The struggle to help my son

In the end you are the best advocate for your child

My journey began years ago when my oldest son entered kindergarten. He is now 18, which means this all started in 2005, but the journey to  which I refer began in earnest when he was probably about 7 or 8.

It started when we got a call from his teacher. My son was acting “odd,” saying “weird” things, making “inappropriate” jokes. He would steal, too, and it was so obvious he was guilty, but then he would lie about it in a way that actually made the consequent punishment much worse.

In essence, he was disruptive in class, and so we began therapy outside of school. At this same time, my ex-wife — much to her credit — began to inquire about support for him. He was clearly struggling, had few friends, and did not seem to recognize his role in any of the issues that constantly swirled around him.

Honestly, I did not pay a lot of attention to this aspect and instead focused on the therapy, which was ineffectual largely because my son refused to talk about “the problem.”

Well, this “problem” escalated over the years, and school suspensions began to occur sometime in seventh grade. He was struggling academically, and his own analysis of what might be happening just seemed off. We began to have him tested, and psychologists were coming back with some interesting and somewhat disturbing analyses.

He appeared to have anxiety, might be depressed, and seemed to be at risk for Conduct disorder (Editor’s note: Conduct disorder refers to a group of repetitive and persistent behavioral and emotional problems in youngsters).

He scored low on various aspects of tests, especially as they related to analysis of his surroundings and reading social cues. In fact, one expert thought he was on the Autism spectrum.

By the age of 15, he began to abuse drugs and drink, and his issues quickly careened out of control. Soon thereafter, the administration wanted to expel him for trying to sell drugs on school grounds. This was his third school at this point, and this latest administration contended that his choices “to be bad” were just that – choices. He had the ability to choose to do different, they said, which meant he did not qualify for an Individualized Education Plan. His expulsion hearing was scheduled, and I thought, “Wow, we are in trouble.”

It was at this point that I talked to a child advocate, a remarkable woman who looked at the mountain of paperwork related to him supplied to me by my ex-wife. Her reaction was surreal. “You and your son have been done a great disservice,” she said to me. “He is clearly in need of support.”

Leveraging my background in mental health, I began to dig into research and developed a letter that used specific language that this child advocate suggested I use.

I emailed this letter, and within 15 minutes the school wanted “to talk.” It was surreal, but that one email began a chain of events in which he eventually qualified for an Individualized Education Plan and supports, but it was too little, too late.

The scope of this reflection does not allow me to comment on all else that transpired, but it entailed numerous arrests, drug overdoses, hospitalization and temporary placement in the state’s care. It has been a very long and complicated journey.

What I learned from this journey, though, is that school staff, administrators — and yes, even experts — can be wrong. I should not have deferred so easily to their respective judgment and I regret not fighting harder or with my knowledge as to my rights as a parent.

I do not mean to suggest that anyone with whom we worked did not care. Rather, I think we live in a state with very few resources allocated for education when you compare it with that of other states. “Live Free or Die” is a wonderful, catchy state motto, but it also explains the state’s de facto view on anyone in need of additional support, especially in complex cases like ours.

If you suspect there is an issue with your child, or you are at odds with the school regarding his or her care, seek outside support. There are resources in the state that are free — and in some cases, you may need to spend a little money to advocate for your child. It is worth it even if it seems scary.

In the end, I tried my best as a parent, and I am proud to be my son’s father. Like many parents, however, I wonder, “What if I…”

Rob Levey is a longtime contributor to ParentingNH and the board president of The Chase Home for Children, which works to meet the needs of New Hampshire’s at-risk youth and their families through residential and home-based services.

Categories: My Turn