistance.
“It’s about measuring successes or failures, if any, and figuring out how they should be applied company-wide,” said Cannon.
Intervention of Congress
The announcement of the Navy’s pilot program comes as Congress wants to mandate the recruitment of special education attorneys in all service branches.
The final version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021 stipulates that the secretary of each military division will provide a dedicated EFMP attorney who specializes in educational law at any military base that has a large number of military families with special needs and historically has not supported these families.
The final version of the bill was passed by the Senate last week. It will go on to President Donald Trump, who has threatened to veto the bill.
Michelle Norman, a Navy wife and attorney for the EFMP families, said she was proud that the Navy launched the pilot program without waiting for the official mandate to hire the attorneys.
“They are proactive and not reactive,” she said. “Providing the pilot program and these special education attorneys is only part of their vision, but it is the most important step in ensuring that the military’s most vulnerable children are admitted to the minimum level of education required by federal law.”
The upcoming NDAA will also standardize the service lines for the EFMP, something House legislators discussed in February during the first Congress hearing on the program in about a decade. Norman, the Army spouse Austin Carrigg, and EFMP heads of Defense and Service Departments testified to the House Armed Services Committee subpanel about military personnel.
About 142,951 family members are enrolled in the EFMP in all branches of service. However, the hearing revealed that resources and support vary widely between the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.
Carrigg, who is primarily a health advocate for the EFMP, fears that the NDAA is too vague and could allow the military to bypass Congress’s intent. The draft law states that standardization only has to take place “as far as practicable”.
“It will be very easy to say that it is impractical to do this or that,” she said. “I would much rather let the language say that Congress wants to standardize EFMP and then give a branch for standardization. I think most people would give you the Marine Corps. “
The Marine Corps program was recognized as the best during the hearing, among other things because it provides family lawyers specializing in special education, but also because employees have to check in with families on a quarterly basis.
Jackie Nowicki, director of K-12 education at the Government Accountability Office, testified during the hearing on a 2018 report she wrote that while the Department of Defense left the implementation of EFMP to the service branches, it did not provide a standardization or performance measurement structure Had to ensure that the program worked properly for all service members.
The three recommendations in Nowicki’s report had not been taken into account by the Defense Ministry until June, she said. The recommendations aim to achieve a better performance assessment of the services and improve the variability of support, including staffing.
While the Marine Corps has enrolled approximately 11,000 families in EFMP, it has 107 full-time employees devoted to the program, according to statements made during the February hearing. The army has 119 employees for more than 54,000 families.
“These programs and resources, which are designed to support families, do not all work the same in all services,” said Nowicki. “We heard of quite a significant variability in the amount of family support people get from install to install, but also across services.”
The promise of future support
Despite the pledge by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., Chair of the Subcommittee on Military Personnel, to “be a hawk” on the area, not much has changed since the hearing, which was attended by so many that officials set up an overflow visit . Subpanel members pledged to hold town halls with EFMP families and bring back program officials every three months to keep up with progress.
Speier’s office blamed the delay on the coronavirus pandemic, which struck the US just a month after the hearing and continues to stifle normal activity.
Norman said she was “cautiously optimistic” that the EFMP will continue to adapt to better serve families’ needs.
“There are other initiatives that we would like to pursue,” she said. “Civilians who have children with special needs don’t move often. … civil families try to stay in place so that they can continue this continuity of care. As a military family, we simply couldn’t afford that. “
Carrigg said she looks forward to working with Congress to examine other areas where the program is failing families – particularly with regard to the referral process.
“Our children are not just their education and they are not just their health care. We have to find a place that meets all of their needs, ”she said.
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