Audry Martinez and her son Elijah

To Be Homeless and have the Special Education System Terribly Fail Your Son

At first glance, one would never know what is really going on at this hotel. The five story relatively new building at 1420 Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn New York that sits a few feet back from the other buildings, has a nice modern sign outfront that states: “Hotel Lynx.” This is the story I did on this on Verizon FiOS TV News/RNN-TV.

Hotel Lynx is a Homeless Shelter Run by the City of New York

Homeless Shelter in Brooklyn New York

We are about to introduce you to a mother and her special-needs child. Special Education around the country is a convoluted process where many parents turn to litigation arguing because no “adequate” placement exists for their child in the public system, the school district must pay tuition at a private school.

Maggie Moroff is the Special Education Policy Coordinator for “Advocates for Children.” Parents come to them when they don’t know where else to turn. The moment you walk through the office door, there is a little play area for the kids. Moroff told me for every case Advocates for Children takes on, there are probably a 100 parents waiting in line.

Is the Special Education System Broken? Advocate Maggie Moroff looked me right in my eyes and said: “A lot of It is.”

“We exist, we here at Advocates for Children exist is order to support students around a bunch of education issues. And a tremendous amount of them overlap with special education issues, so we see again and again cases where children are not getting the support and services that they need. Nobody calls us when things are going well, but what they do call us about is heartbreaking.” -Maggie Moroff
Maggie Moroff of Advocates for Children talking to Journalist Dominic Carter

So kids are falling behind year after year?

“Kids are definitely falling behind year after year. Those are our clients. And a lot of other people out there that aren’t our clients, because for every one that finds their way to us, we assume there are a 100 behind them that are struggling and just trying to make it through day to day and their not out there finding an advocacy organization.” -Maggie Moroff

Moroff is the type of professional you want on your side. She gets it, and cares tremendously. Why is the job at times, heartbreaking?

“Because these are children and because if they are not getting the services they need, their not progressing with their peers, the gaps are going to grow bigger and bigger, Some of them are never going to graduate, some of them are going to graduate, and then struggle with life after that. All of these are students who can learn if they get the right support and services, and to not give them those supports is to fail them.”-Maggie Moroff

I came to Advocates for Children following an extensive piece that was done in the NY Times, the issue of Special Education and how some kids are falling through the cracks. A twelve year old, they called T.J, reading on a first grade level. How in the world could that happen. I said to Maggie Moroff:

“Right, so T.J was one of our clients. When students with disabilities, and those disabilities can be varied, when they have special education needs that aren’t appropriately met or appropriately identified early enough on, and the students don’t get all of the appropriate supports and services that they need, the disability catches up with them and they fall further and further behind as they get older.” -Maggie Moroff
Elijah

Please meet 14 year old Elijah. I raised my left arm high up in the air and said to him “High five…can I get a high five.” Elijah complied.

Elijah’s pleasant demeanor and contagious smile stands out. Again Elijah is 14 years old but has fallen behind in school. He’s only in the 5th grade and reads on a 1st grade level. Remember that homeless shelter previously mentioned, the “Hotel Lynx.” Elijah and his mom Audry Martinez live there. They have been in NYC shelters for the last 2 and a half years. When talking to Elijah’s mom she told me that in a million years that she never thought she would find herself in this situation.

When we were in their living quarters on the fourth floor, of the “Hotel Lynx,” all of their possessions were in this one cramped room. You had to sign in with security in the lobby with photo I.D, and then security escorted you to an office, where you had to sign in again with photo I.D again

This was all, a serious reality check. We were not in some college classroom discussing the Homeless issue. This wasn’t a contrast study on being homeless. This was a woman and her child fighting for survival. To witness this, tt felt like somebody had punched me in my stomach.

It was in that office with two workers signing me in, that I also found something else so stunning. Seasoned reporter. I’m supposed to have seen it all, done it all, right?

In the far left of this small office were a few plastic crates desk-level, that had typical foods for people that came in and may be hungry. Mothers and their children. One crate was full with oranges, and another had sliced wheat bread, wrapped individually. It was just something about this foot arrangement that did not set well with me. It seems cruel,and inhumane. I only wish I could have taken a photo.

People need to eat, but this bothered my conscience. It just seemed so wrong

Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn New York

Reality slapped me in the face again when we got to their actual room! It really bothered me that human beings are forced into such a small area: two twin beds in the room. One for mother and one for son. But no one wants the alternative, a woman and her child on the Streets of New York.

