IEP Review – To Ask or Not to Ask

When I received the letter that it was time for Bryce’s IEP meeting, I knew I had some decisions to make. This was the year of Bryce’s three-year review. In addition to just reviewing Bryce’s goals for the year, a decision would be made if additional tests or questions needed to be answered in order to adequately “program” for Bryce’s education.

An IEP, or Individualized Education Program, is a plan or program developed to ensure that a child who has a disability identified under the law and is attending an elementary or secondary educational institution receives specialized instruction and related services. A mental illness, learning disability or autism all can be considered a disability under the law. When you already have an IEP , each year at the review meeting, a large team of people sit around a table and discus the student’s progress and goals for the upcoming school year.img_5237

An IEP meeting can sometimes be confrontational or difficult since the parties involved do not always agree or what is in the best interest of the student. Often the parents want something different than the county or school officials want. At times, educational consultants and attorneys are needed. Luckily, ever since Bryce has been at The Frost School, our meetings have been non- confrontational and everyone has been on the same page.

As I mentioned, every three years, there is a question at the meeting to determine if there is a need for a full review.

Since Bryce’s school – The Frost School -actively participates in drafting the IEP, prior to the meeting, they called me to ask if I had any questions or what I thought about the three year review. They stated that the knew Bryce well and felt they could program for him adequately. I thought about it.

Bryce already gets full Special Education services, Occupational Therapy and Speech therapy. – all fully paid for by our county. He pretty much gets the maximum. Social skills and equestrian therapy are included. He is in a class with a 4:2 ratio. There is a social worker for his program and a behavior teacher. They teach life skills like hygiene and landscaping. I really can’t ask for more.

Or can I?

It took a long time to get Bryces IEP. When Bryce was evaluated years ago and initially qualified for Special Education services, the only disability he qualified under was Emotionally Disabled.

Just like Bryce’s diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder – an IEP coding of Emotionally Disabled has limitations and a stigma attached to it. In fact – in Maryland it is called Emotionally Disabled, but the federal law still uses the term “Emotionally Disturbed.” Talk about stigma! The ED Coding also limits the schools that Bryce can attend. Many schools are not certified to accept children with the ED coding although children with an ED coding may exhibit the same behaviors, symptoms, challenges, difficulties and learning differences as other disabled children. They may also need the same services.

Bryce has changed a lot over the past three years – a lot in part due to the services he has received, as well as due to maturity and medication. His emotional disability no longer seems to be the driving force behind the challenges he faces in school. So, although he gets an excellent education fully paid for by Montgomery County and is doing well, when asked the question, do I think that Bryce needs a full re-evaluation – clearly my answer is yes.

I know that Frost can write adequate goals for him and give him an education and the services that he needs. But I do not think that the tests that were given to Bryce three years ago are an accurate picture of Bryce and his abilities and learning differences currently. I am not convinced that Emotionally Disabled is the correct disability for Bryce at the present moment. His moods are mostly stable. He does not read, write or do math at grade level however. He clearly has a learning disability, but I do not think that at the current time it is his emotions that are keeping him from learning. It is something else.

Testing takes time and money. It is frustrating. It is not a perfect science. It might show something different.
So of course I want to go through with the testing. I want the time taken, the expense taken. I want to put Bryce through the tests. I want to fill out the parent questionnaire. I want to make sure that Bryce gets the right services, is in the right classroom and is taught using the appropriate methods and given the right accommodations.

As a parent of a child with special needs, that is my obligation – my job to fight for my child. To ask the questions, to request the testing, to ask for everything that is possible. It is legally required of the school and it is Bryce’s right to an education that is in his best interest.

Many parents do not want their child labeled as disabled or different or special needs. I encourage you – if your child is struggling or needs help – get them the help that is legally out there for them. It can truly help them grow into the person that they have the potential to become.

Maybe the test will not provide any additional answers – but I want to know that to. I owe that to my child.

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Hill Day 2016 – It’s Personal

I spent the past two days at on Capitol Hill attending the National Council for Behavioral Health’s Annual Public Policy Institute and Hill Day. Hill Day is an event that brings together behavioral health providers, administrators, board members, consumers and community members from all over the country. The first day we attended sessions and workshops on federal behavioral health policy. Yesterday we “stormed” Capitol Hill meeting with Congress to advocate for better resources for mental health and addictions.

I learned so much during these two days. I was inspired. I was able to tell my story.

