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Dual-Military Households: Bridging Gaps for Special Needs

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Navigating military life is challenging, but for dual-military parents of special needs children, it can be a daunting journey filled with gaps and issues. As a single military parent of two special needs children, I have seen the emotional and educational turmoil caused by extended deployments and separation. Our story highlights the urgent need for legislative reform to ensure IEP portability across districts and states, providing consistent support. Advocating for standardized IEP paperwork and dual parental consent can bridge these gaps and ensure stability for military children.

Dual-Military – More than Twice as Hard

As a single military parent with two young children, J and M, both diagnosed with special educational needs, I have faced numerous challenges navigating the complexities of military life. Our story, like many others, reflects the persistent gaps and seam issues in the support systems for military children with special needs, particularly for families like ours who are dual-military and physically separated or divorced. And while I don’t know how many other military parents are in situations like mine, DoD publicity from 2022 indicates there are over 111,000 service members in dual military families, a number that’s probably growing.

Impact of Separation and Deployment

The physical separation due to deployments and separate parental duty stations adds another layer of complexity. When a parent can’t be present in the lives of their children every day, it hardly matters whether they’re in a different country or across the globe in a conflict zone. While my former spouse and I strive to provide for our children’s needs, the extended periods of separation can be challenging. J, who struggles with speech and language delays, experiences increased anxiety and regression in his progress during these times. M, who has difficulties with emotional regulation, often faces setbacks in his behavior and communication skills when a parent is absent. The emotional toll on our children is significant, and maintaining stability and continuity in their education and therapy, and most of all, their secure attachments and relationships, is a constant struggle​​​​​​.

Challenges of Parallel Parenting when Parents Are Not an Effective Team

Stay calm, get smart, write letters. Divorce and domestic conflict have further complicated our situation. The psychological trauma from these experiences has not only affected me as a parent but also my children, impacting their emotional well-being and ability to cope with changes. Given the frequent conflicts with my co-parent, I have adopted a parallel parenting approach, focusing on maintaining consistency and stability for my children while minimizing direct interaction with my former spouse. This approach has helped reduce stress and provide a more stable environment for J and M. However, I face challenges navigating the special education system independently. But being focused on preparation, my own learning, and politely but firmly standing up for my right to be involved in every step of the process ensures that both parents’ perspectives are considered in IEP & special ed decisions. When differences of opinion between parents do arise and can not be resolved with the help of an IEP team, it is wise to document them dispassionately and factually in a “Dear Principal” letter that will be included in the special educational record of your children. I’ve included an example of such a letter that was helpful in my own advocacy for our kids:

Gaps in Legislative Support for Dual-Military Children with Special Needs

IEP Portability and Extended School Year Services

Military families often face unique challenges regarding special education services due to the higher likelihood of parents and homes in separate school districts or even states. Under the current Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), an IEP is specific to a particular school or district. This limitation poses significant challenges for military children who may need to spend time in different locations during the summer or other periods.

For example, if J requires extended school year services but spends the summer months with me in a different district from where he attends school during the academic year, his IEP is not portable. This lack of portability can result in him not receiving the necessary support and services. This issue is particularly prevalent among military families due to “geographic bachelor” tours or separation/divorce scenarios. We need legislative action to ensure the efficient inter-district portability of IEPs, allowing military children to receive consistent support regardless of location. The proposed legislation should require states to recognize and implement IEPs from other districts within a reasonable timeframe to prevent any disruption in services.

Proposed Legislative Language for IEP Portability

“The Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children (the Compact) shall be amended to include provisions for the portability of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 Plans across state lines and school districts within a school year, and shall specifically support the concurrent enrollment of military children in two school districts, wherever each of their parents and/or guardians are and may be stationed or residing. The Compact shall mandate that receiving states and districts honor the existing IEPs without requiring re-evaluation, ensuring continuity of services for military children. Additionally, provisions shall be made for expedited reviews and necessary adjustments within 30 days of the child’s enrollment in the new district.”

Standardization of IEP Paperwork and Parental Consent

Another significant issue is the lack of standardization in IEP paperwork across different school districts and states. This inconsistency hinders the portability of IEPs and can lead to delays in service provision. Moreover, the current paperwork often requires only one parent’s contact information and consent, which can lead to conflicts or accidental disenfranchisement in joint legal custody situations.

Legislative action is necessary to standardize IEP paperwork nationwide, ensuring that both parents have equal representation and say in their children’s special education planning process. This legislation should mandate that schools obtain consent from both parents in joint custody cases and ensure that both parents receive all relevant information and communication regarding their child’s IEP.

Proposed Legislative Language for Standardization and Parental Consent

“All Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and related special education documentation shall be standardized across all states and districts. This standardization shall include uniform forms and procedures, ensuring clarity and consistency. Additionally, in cases of joint legal custody, the consent and involvement of both parents shall be required in the development and implementation of IEPs, ensuring both parents are informed and actively participate in their child’s education.”

Advocating for Consistent and Adequate Services

Our journey has highlighted the importance of advocacy. I have had to be persistent in advocating for my children’s needs, ensuring they receive the necessary support despite the frequent changes in their educational environments. This has included fighting for appropriate IEPs, securing speech and occupational therapy services, and coordinating with various healthcare providers to maintain a consistent treatment plan​​​​.

Supporting Other Dual-Military Families

Through our experiences, I have become a mentor to other dual-military parents facing similar challenges. Sharing our story, offering guidance on navigating the military and educational systems, and providing emotional support have become integral parts of my advocacy. I emphasize the importance of resilience, persistence, and the power of community support in overcoming these challenges. I also advocate for policy change among the various military services to better support family colocation when servicemembers share children regardless of marital status because there’s much room for improvement, and military-connected kids deserve to have both parents reliably in their lives over the long haul.

Conclusion

By sharing our story, I hope to provide support, guidance, and encouragement to other military parents of special needs children. Our journey underscores the importance of addressing dual-military families’ unique challenges and advocating for policies that bridge the gaps in support for our children’s needs. Ensuring the portability of IEPs and standardizing the paperwork and consent process are critical steps in providing the necessary support for military children with special needs, allowing them to thrive regardless of their geographic location.

About the Author: Mehdi Akacem

Mehdi Akacem was born in southern Connecticut to an immigrant father and a wold-traveler mother, both of whom were small business owners. Growing up, his parents strongly supported his education and instilled in him a resolute motive to chase his dreams, which he was fortunate to do by graduating from the Naval Academy and becoming a Naval Aviator. Over 25 years in uniform, Mehdi has deployed worldwide, flying the EA-18G Growler and graduating from the US Naval Test Pilot School. He shares two wonderful boys, ages six and eight, with his co-parent, a military officer.

The opinions expressed in guest author articles or blogs are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the organization’s views.

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