A little over a year ago my life completely changed. Not for the first time, and probably not for the last. But, everything is different. My life had changed 18 years ago when my wife gave birth to our first child. I remember as my Dad handed my newborn son back to me. He looked me in the eyes, and said, “now you know.” And, I did. Prior to that day, I’m not sure anyone could have explained to me the complex mixture of dreams, doubt, and responsibility that flooded me the first time I held him. My life changed again two years and four months later. My wife and I sat in an office at a clinic at USCF and received the news that our son had autism. The woman coldly reassured us that there was hope. Proudly boasting that one of her patients had recently gotten an actual job wrapping Twinkies. The ride back was silent for the better part of an hour before my wife turned to me a fiercely proclaimed, “my son will not be a Twinkie wrapper.”
That declaration launched an ongoing mission to forge a path to a successful future for our son. With time that path has taken many twist and turns, and our concept of a “successful future” has wavered and changed, like a mirage on a desert horizon. One of the great myths sold to parents of children with special needs is “mourning the loss of the perfect child.” Many well-meaning individuals, both expert and amateur, have attempted to nicely fit the reactions of parents to a diagnosis into the “stages of grief.” The misunderstanding is most major losses are event based, a loved one dies, an accident or illness, a tragedy or traumatic incident. A diagnosis of a lifetime, incurable condition in early childhood given to new parents is the start of a thousand and one losses. As your child grows, at each level of development comes new and unexpected losses. The separation from friends and family as they drift away, not grasping why you can no longer conveniently fit into typical life activity. The isolation as people’s reaction to, and inability to understand, unusual behaviors creates a feeling of embarrassment and guilt (“Sorry, my son licked the top of the ketchup bottle. Yes, I can’t believe he just did that either.”) The constant anxiety of what might happen (He/She slips out of your sight, and the fear grips you (Everything between “Oh, God please don’t be playing in the toilet” to “Oh God, please don’t be lost.”). You realise first that he/she probably won’t grow up to be President, and then slowly over time that they may never have friends, go to college, get married, or even live independently.
For the next sixteen years, we fought schools, doctors, insurance companies, bureaucrats. And, all too often we fought each other. But those fights were far from the only ones. You see, I was in the business of fighting. During the day I fought to protect the public against the “forces of evil.” I was a career prosecutor, and throughout my son’s childhood worked investigating and prosecuting criminals in areas as emotionally rape, spousal abuse, and child molestation; and as intellectually complex as trade secret theft, real estate fraud, and computer hacking.
Then, as I said, a little over a year ago my life changed. Dramatic shifts, politically, economically, and socially made it clear I couldn’t continue in my career. Fortunately, I was at retirement age and could walk away and happily close the door on the sea of human misery that is our criminal justice system. I still both needed and wanted to work. But, the foundation of that retirement opened up a broad spectrum of options. I could afford to take a substantial pay cut and work at something that fulfilled me and served others. You see, over my career I had stopped counting jury trials at around 150. I had built and overseen multiple investigations and prosecution units. I had designed and presented training systems for dozens or agencies and organisations across the country. I felt like Liam Neeson, “You see I have a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career.” Oh, the folly of ego.
For years a couple of friends had been trying to introduce me to one of their closest friends, another attorney, who had devoted most of his career and life to helping children with special needs and their parents. There always seemed to be something keeping us from getting together. But, once I chose to retire I picked up the phone and called him. We met for lunch and as we talked, I kept hearing words coming out of his mouth that had many times come out of mine. “You’ve seen how school districts lie and screw over even kids with parents like you. What do you think they do to a single mother with English as a second language, and working two jobs?” “Why isn’t there one place a parent can go to get help in all the areas they need? Why do they need to go one place for help with education issues, another for public benefits, another for estate planning, and on and on……?” It wasn’t far into that meeting before it was clear I’d found a place where my “particular skills” were needed. And, on that day my life changed.
When I began preparing for the career shift, I immersed myself, planning on “mastering” the basics of special education law as quickly as possible. No big deal, between assignment changes and special projects I had done this a dozen times over my prosecution career. My first surprise was how ridiculously simple it was. As a prosecutor I was expected to have a functional understanding of hundreds of specific sections of a half dozen or lengthier individual code groups: Penal, Health & Safety, Business & Professions, Vehicle, Evidence, Welfare & Institutions, all on top of rules of court (official and each judge’s personal twist), trial practice, jury selection, criminal procedure, investigative techniques, crime scene analysis, forensics, and the list goes on. As I began to build on my foundation of knowledge I laughed at the realisation that there were really only three laws I needed to know. Only three, what a walk in the park for a pro like me. Oh, the folly of ego.
I soon learned that the field was fraught with challenges and complexities of which I had never dreamed. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. At Tollner Law Offices I had the support (and tolerance) of several trained and experienced attorneys. In a field of primarily sole practitioners, my Boss had a vision of a firm (Like the Districts rely on). A firm where there was room for specialization and opportunities to “staff” challenging issues and cases. A firm where, when “all hands on deck” was called, you could throw massive human and intellectual resources at a case or problem, case, or trial. I also had a solid, and unique base of experience that did apply. A trial is a trial is a trial. My “particular skills” were very relevant and exceptionally unusual in the field. Over the last year, I have had the chance to build on that foundation, with the guidance, support and help of my colleagues and the community that has built up around the field. A year later I am comfortably competent across the range of issues and challenges this area of law. And, I have had the opportunity to help a number of children and families, leaving them with a hope for that their vision of a “successful future” may not be lost. However, competence has never been my goal, nor a level at which I am satisfied. Mastery, has always been the goal. And, while helping a few children and families has been rewarding, the knowledge of how many need help tempers that satisfaction.
Out of the realization of the folly of my own ego was born this plan. Like many plans, this will undergo revisions and changes. Those will hopefully be guided by the needs expressed to me by readers and listeners. I am launching a blog and podcast, with the mandatory accompanying Website, Facebook Page, Twitter Account, etc. My goal in this is to speed up the journey for those who follow and allow others to join me on my journey from competence to mastery. With perhaps this post as the one exception, I hope that each future post and episode will contain meaningful and valuable insights, tools, and resources that Parents, Attorneys, and Advocates can use in their own battles. The first season will be catching up on year one of my journey, a synopsis at a raw and practical level of special education that goes beyond the letter of the law. Then in season two, I will invite you to join me on the second stage of my journey, as I confront the folly of my own ego and reach out to the leading experts across many diverse fields to fill in the gap between competence and mastery. I do this at a time when my firm is rapidly launching its own program in public outreach and education, professional support, and resource development. However, this is independent and very personal. My personal penance to pay for my folly of ego, with one goal and one goal only. For me and my children, and you and your children, family, and clients:
-Surviving Special Education.