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Sen. Cardin took the time to meet with us at Hill Day.  Sen. Cardin is a Co-Sponsor of the Mental Health in Schools Act

We were told to tell our personal stories to our Congressmen. We were told that we could make a difference. I feel like I made a difference yesterday. I learned during these two days that by telling positive stories of hope – by showing up and telling true stories of how treatment programs work – you can show your legislators and their staff that the programs they fund can really help their constituents.

There were so many people walking around the halls of the Senate and Congressional office buildings. Each one of them had a badge on representing some organization or cause. Everyone thinks that the piece of legislation they are asking their legislator to support is the most important.

By telling our stories, our voices are powerful. I hope that at least one Representative, Senator or Hill Staffer that I met with will remember the story I told – Bryce’s story. It is a story that proves that with the right education programs and treatment, someone living with mental illness can live a stable life. I hope that when going through all of the Bills that he or she has to decide to co-sponsor or vote in favor of or against, maybe Bryce’s story will pop up and it just might make a difference.

I need it to make a difference. Not for me, or for Bryce. But for this country. What I have known, and what I learned even more these past two days, is that we as a country are facing a Mental Health Crisis. Linda Rosenberg, the President of the National Council told us that we have done great over the years raising awareness for Mental Health – but Awareness is not enough, we NEED ACTION. Suicide rates are on the rise. Deaths as a result of overdose are also on the rise. This is Not Acceptable.

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Patrick Kennedy speaking to Hill Day attendees before the advocacy meetings.

Former US Congressman Patrick Kennedy spoke at Hill Day. Kennedy told us that the mental health crisis is affecting our life expectancy rate in America. This is Not Acceptable. He said that Congress needs to Go Big Before they Go Home when it comes to Mental Health legislation. We can not allow Congress to pass a bill that looks good on the surface, that makes Congress “feel good” because they addressed the issue, but in reality has no impact because it does not fund any new programs.

So what exactly did we do at Hill Day?

We asked our legislators to co-sponsor or support several different pieces of legislation. If they already supported it, we thanked them and asked them to try and get it moving to get it passed. Specifically, some of that legislation included:

The Mental Health First Aid Act  (S. 711/H.R.1877) . Mental Health First Aid is a public education program that helps people identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use conditions. When you take the class, you learn a five-step action plan to reach out to a person in crisis and connect them to a professional, peer or other help. This Bill would provide much needed funding to get people trained in Mental Health First Aid at low-cost.

The Mental Health in Schools Act The Mental Health in Schools Act(S. 1588/H.R. 1211) builds on a successful program known as Safe Schools/Healthy Schools. It would expand the availability of comprehensive, school-based mental health and substance use disorder services in communities across the country. It would place on-site qualified mental health and substance use professionals in schools across the county to provide behavioral health services for students at no charge.

Expand the Excellence in Mental Health Act.  (S. 2525/H.R. 4567) The Excellence in Mental Health Act was created as part of the Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014. It was a two-year, 8-state initiative to expand Americans’ access to community-based mental health and addiction care. It lays the foundation for a transformation of our delivery system by setting standards for Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHCs) and establishing a Medicaid payment rate that supports the costs for these clinics. The expansion of the Act would allow all 24-states that are planning for these clinics to continue planning and creating these much needed service systems.

These bills increase services in schools, increase community-based services for those living with mental illness and provide funding to help identify those that need mental health services to provide early-intervention and care. These bills are not controversial. They are common sense.

While Hill Day was inspirational, educational and hopeful, it was also frustrating. Frustrating because although everyone we spoke to told us they agree with us, they understand us, and they listened to us, there is no guarantee anything will get passed.

I hope Congress can find the money to fund these bills. If we do not find the money to fund necessary services for mental health, we will find ourselves falling further into the mental health crisis, and that I know we can not afford.

We ALL have a story to tell.

I urge you to contact your Senators and Representatives and tell your story. Ask them to support one of these bills or other mental health legislation. You can read more about the bills here.

Parenting is Hard – Don’t Judge

I know most of my posts are about parenting a child with mental illness, but this is just about parenting. Parenting a child with special needs is really not all that different than just parenting, especially when it comes to parenting a pre-teen and a teenager.

Parenting is HARD. And to make it even harder, it seems that the rules for parenting change everyday, for what to feed your kids, to how much TV they can watch, to how much structure or down time they need. As a parent, you need to do what feels right for you. For that reason, we should not judge others choices.

