Securing Special Education Services for Eligible DC Children

Successful advocacy to navigate complex administrative challenges and secure special education services for a pro bono client’s eligible children.

January 29, 2015

A team of lawyers from Latham & Watkins’ Washington, D.C. office helped a single parent navigate the District of Columbia Public Schools system to ensure her seven-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter received the special education services they were eligible for but not receiving. The pro bono representation expanded to include successful representation in a related custody case and in appealing a denial of supplemental security income (SSI) benefits to provide additional income for mental health treatment. The Latham team included partners Jennifer Giordano and Carolyne Hathaway; associates Elizabeth Johnson, Michael McCarthy and Noel Miller; and paralegal Stefanie Johnson.

“I got involved with this pro bono project because I have two special needs children who have Individualized Education Programs (IEP), and I’ve been immersed in the Fairfax County special education world for the past 12 years,” said Hathaway. “I’ve been able to successfully advocate on behalf my kids in securing placement for them in the right programs. And I thought it would be beneficial to take that experience and work with folks who have children in the DC public school system.”

IEPs are critical for students with special needs because they describe in writing the amount of time a child will spend receiving special education services, the related services the child will receive, as well as academic and behavioral expectations. “IEPs are typically based on extensive educational and psychological testing to determine what deficiencies a child is confronting and identifies the supports that need to be put in place to help the child achieve academic success,” said Hathaway. “It’s a binding document.”

Working with the Children’s Law Center

Latham is one of more than 100 law firms that partners with the Children's Law Center (CLC) on pro bono cases like this one. This pro bono support allows the nonprofit organization to help even more children who have been abused or neglected, are caught in custody battles, live in poor housing conditions or have special education needs that are not being met.

Giordano has worked on a number of pro bono special education cases referred to Latham through the CLC. “I can’t imagine how parents navigate the DC Public Schools system without help — whether it is help from a firm like Latham or an organization like CLC,” she said. “I feel like it is a struggle as a trained lawyer to figure out how to navigate it, and I just don’t know how parents do it.”

“Parents need an advocate to guide them through the process, to help get the school administration to understand their child’s need and then commit to providing the required services,” added Johnson. “If you are not prepared with specific data demonstrating the existence of a learning disability requiring services under the law, your child probably will not receive necessary assistance.”

Developing Your Practice Through Pro Bono

“I joined this pro bono team because I was new to the firm and looking for advocacy opportunities,” said McCarthy. “As a first year associate, a lot of what we do does not involve direct client contact, solo advocacy opportunities or standing up in front of a judge to make an argument. Pro bono gives you those opportunities, and that’s what I was looking for — and this assignment definitely delivered.”

At Latham, Johnson focuses her practice on patent litigation and this case gave her an opportunity to develop other aspects of her practice. “On the custody piece, we had the opportunity to go to court for a couple hearings before securing a dismissal,” said Johnson. “This was Michael and my first opportunity to present before a judge, and it gave us early experience preparing for and successfully arguing first for admissibility of evidence and later for dismissal of the custody suit.”

The pro bono case really opened Johnson’s eyes to the struggles that children with disabilities go through on a day-to-day basis, with the added difficulty of trying to get special education services through the school system. “We achieved our primary goal, an IEP for the son, which provided him with special education services in every subject and health-related services. And we got his sister, who struggles with severe, ongoing psychological and emotional issues, a 504 plan.” A 504 plan helps students with learning and attention issues learn and participate in the general education curriculum. It outlines how a child’s specific needs are met with accommodations, modifications and other services.

For More Information

For more information about the Children’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. visit

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