KANSAS CITY, KAN. More than 450 children in Kansas have special education needs but don't have parents who will ensure those needs are met, according to Families Together Inc., a statewide organization that serves the families of disabled children.
That's where education advocates can step in.
Topeka-based Families Together holds eight to 10 training sessions a year for people who want to become state-appointed education advocates for children with special education needs who have no parents to fill that need. More than 20 people, mostly social workers and foster parents, attended a training session Wednesday evening at the Kansas City Area Social and Rehabilitation Services office.
Education advocates ensure that children with special education needs receive free and appropriate education, as provided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990. They review the child's special education program and request more services if necessary.
"YOUR ROLE IS education," explained Lesli Girard, advocate coordinator for Families Together, during the session. "You're not a big brother-big sister type. But you do need to get to know the child."
An education advocate can be appointed for any child with special education needs whose parents are unknown or can't be found, or whose parental rights have been terminated by the judicial system for such crimes as abuse or neglect.
The Kansas Board of Education appoints education advocates at the request of the Kansas Social Rehabilitation Services department. Before receiving a state appointment, a person at least 18 years old must submit an application and three references and attend a training session. Education advocates are asked to serve for at least a year.
GIRARD HAS BEEN an advocate for about a year for a 15-year-old and a 10-year-old. Recently she worked with school officials to shorten the school day of the 10-year-old, who has a behavior disorder. She said it is fulfilling to help a child with such needs.
"It's a neat feeling," she said. "It's just that sense that you're doing something good for her and she's not going to just be shuffled through the system. . . . These kids are individual kids. They're just like any other kids. They just have things that they just need special help with."
Girard said she wanted to become an advocate because it would help her become a better trainer of other advocates and because she knew the need for advocates was great.
She said an advocate should know the child, know about the child's disability and make clear to the child that the advocate wants to help him or her receive a good education.
"I think the premise people need to go on is just making that child successful," she said.
CONNIE OLIVER, a social worker in Kansas City, attended the training session so she could become an advocate for children on her case load. Being an advocate will be easy, she said, because she is already involved with the children. She said she felt confident that she knew enough about the children she served to know what kind of special education they should receive.
School is an important part of straightening out a child with problems, she said.
"It just makes our job a whole lot easier when we can go in and be a part of a child's future and make them successful," Oliver said.
Misty Kifer, a 1992 Kansas University graduate who is a social worker in Kansas City, wants to be able to step in immediately for children with parents whose parental rights are terminated.
"Otherwise," she said, "they're just floating around in the classroom."
MARSHA AND MARK Warner, Roeland Park, will soon become long-term foster parents for a child who, they suspect, will need special education. Mark Warner said he wasn't daunted at the thought of being responsible for the quality of the child's special education.
"Because a child can't function in the normal mode, somebody has to step in," he said. "A caring adult can't get caught up in that it's such a responsibility. They have to help."
For more information on becoming an education advocate call Families Together, 1-800-264-6343.