As everyone knows, a 4-year old boy somehow got into a gorilla enclosure in the Cincinnati Zoo. That should not have happened. The Zoo will need to review all of its enclosures, as should other zoos across the county.Harambe

There is so much judgment online for the mother of the child that fell into the gorilla cage. This is a terrible tragedy. An accident. We have all taken our eyes off of our kids for an instant. We do not know all of the details of this situation. Maybe she wasn’t paying attention. Maybe it was longer than a few seconds. Things happen. Most of us have gotten distracted – especially in today’s world. The kid got away from her. It happens.

I agree that we need to watch our kids, especially in public places and dangerous places. We should be diligent about it. But, I think many people have turned their back for a second and their child ran off? I have. It is extremely scary. It causes panic, fear and lots of other emotions.

If you listen to the mom on the video – this mother stayed Calm, calling to her son and telling him she loved him. That was incredibly brave of her. Other people would have completely panicked in the situation, possibly causing the gorilla to act aggressively. We can commend her for that. We can learn from that. We all need to remember to stay calm as parents because when we panic, we are no good to anyone, especially our children.

As a parent, when times are hard – we must remain calm. We must remember to breath, to take a moment and think about what needs to be done. Ask for help if you need it. It is ok to ask for help.

Remember -Just do your best. Whatever your best is on any given day.do your best. whatever that best is on any given day. from naomi blake

Let’s try and support each other rather than beat each other down. There are enough people out there trying to do that

Thank you.

Dear Parent of a Child Diagnosed with a Mental Illness

Dear Parent of a child who was just diagnosed with a mental illness,

I know how you are feeling. I remember when I first got my son’s official diagnosis – ADHD and Mood Disorder – NOS. There were other words. I remember it said Bryce would not be able to attend kindergarten without medication. I was sad, scared and worried. I am sure you are feeling all of these emotions and others.IMG_0173

Your expectations for your child may change, but this is not the end of the world. No matter what diagnosis your child was given, nothing about your child has changed. You still have the same child who you love, laugh with and cry with. Your child will still make you smile and still piss you off a lot.

Hearing or Reading the words – whatever they are – Depression, Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, etc. is hard, but they are just words. Do not worry so much about the exact diagnosis. It can change. It will change. Bryce’s has changed several times. It will probably change again. Unfortunately, mental illness is not an exact science.

Having been through this, I can offer some advice. Hopefully you find something here that’s helpful.

  • Find professionals that you like. If you are not comfortable with the psychiatrist, social worker or therapist you are using, change. You have every right to do that. Ask for recommendations from people you know and trust. Each time you change, you tell your story again so it can be tiring, but if it is to find a good fit, it is worth it.
  • Ask for help at your child’s school. Ask the school for an evaluation so your child can get accommodations – a 504 plan or an Individual Education Plan (IEP). Even if you do not think your child needs help academically, there may come a time where they need breaks, social skills support or other accommodations. They deserve this. They may also qualify for OT, Speech Therapy, etc. There are so many resources out there that you may not be aware of. If you can afford it, hire an Educational Consultant. You will get more services quicker because the school systems will know you mean business.
  • Understand the diagnosis, but do not worry so much about it. Make sure that the professionals working with you are treating the behaviors and symptoms – the impulses, the depression, the hyperactivity, psychosis, anger, etc. The diagnosis may matter, however, for certain services and resources. For example, in some circumstances. if you get an autism diagnosis, there may be more resources available to your child.
  • Research all you can. Find out what programs are offered in your area for support, therapy, social skills, etc. For example, are there any organizations that offer after-school activities for children with special needs.
  • Join a support group. If you want to talk to other parents going through the same thing, look for a support group in your area. Most NAMI chapters offer one. NAMI also offers classes that teach the basics of supporting a family member with a mental illness. If you join an online support group, DO NOT listen to everyone on the Internet. Everyone’s situation is different and some people only want to complain. Find what helps you, take breaks when it seems tough, and find the support that is helpful to you.
  • Take care of yourself. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Self care is crucial in order to be a good parent.
  • Try not to worry and think too much about the future. This is incredibly hard to do, but you have to try and take things day by day. Sometimes even hour by hour. Things will change. A few years ago, I was told to prepare for the fact that my son would most likely have to live in a Residential Treatment Center. He was that unstable. He had five hospitalizations, including one that lasted for 45 days. I was not wanting to accept that. I worked hard to get him into a Therapeutic Day School. We changed his medications. We changed his behavior plan. We worked on his self-esteem. It took time, but we worked hard to make things better.  Things have changed – the diagnosis – now it is Bipolar, PDD, Anxiety, ADHD. He has sensory processing disorder as well and language delays.images

