The Director of the Delaware Autism Program (DAP) has announced plans to close the school’s residential program after 25 years and replace it with after-school programs, evening respite and temporary emergency beds. These three homes in Newark are educational facilities that enable up to fifteen students a night from all over the state to learn critical life skills and work on IEP goals in a home setting. They were initially designed for short term placements with a parent training component so that students could successfully transition back home. Over time the service offerings of the DAP group homes have evolved, sometimes providing long term placement, transition to adult group homes, respite to families, and/or a safe place for students to reside when their families could not best care for them. The Director has stated that he intends to close the homes due to liability concerns and management difficulties and his belief that residential services should not be provided by school districts. Autism Delaware shares the Director’s safety concerns, but believes that residential services are a school obligation and the homes should not be closed unless sufficient alternatives are made available to students in Delaware.
We support students’ rights under federal law to residential services. Regulations pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 state that “If placement in a public or private residential program is necessary to provide a free and appropriate education to a handicapped person because of his or her handicap, the program, including non-medical care and room and board, shall be provided at no cost to the person or his or her parents or guardian.” The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act regulations include a similar requirement. This clearly makes it an educational responsibility. IDEA also requires students be served in the least restrictive environment, but closing the homes would force some students into out-of-state placements. We believe this should be a last resort for only the most severely affected students that need to be in facilities that offer specialized services.
We support modification of existing supports, not their elimination. Management and safety issues call for redress, not closure. The Office of the Director and the Delaware Department of Education are committed by a 2004 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to cooperate in getting the homes licensed, which has not yet been done. In the meantime, student and staff safety must be addressed through a professional inspection to ensure it meets state standards. If the Office of the Director lacks the resources to manage the homes as required by the MOU, then the district should arrange for a contracted provider rather than close the homes. We support more cost-effective solutions than closure. One of the key benefits of the program is that in some cases, it eliminates the need for expensive out-of-state placements. Currently, the only in-state alternative is Delaware’s AdvoServ, which costs the state over $100,000 a year per child. It is more cost effective to either invest in staff training and licensing, or contract with a qualified provider to operate the homes. In addition, reinstating parent training to help students return home would benefit families while reducing the financial burden.
We oppose such a significant change in public service without a more open public process. Though the closure plan has not yet been approved, new placements have stopped and current students are now being phased out, bringing an end to a much needed service without providing an appropriate substitute. Families whose children are self-injurious, unable to perform basic self-care, faced with multiple disabilities, or who simply are not able to meet the needs of their child are being shut out. Affected families and their advocates must be included as decisions are being made concerning the group homes.
We support returning residential services to their original purpose.
The homes were established as a way to keep students close to their families and provide short-term residential services while training parents to support their child’s learning. The need for such services is even greater today as the incidence of autism has grown. As there are more students in need of the homes’ services than there is room to accommodate them, Autism Delaware supports expansion and appropriate funding of services to ensure that all students receive the necessary services to which they are legally entitled.