More volunteers are being sought to advocate for students with special education needs who have no one in their lives to see that those needs are being met.
Surrogate parents appointed by the Arizona Department of Education are given educational rights over children in need of special education services when their parents’ rights have been severed or are no longer in their lives.
The surrogates typically have some background in working with special education students. They are responsible for signing off on testing to determine if services are necessary, reviewing required individualized education programs for students already receiving services and ensuring that those services are in fact being provided.
Stefanie Sharkey, the department’s surrogate parent program coordinator, said many of the students with surrogate parents come from group homes, and they need someone to represent them through the process as mandated by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
She said the state has only 86 surrogate parents available to serve 468 children currently using the program. But the number of students is growing.
Sharkey said there has been a rise in students who need a surrogate parent, and she anticipates that trend will continue. While the department strives to limit each surrogate’s caseload to six students, she said some have had to take on more.
Meanwhile, the department has struggled to find adequate volunteers in some regions of the state, especially in rural communities.
Cochise County has only one education surrogate. Yavapai County, the fourth largest in the state, has just six.
They’re better off than others, though. Apache, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, La Paz, Mohave, Navajo, Santa Cruz and Yuma counties don’t have any surrogates living within their boundaries.
Sharkey said she has turned to other districts and charter schools to find new recruits, but “no bites yet.” In the meantime, a surrogate in another county would be asked to advocate for a student in an underserved area telephonically or via Skype.
She noted rural communities haven’t produced a significant need for surrogates, but that may not be the case as more children become wards of the state.
In those cases, surrogate parents do not meet face-to-face with the children they are advocating for, and that can be problematic.
On top of the stresses of no longer having a parental figure in their lives and having disabilities that require special services, these children are being assigned surrogates who they’ve never met. Sharkey said in-person interactions at least allow them the opportunity to get to know their advocates. But over the phone or even via video chat, Sharkey said they likely lose that connection.
“It’s just another adult making decisions for them and about them,” she said via email.
Surrogate parent Susan Barenholtz said in-person interactions are “critical” with these children.
By the time they get to group homes, she said, they often don’t have any family left in their life. Barenholtz meets with her students as often as she can to prove she won’t just be another disappointment.
Even then, the road to their trust can be long.
“These kids will not warm up to you for a long, long time because they’ve been hurt so much and they don’t trust anybody,” she said. “They have dozens and dozens of adults revolving around their lives. Every day, it’s a new thing. Another adult comes in, and they don’t trust anything.”
Barenholtz has been a surrogate parent on and off since 2000, and she currently advocates for three young boys.
She sees one student monthly, and her time with him has demonstrated the importance of making that personal connection.
She said he has made significant progress at school, having transferred for a time to a campus tailored to his emotional disability. Now, he’s back at his “home school” where he’s excited to attend homecoming and getting more involved with extracurricular activities.
On Christmas, Barenholtz took him to dinner and a movie. He hugged her goodbye later – it was a big deal.
Barenholtz is one of 50 surrogates in Maricopa County, where many of the program’s student reside.
Derald Cox serves children in Coconino County, which has far fewer surrogates available. He’s one of four, and he was specifically asked to volunteer after another surrogate left the program.
Cox said he is not currently advocating for any students, but he has had eight cases in the past four years.
He said the kids sometimes think he’s there to do little more than sign off on paperwork. And they’re not always wrong.
But after 20 years of public education experience, including 10 years teaching special education students, Cox said he often knows better than others what questions need to be asked.
Sharkey said the legal responsibility to appoint education surrogates falls to schools.
But it takes knowledgeable surrogates like Cox to then follow through and be the “responsible, concerned” parent that is otherwise not in the kid’s life.
You can get more information about the surrogate parent program and apply to be a volunteer here.