Scanning the room, but trying my hardest not to do anything that might possibly offend them, I quickly noticed there is no way for them to heat up food unless they go to the hotel office. And there is no refrigerator. Perishables are stored in a little cooler. When we walked in Elijah…he was doing what kids do these days….locked on his video game. When it comes to Special Education, Elijah is dealing with

Severe Learning Disabilities

Language Disorder

ADHD

Elijah and his Mother

I asked his mother how difficult was the Special Education Process?

“The process was very difficult and has been long. I got him evaluated in school and outside of school privately. His classification was changed many times but his services remained the same. Basically Elijah was standstill, no progress. So I kept looking for resources until I got the number to “Advocates for Children,” and we got the ball rolling.” -Mother Audry Martinez

So Advocates for Children has done a lot for you?

“Yes as far as getting Elijah evaluated outside privately and then all the evaluations….I submitted to school. So the last IEP, this will be it. Elijah was, they approved for him to be transferred outside of public school somewhere, where he gets the services he needs.” Mother Audry Martinez

How tough has this process been on you?

“Very frustrating. It’s been tough. It’s been two and a half long years. Maybe more. Because this started in Miami. I came two, two and a half years ago to New York, but in Miami it started from there. Three years for evaluation. After the evaluations were done, they denied him the services, do to absentees or whatever, but he did have an IEP. More so, I came to NY looking for help for education for Elijah. I know he needed the help and if Florida wasn’t going to give it to him, I knew I had to come to NY and get it, and they still gave me a struggle but I’m still here fighting.” Mother Audry Martinez

The Federal law as it pertains to Special Education is called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It give every child the right to services and accommodations that will allow them to learn. The steps in the Special Education Process are first testing the student to pinpoint if there is a learning disability. School Districts then come up for the child with an Individualized Education Program better known as an IEP. A written legal document.

But here is the problem. Services at times still don’t materialize. Special ed evaluations done by school districts are often wrong. One has to wonder if it’s intentional to save money. The key experts say, is to find the accurate diagnosis of your child’s problem.

It was only after Advocates for Children started working with Martinez just last year, that the organization pushed for an outside independent special ed evaluation of her son Elijah.

There are 210,000 students classified with a disability in the New York city public schools. The spectrum of disability is wide, according to Maggie Moroff with Advocates for Children.

“It’s varied. Under Federal law, there are 13 different disability classifications. And a student can have autism, they can have a learning disability, they can have emotional and behavior needs, they can be vision impaired, there is a big range. And even in reach of those, there’s a range in terms of support and services they need. So they may only need related services in their general education classroom. They may need a much more aggressive constellation of supports and services. We really talking about kids along a very big and varied spectrum. So when we’re talking about failing kids with disabilities, we’re also talking about kids along that same big spectrum.” -Maggie Moroff
Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn near the Hotel Lynx

But there’s also the problem of the bureaucracy. A computer system specifically to keep track, and make sure the students receive services they are supposed too, has cost the City of New York at least 130 million, and has been riddled with technical glitches and systemic problems since it was instituted in 2011. On the computer system, it sounded like Moreoff was attempting to do the glass is half-full vs half empty approach.

“so their working on it. They have a system for tracking….they know who gets special education support and services, but they are having a very hard time tracking whether or not their getting all the support and services their suppose to get under their IEP. It’s a complex, complicated, and big system.” -Maggie Moroff

I just had to follow-up again, and said didn’t the city spent 130 million on a computer system exactly for this reason.

“So they did, and the system was fraught, and they are working on fixing it, but it’s not there. It’s important because you need to know who the kids are, and who the kids are getting their services and who the kids more importantly, aren’t getting their services, in order to fix it. Right, you can’t give them what they need, if you don’t know who they are.” -Maggie Moroff
Elijah near the Brooklyn Shelter

I also had the tremendous opportunity to speak with Elijah. Elijah had a way of making me feel better about his living situation instead of it being the other way around. Coming in, I had braced myself to deal with the special education issue, but this was the combination of special education and homelessness. Elijah and I walked together, two blocks. Just the two of us. Our conversation went like this:

So Elijah how you do like school? Good, he proudly said in a soft voice.

You like school? Yeah. He stated again

It’s good? Uh hmm. Elijah said.

What’s your favorite subject? Art.

Why do you like art? Because I like to draw.

Do you have a second favorite subject? Well… PE.

Ok gym? Yeah.

What do you want to do when you get a little older? I want to go to the Army!

You want to go to the military and serve our country? um hmm.

Wow? Wow? So you like school, I asked in conclusion? Yeah! Elijah said as he started warming up to me.

