(Op-ed) Time is now for de Blasio to keep promises to special needs children

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(Mark Meyer Appel) In an emotion-filled 2014 City Hall press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio, flanked by ex Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, promised a major overhaul to help the special needs kids of the city.

Mayor de Blasio said at the time, “Each and every child in this state is entitled to a sound, basic education. Unfortunately, our public school system is not always able to accommodate children with special education needs, and many parents must turn to non-public schools. Parents have had to sue the city for reimbursement of tuition, placing an undue financial burden on these families. Worse yet, parents have to fight this battle year after year…”

Two years have passed since the mayor ceremoniously made those lofty comments; however, unfortunately it turned out to be all talk, and little to nothing has been done in all this time to remedy any of the problems. In fact, the situation has gotten worse.

Despite the promises to expedite the reimbursement process, some parents say it is still far too slow, forcing them to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt as they wait for reimbursement.

Ms. Miriam N., a mother of two autistic children, has been waiting to be reimbursed for her 12-year old son’s tuition since the education department agreed to settle her case back in January of last year.

But even though the city agreed to pay $62,000, nearly all of her son’s tuition, it wasn’t clear when the money would come. Under her agreement with the city, once the education department received all the relevant paperwork, it was supposed to approve and process payment within 30 calendar days. She has provided all the documents, she said, but is still waiting for payment. She has accumulated roughly $100,000 in debt for all of this past school year’s tuition plus some payments for next year.

Also in attendance at the 2014 press conference, were State Senator Simcha Felder, a staunch supporter of special needs kids, along with Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein. In addition, a large contingent of Jewish advocates led by Agudath Israel of America and members of the Catholic Church advocacy groups were also in attendance. For the first time in many years, parents of special needs kids were given hope that something would be done to help their children.

The two major issues that parents of special needs kids are concerned about are:

1) The time limit for the process to be completed, which can sometimes take months, costing the parents an exorbitant sum of money in legal fees and hardships. Further compounding the problems, at the same time the parents are getting hit with legal fees they also have to lay out large sums of cash to the special ed schools.

2) Parents whose children had already been approved by an IFSP (Individual Family Services Plan) now have no idea if their private placements will stick from year to year, and they face tremendous uncertainty about when they will be reimbursed.

“It is an emotional burden as well as a financial risk to parents,” said Rebecca Shore, Director of Litigation for Advocates for Children, which offers legal help to parents with limited financial resources.

In a scathing Budget Hearing last week, which can be found on YouTube, Senator Felder, known as a champion of special needs children for his tireless defense of these young citizens, held Mayor de Blasio accountable for the mayor’s inaction regarding these disadvantaged youth. Since he first took office until the present day, Senator Felder has been one of the preeminent supporters of this cause, and he has continually put people at City Hall and in Albany on notice when it comes to these often neglected young souls.

At the hearing, Senator Felder did not waste any time by opening with a resolute reminder to the mayor of the previous de Blasio commitments, which are on the record for two years now. Then he bluntly said to the mayor, “That never occurred.” Senator Felder then went on to scold the mayor by letting him know that “Children and families are still suffering humiliation and financial hardship.”

If a child has Autism or Downs Syndrome, “there’s no fix for that,” said the Senator, and he asked the mayor why these children had to repeatedly apply for their aid, costing their families exorbitant legal fees.

Senator Felder’s attack actually escalated, and in the course of approximately ten scathing minutes, he scolded de Blasio over the inattentiveness of his office and how the mayor’s office has not been responsive. Felder cited as an example how numerous calls and letters from the senator habitually went unanswered by City Hall.

Felder said that New Yorkers and families with special needs children now “demand a response!” In his epic and indomitable speech, Senator Felder then told the mayor, “New Yorkers are tired of being insulted and lied to.”

“Why do New Yorkers have to be over-taxed, over-fined, over-ticketed, and can’t be treated like mature adults.. instead of like children who you decide you can’t discipline any other way- and smack them across the face over and over by charging them?! It doesn’t make sense! It doesn’t make sense!” Felder shouted as a sense of frustration echoed throughout the Albany chamber, while de Blasio sat quiet as if he was now a school child being scolded by the teacher for giving excuses about why he didn’t do his homework.

When the mayor finally was permitted to speak, he gave a few fairly lame excuses, which were basically a poor attempt to run around Senator Felder’s initial inquiries.

Felder, ever the warrior championing this cause, then held the mayor’s feet to the fire and responded back by saying, “The mayor obviously didn’t hear anything I said.” Referring to a family that couldn’t pay for their groceries, Felder raised up a loaf of bread and a container of eggs in his hand (which he removed from a bag) as a crude illustration in front of de Blasio, asking him if he knows how much these items cost.

Senator Felder asked perhaps one of the most poignant questions ever publicly asked to de Blasio since this mayor has been in office, regardless of whether the subject matter was special needs children, climate change, taxes, fines by the city, etc. In a moment that may go down in the history of de Blasio, a history he wishes to forget, Felder said, “I’m talking about regular New Yorkers…and why the city has to be punitive all the time?! It’s just not fair.”

If this was a boxing match, the referee would have stopped it at this point with de Blasio laying motionless on the proverbial canvas.

We stand united as advocates to petition the Mayor Bill de Blasio to do what he has promised to do and alleviate the burden of special needs parents in the city. It is clear the burden of responsibility for this shameful neglect falls squarely at the feet of de Blasio and City Hall, and up until now, he has skillfully dodged the tough questions.

Join the Bridge Multicultural Advocacy Project in echoing the sentiments of Senator Simcha Felder, and sign the petition telling Mayor de Blasio: New Yorkers are tired of being insulted, led astray, and made to suffer. Families with special needs children demand a proper response from Mayor Bill de Blasio. Our special needs children deserve better than years of broken promises, inaction, and humiliation.

Sign the petition here to demand that Mayor de Blasio honors his promise to our special needs children.

Please also contact Mayor de Blasio in City Hall to express your outrage over the inaction and excuses at http://www.nyc.gov/html/static/pages/officeofthemayor/contact.shtml.

Note: This op-ed originally appeared in Kings County Politics.

02/22/2017 11:26 AM by Advertiser

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