Changing the Course of Young Lives Through Education

photo of Trevon and his momYouth with disabilities in the juvenile justice system face hurdles in accessing education. Schools often refer to the system without identifying a student’s need for special education services or providing the right academic and behavior supports. Estimates indicate that anywhere from 65-85% of students in the juvenile justice system have a disability and likely require services to be successful in school, yet many are not receiving those services.

Unfortunately, research shows that youth involved with the juvenile justice system who don’t have good education outcomes don’t have good life outcomes.

But a new partnership between Disability Rights Texas (DRTx) and the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department (HCJPD) is changing the life course for youth in the system. This program offers a unique opportunity for these young people to receive education advocacy services they desperately need but would likely not otherwise know existed.

One young person we have helped through the partnership is Trevon, a teenager with bi-polar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other mental health diagnoses. He was arrested and placed on probation during his sophomore year. Though his mother was a strong advocate for Trevon, she found it challenging to understand all the jargon and navigate the juvenile justice system in order to get the services her son needed. When a juvenile probation officer referred Trevon to DRTx education specialist Danielle, she used her many years of experience as a special education diagnostician to successfully advocate for Trevon. As a result, he continued his education and invited Danielle to be in the audience as he received his high school diploma. Trevon is now working in a retail position and is saving money to be able to attend culinary college or trade school.

Since accepting our first referral in January 2016, DRTx has provided advocacy services to more than 1,200 youth who are now receiving the educational services they need to succeed in life.

Through our individual casework, we have been able to identify pervasive systemic issues within school districts and consult with them so they can make policy changes that provide youth with appropriate educational services and minimize referrals to the justice system. And, with a new law in Texas that we helped draft and pass that requiries schools to hold transition meetings for students returning from the juvenile facilities and disciplinary alternative education programs, we attend these meetings and help assess and advocate for the youth’s educational needs to increase the likeliness of graduation.

DRTx Regains Critical Services for Young Girl

photo of little Haylee in front of Christmas treeFor children born with disabilities, early intervention is critical to their future success in school and as an adult. In fact, state and federal law require Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) services be provided to infants with disabilities up until the age of three years old.

Two-year old Haylee, a loving little girl with significant developmental delays, was making significant progress when her ECI services were suddenly stopped. Her provider ceased providing services to her and hundreds of other children in the Tyler area due to Medicaid rate cuts that severely reduced state funding to providers.

DRTx and pro bono co-counsel Baker & McKenzie LLP of Dallas filed a complaint on behalf of Haylee against the Texas Health and Human Services Commission along with a request for a due process hearing. A hearing officer determined that the state violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and related state law and ordered services to begin again for Haylee within seven days of the decision.

The ruling is the first of its kind and sets a precedence for future cases. “This is an important win for Haylee and hundreds of other kids across Texas who are facing or will face the same unfortunate situation,” said Nick Kennedy, attorney with Baker & McKenzie.

Vet Denied Housing Because of Service Dog

Sgt. Derek Kolb and his service dog HankSgt. Derek Kolb has seen some dark days. After returning from serving in Iraq, he struggled to cope with life and was even homeless for a time. He eventually received treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and his professionally-trained service dog, Hank, played a critical role in his recovery.

But when the veteran wanted to rent an apartment, a leasing agency refused him, claiming his service animal “looked aggressive.” The rejection hit him hard, causing his condition to worsen. He even considered suicide.

Fortunately, DRTx intervened, teaming up with pro-bono private attorneys from Winston & Strawn to file a lawsuit against the large real estate company. Sgt. Kolb endured hours of interviews in a deposition, and despite his PTSD, endured the process because he knew how important this case was not only for himself, but for all his comrades that could face the same discrimination.

The case settled out of court. Part of the settlement included the company providing training to its employees on the Americans with Disabilities Act and the rights of people with disabilities regarding service animals.

“Our goal in most of our cases is to not only get justice for the individual client, but to see widespread changes within systems and companies so that future discrimination is prevented,” said DRTx attorney Chris McGreal who represented Sgt. Kolb.

Young man leaves nursing home after 13 years

Richard Krause sitting in his living room in the communityFederal law requires that individuals with mental illness, developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities or related conditions must not be inappropriately placed in nursing homes for long-term care. These individuals have the right to receive specialized services and the opportunity to live in the least restrictive setting in order to best meet their needs.

During Richard’s time living in a nursing home, between 2001 and 2014, he mostly stayed in bed due to lack of services and opportunity. He was admitted when he was just 22 years old. DRTx successfully advocated for Richard to be discharged from the facility. Richard is now 38 and no longer lives in a nursing home. He has a job, and is able to get around the community on his own using a wheelchair.

Disability rights advocates, including DRTx, allege that Richard is one of about 3,600 Texans with disabilities that the state has illegally left to languish in nursing homes. In 2010, DRTx filed a class action lawsuit against the state for these actions on behalf of Richard and several individuals and organizational plaintiffs, claiming Texas violated certain provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Medicaid Act. The case went to trial in October 2018 is awaiting a judge’s decision.

“It was…because of the advocacy of Disability Rights Texas…and because he was a named plaintiff that [Richard’s] life changed,” said co-counsel Steven Schwartz with the Center for Public Representation.

DRTx will continue to work to prevent institutionalization of people with disabilities and ensure their legal right to live in the community is upheld.

Rights taken, rights restored

Tosha smiling for the cameraTosha has a developmental disability, and up until she was in her 30s, she was gainfully employed, living as a contributing member of society with no need for guardianship. Many people with disabilities are able to live in the community, some with different levels of support and without the need for guardianship which takes away all of their rights.