Audry Martinez talking to Newsman Dominic Carter

I asked Elijah’s mother about her background:

“I’m originally from here. I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I left to Florida about 15 years ago….Well I lived in Florida 15 years. It’s been up and down, you know. In Florida, it hasn’t been too well for me in Florida….although I maintained, and then came back to NY.” -Mother Audry Martinez

Is it fair to say that things only changed for you in a positive direction once you got an outside evaluation for your son? She said Yes, and then offered this advice to other parents.

“As a parent who has a child with special needs, never give up. Always struggle, find resources, you’ll find it, you’ll get the help, never give up cause your Child’s education, whether he has a special need or not…. is very important.” Mother Audry Martinez

There are stories out there that touch the heart. This is one of them.

I am so, so proud to tell you that Elijah and his mom will no longer be homeless. After two and a half years of living in a shelter, Audry Martinez is moving to her own apartment.

A place they can now call home in the Inwood section of Manhattan. But the good News doesn’t stop there.

Education officials have determined Elijah has not received the “adequate” services in the NY public school system, and he will finally get the help he needs. The City of New York is placing Elijah in a private school and paying for it.

“Yes. I’ve been in a shelter since I came from Miami for two and a half years….So now I’m finally moving to an apartment next week and Elijah will be placed in his news school in about a week or so, maybe by the end of the month. I did my part. He’s finally going to be placed where he wants, and we are finally going to have our own home.” -Mother Audry Martinez

My heart sides with the underdog. As I speak publicly as a keynote around the country and Canada, I always say from audience to audience (and strongly believe) that we all fall down in life, the question is do you get back up!!! Audry Martinez, with her faith in God, got back up from literally being homeless. The 10 count didn’t get her. She is fighting not only for herself, but for her son’s future. I was elated and said:

You son, through the help of Advocates for Children is going to be placed in a private school and in the appropriate setting….and your going to have your own place? — Newsman Dominic Carter

Smiling and nodding her head up and down Audry Martinez said “Yes sir,” and that it makes her feel great.

As far as advice that the organization Advocates for Children offers to parents, they say: trust their instincts….do your research and to understand parents are very powerful in the education process.

For all of you Parents that feel you have no where to turn as it relates to Special Education Services that may be needed for your child, here is the rest of our conversation with the expert. Maggie Moroff of Advocates for Children, based in New York City.

Are services sometimes recommended for children, and then never materialize?

Yes. A lot of the work that we do is about….a lot of it starts with not even getting to that recommendation….but a lot of the work that we do are supports and services, and placements that are known….and identified, and mandated in a student’s IEP and still not provided. Sometimes mandated under an IEP that was created by a team where everybody agreed the kid needed it. Sometimes mandated after litigation. In all of those cases, there are delays, and sometimes it takes an advocate or lawyer coming in, in order to make sure that the services get received. -Maggie Moroff

She told us deadlines come and go. There are delays after delays. A parent often time know when something is wrong with their child? You may not know what it is, but you know something is wrong. So you get testing by the education system. Is the diagnosis that’s done by the city often missed?

So I can’t quantify that. But again a lot of the cases that come into us…one of the first things we do is make sure appropriate testing is done. And we often look to, or recommend to families that we’re giving technical assistance too is that they try to get an evaluation done outside of the system, or something more through. Department of Education (DOE) evaluations are not as through as independent evaluations!!! And its really hard to take everything into consideration, so one of our first steps is often an outside evaluation. -Maggie Moroff

How successful do you feel your agency is?

I think that we do remarkably good work. I think that when we pick up a case, and recognize I do policy work, I’m not one of the litigators, but when we pick up a case we pick it up because we know it’s an important case, and one we can offer assistance in and we do well with those cases. One of the frustrations of this work, and one of the reasons why I personally do the policy work, is that helps in individual cases. Right, so we can get a student either the services and services they need in the public schools, or sometimes the resolution is getting them something they need in a non-public school, but we also need to fix the public schools and see progress there, so that a public doesn’t need a lawyer in order to get that. -Maggie Moroff

I close this way. Parents that are reading your comments right now, that may feel something is wrong with their child, what recommendations do you make to them, what steps should they take?

Right. So Parents are really powerful. The more they know the more they can do. There are a lot of resources out there. For a family in New York City…we do a lot of parent materials, we do a lot of parent workshops. I would tell parents to go out there and learn as much as they can, but also to not be afraid to ask for help….both at the schools, because there are schools that are going to be really responsive, and outside of the school if they are not getting answer they need from the school. But parents should trust their instincts, and they should take steps to make sure that other people are looking at their concern. Evaluation doesn’t mean your child is going to end up in special education necessarily, but the more information you have the better off you are. -Maggie Moroff
Better Times are coming for Elijah and Mom

Dominic Carter also knows about Special Education first hand. Dominic had to go through the system with his son Dominic Carter Jr.