    But with all of those words, Bryce is also doing better. He is now mostly stable, has been stable for a few years and is doing well. There are bumps in the road, but that is ok. Right now my son has a friend from school over and they are going to the Trampoline place tonight, together. Typical teenage Friday night behavior.

So, what do I tell you as a parent? There is hope. There will be ups and downs.

Just do your best, whatever that best is on any given day. That is what I was told, and that is what I pass on to you.

Karen’s Story – Hope and Recovery

I want to write about a truly remarkable woman who means a lot to me – Karen, Bryce’s birthmother.

It makes sense to write about Karen. Without Karen, there is no Bryce and no story to tell. Without Karen, I would not have the life that I have. Karen is a big reason I am the person that I am today. And I like to think that I am part of the reason that Karen is the person that she is today as well.

When I met Karen, she had just given birth to Bryce and she was handcuffed to a hospital bed. She had just made me a mother and she was beautiful. She asked me to buy her a comb. That was all she wanted. Of course. I went down to the hospital gift shop and got her one. It was the least I could do. She gave me a son – I could give her a comb.

When Bryce was born, Karen was suffering from drug addiction and had been for years. She was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She had a completely different life than me. But she was a smart young woman. I could tell that when I met her. I could also tell that from the amazing letter she wrote to Bryce when he was born. In that letter she told Bryce about the difficult decision she made in choosing adoption, that she chose Terry and I to be his parents and that she loved him very much. They were words that any parent would want their son to hear. I could not have written a better letter if I tried.

Karen struggled with drug addiction for years. She was in and out of jail, hung out with a bad crowd and soon after giving birth to Bryce, lost her mother to a heart attack which just made things worse for her. But Karen did not give up. And I did not give up on her.

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Karen, Bryce and Tracy at the Hope Cottage Christmas Party.  Karen is still dealing with addiction at this time, but sees Bryce through the adoption agency

I cared so much for her for what she had given me, and I wanted to help her. Since we had an open adoption, I wanted to and was able to be in touch with her. Given her background, at first our contact was only through Hope Cottage, our adoption agency. I wished I could have done more for her. I wanted to take her in my arms and tell her how much I loved her and that anything she needed, I would give her. But I couldn’t do that. My responsibility was to Bryce, to do everything I could to take care of him. And at that time, Karen was using drugs and was in and out of jail. Having a close connection to her would not have been in the best interest of Bryce.

I wanted her to know I cared. She was Bryce’s birthmother. I called to check on her when she was in prison and found out I was on her visitor’s list. I had no idea she would put me on her list. It meant so much to me that she put me on her list, that I went and visited her in prison. I was like a fish out of water, but it was an incredible experience. She was so surprised to see me. I just needed to know how she was, and I needed her to know that I thought of her and loved her.

Karen and I stayed in touch. I would send letters to Hope Cottage, she asked for pictures of Bryce, and she wrote letters back.

Years later I found out Karen was clean. She tells me that one day she was in church and “the addiction just left her.” She says that when in jail, she voluntarily admitted herself into a rehabilitation program. She felt that she was only being “warehoused” in jail, and if she didn’t get help, there was no other hope.

When Karen was released, she held on to her Hope. She started attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, got a sponsor and followed their step work. She did service work for others and kept going to church.

Karen has been clean for 7 years. She got a college degree, works full-time and is getting a Master’s in Addiction Counseling.

Karen is a true story of Recovery. It was not an easy road for her, and this does not begin to tell the details of it. But Recovery is possible.

Karen’s story is one of Hope. Mental illness and addiction can drag you down, but there is always a way back up.  We must continue to advocate for funding for recovery programs as well as funding for mental health as the two often go hand in hand.  Bryce’s birthmother is a true example of Strength and Recovery. I know that Strength and Hope have been passed on to Bryce.

Thank you Karen for allowing me to share part of your story. We love you. I know fate brought us together for so many reasons.

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Strength and Hope – Karen and Bryce two years ago during a trip to Dallas