Unfortunately, her father was mistakenly told that he needed to file for guardianship for her to live in a group home. Tosha did not want the guardianship, and during the initial hearing, many of her due process rights were violated. For instance, her court-appointed attorney did not arrange for Tosha to participate in the hearing and signed an agreed order that removed all of her legal rights including the right to vote, to choose where she lived, and even to work where she wanted.

Guardianship had a serious and detrimental impact on Tosha’s life. She ended up in a segregated, sheltered workshop where she was paid subminimum wage for a job that underutilized her abilities. Her job was to take a filled bag of birdseed from the hand of a peer, rotate her body, and then drop the bag in a bin. Also, immediately following the instatement of the guardianship, she was moved into a group home with very restrictive rules. “I did not like all the rules that the group home and my guardian made me follow,” said Tosha. “I had no freedom and wasn’t allowed to make decisions for myself.”

DRTx learned about Tosha when they met her while doing routine monitoring of sheltered workshops that paid subminimum wage. We informed her of her right to seek restoration from guardianship, and she asked us to represent her in this effort.

Her guardian and the group home put up many obstacles in the attempt to keep us from successfully restoring her from being under guardianship, such as putting more restrictions on her life and moving her outside of the jurisdiction of the court. And then sadly, her guardian died which made for a more complex and lengthier process to finally achieve restoration for Tosha.

When we were finally successful in getting Tosha rights restored, she cried in relief, “I am so happy to have my freedom back. I get to make my own decisions again about where I work and live.” She is now working again in the community making a fair wage at a job she enjoys.

Specialized wheelchair brings new independence

When he was nine, Benjamin, who has cerebral palsy, outgrew his power chair, and was using a manual chair. His family had requested a standing wheelchair from Medicaid but was denied. They called DRTx for help.

DRTx attorneys represented Benjamin and sent medical information to Texas Medicaid prior to a fair hearing. They reversed the initial denial and approved a standing wheelchair for Benjamin. The standing wheelchair has changed Benjamin’s life. He’s able to help out around the house. He can play basketball and go on walks. He has a newfound love of cooking (not common for most nine-year-old boys!). To express their gratitude, his family created a short video for DRTx.

Advocacy for one woman leads to system-wide change

DRTx client Lillian and her daughterLillian Gallow is deaf and requires the use of ASL interpreters for effective communication. At an important hearing, Houston Housing Authority (HHA) failed to provide a qualified interpreter for her and instead used her young daughter which led to a miscommunication that terminated her housing voucher, and she was ultimately served with an eviction notice.

Gallow contacted DRTx who filed a housing discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on her behalf, and DRTx successfully resolved the matter.

The housing authority offered Gallow another hearing in which they provided an interpreter at HHA’s expense. DRTx’s representation at the new hearing led to Ms. Gallow’s housing assistance being reinstated and back rent being paid by HHA to her landlord. The eviction was dismissed, and accommodations were made and implemented to ensure that Ms. Gallow will receive effective communication in future dealings with the HHA.

The settlement also brought organization-wide changes in HHA’s effective communication and interpreter policies. HHA is now required to inform employees of its policy to provide interpreter services to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, and to inform new voucher holders of their right to request reasonable accommodations, including interpreters. HHA also promised to only use qualified interpreters in the future.

“Our hope is that the systemic changes made to HHA’s effective communication and interpreter policies because of the settlement in this case will prevent future occurrences of similar situations,” indicated DRTx Attorney Christopher McGreal. Informational handouts and helpful links on housing are available on our housing resource page.

DRTx defends rights of Iraqi War hero with service dog

Adan and his dog BootzAdan Gallegos is a decorated veteran who served in the U.S. Army in Iraq. As a result of intense combat and exposure to an explosion, Gallegos returned home at the age of 22 with unseen disabilities of depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He has a service animal named Bootz to remind him to take medication, alert him when someone approaches from behind, and assist him with other tasks related to his disabilities.

One day Gallegos and Bootz entered a mattress store in San Antonio. He informed the owner that his dog was a trained service animal. Nonetheless, the owner of the store yelled and swore at Gallegos and demanded that he and Bootz leave immediately.

DRTx filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Adan Gallegos against the store. Following extensive nationwide news coverage and a public outcry against the store on social media, the parties negotiated and reached a settlement.

former Texas governor Rick Perry helping Bootz the dog put paw print on new law“This Iraqi War Hero defended our country, and we’re honored to have been able to defend his rights as veteran with a disability,” said a DRTx attorney who worked on the case.

The war hero went on to work closely with state legislators on the successful passage of “Bootz’s Law,” ensuring that people who use service animals have access for their animals in all Texas establishments. His dog Bootz even co-signed the bill into law with his paw print.

See our legal tip video on the Rights and Responsibilities of Service Animal Owners for more information in the rights and responsibilities of service animal owners.

Mother says DRTx advocacy changed course of daughter’s life

DRTx client, GabbyGabby, a middle schooler with a hearing impairment, was very alienated in the classroom and was struggling academically. Due to lack of access to the assistive technology that was needed to fully participate in school, Gabby was negatively impacted both socially and educationally.

DRTx represented Gabby in a special education case and was able to gain access to the technology and support she needed from her school. Gabby’s mother expressed gratitude to DRTx in a letter following our advocacy intervention, “Thanks to your legal team, my daughter was able to get the technology in place for her to access her education as well as other services.”

Her mother reported that Gabby’s last report card following DRTx’s representation had straight A’s. Gabby also won the school science fair, and came in third place in the regional science festival. Most importantly, her mother added, Gabby’s self-esteem had grown tremendously. Her mother has no doubt that DRTx’s work changed the life course of her daughter.

DRTx is dedicated to helping create integrated classrooms where students with disabilities learn alongside students without disabilities. To learn more about the special education rights of students and parents, visit our education page.