Christine Lai and Ulrika Drinkall, Co-Founders

By Michele Graham
Photography by ChiChi Ubiña

Autism. Dyslexia. Speech and language delay. Physical disabilities. Mental health challenges. Special education is complex – with its own language, acronyms, timelines, and legal standards. Ten years ago, Christine Lai and Ulrika Drinkall entered this arcane world to advocate on behalf of their own children. They came out the other side informed, energized, and with a mission. Last year, they formed the Special Education Legal Fund (S.E.L.F). Initially, S.E.L.F. only provided grants for legal support to families in need with children in the special education system. But as word of their organization spread, S.E.L.F. expanded to include even more resources. “Without our support, these families would have had no recourse in the legal system for what was happening with their children,” says Christine.

“Generally, if a family is looking at special education, it’s because their child isn’t doing well at school,” notes Ulrika. “This is a stressful time. You’re trying to figure out what is going on with your child and how to help. There are multiple appointments with multiple providers, all of whom could be telling you something different. Everything is expensive and a lot of it isn’t covered by health insurance.” Christine adds, “When you layer the special education process on top of all of this, with its myriad issues—timelines, paperwork, legal documents—it can become unmanageable. What if you are a single parent? What if you speak English as a second language? What if you lack the resources to understand what’s going on in this complicated system?”

It was these situations that tugged at Christine and Ulrika.

The cost of education

Special education attorneys are expensive. Even the “simplest” cases require many hours to reach a satisfactory resolution. According to Christine and Ulrika, a family can spend over $10,000 on legal fees to reach a mediated settlement with a school district; in a fully adjudicated due process hearing, this number can multiply. “This expense is beyond the reach of most families, but when communication between a family and a school has broken down to a certain point, sometimes a special education attorney is the only way in which a child’s ‘free and appropriate public education’ rights can be secured. If you can’t afford this, what happens? There are very few resources for families whose children have been failed by their district schools,” says Ulrika.

S.E.L.F. has helped families from over 20 different school districts. Almost 40% of clients fall below the poverty line, 59% are from households headed by a single parent, and 33% speak English as a second language. “Our students have struggled for years in school systems that did not or could not provide them with the appropriate public education to which they are entitled under federal law,” says Christine. “The problem is that the process is confusing and opaque, and it is difficult for parents entering the special education system to understand all of its nuances.”

When to move forward

Ulrika explains the process: “Generally, a family decides to move forward with legal representation when they don’t feel like they can move forward without it. A special education attorney can help a family whose case is “stuck” because communication has ceased or negotiations have bogged down. Unfortunately, the reality is that if you have a special education attorney representing your child, your case tends to be heard more loudly and clearly. More specifically, one thing that is very difficult to accomplish without the involvement of a special education attorney is a district-funded outplacement to a private or independent special education school.”

And this is where the Special Education Legal Fund works begin. The organization accepts grant applications from September through June and reviews them monthly. Applicants to the program are considered if they have a current Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) and if the family’s income is below 300% of the federal minimum poverty line – which is about $75,000 for a family of four in Connecticut. Special Education Legal Fund provides funds directly to the family’s special education attorney, provided that he or she meets S.E.L.F’s professional requirements and standards.

S.E.L.F grants cover up to $5,000 in legal fees. “For some families, the $5,000 ensures that their child is not expelled from middle school for pulling a paint chipper out of her backpack which is mistaken for a knife by the bus monitor. For other families, the grant ensures a placement to an out-of-district special education school at age 14 because the district school has failed, despite ten years of special education services, to teach the child to read. For still other families, the grant ensures a diagnostic placement for a child with severe assault-related trauma related to their public school setting and allows that child to begin the road to recovery,” says Christine.

Making a difference

In its first year, S.E.L.F. provided just under $127,000 in grants to 27 families in 19 school districts. Ulrika estimates that the “grants yielded educational improvements for those families that total an estimated $1.5 million, including outplacement agreements at independent special education schools, extended school year and bridge services, independent educational evaluations, compensatory tutoring, transportation, and diagnostic placements.”

Beyond grants, S.E.L.F. also provides parent and agency informational support and training. “Bridging the knowledge gap for families in the special education process is one of the most important aspects of our mission,” says Christine.

Many of the resources available for families with special needs children take place in Hartford and New Haven. As a result, the organization launched the Parent Education Program with local information sessions. They also created the Agency Education Program to provide special ed information to partner agencies and nonprofits so that they can better serve their families. To date, S.E.L.F. has partnered with almost a dozen nonprofits, including the Boys and Girls Club of Stamford, LifeBridge Community Services, Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants (CIRI), and DOMUS.

Since its inception, Ulrika and Christine have been particularly attuned to the plight of families with children in the special education system who speak English as a second language. Ulrika says, “Parents who speak English as a second language experience significant barriers that impede their full participation in the special education process.” In partnership with Fairfield County’s Community Foundation (FCCF) and Building One Community, S.E.L.F. just recently launched Proyecto de Educación Especial, a groundbreaking curriculum focused on Hispanic/Latino families who speak English as a Second Language.

Though S.E.L.F. has provided nearly 40 families with grants for legal support, the number of application requests this year has zoomed. Christine notes, “The Special Education Legal Fund is the only organization of its kind in the country that provides direct support to families so they can secure a special education attorney to support their children’s free and appropriate public education rights. One of the first things we say to a family that reaches out is that you are not alone, and you don’t have to do this yourself.”

For more information about the Special Education Legal Fund or how to support the nonprofit’s work, visit www.spedlegalfund.org.