SNA Plays Active Role at ASA Conference

(From left) SNA members Steve Dale,Dennis Sandoval, Brian Rubin, James Caffry and Carol Battaglia answered families’ many legal questions at our exhibit booth.

SNA attorneys were highly visible at the annual ASA (Autism Society of America) convention in San Diego—attending a pre-conference workshop on bullying, staffing a well-trafficked booth, and sharing the perspective of “attorney dads” with an audience of family members.

Steve Dale, Pacheco, California, was invited to a pre-conference workshop on bullying, where he brainstormed with self-advocates and other professionals, then signed on to a taskforce that will advise the organization’s leadership. The session covered far more than the well-recognized problem of student harassment, identifying a long list of situations that can foster abuse. Steve highlighted the problem of poorly monitored day and residential programs, which have suffered staff reductions due to budget cuts. Others spoke about the behavior of first responders such as police and firefighters, or of parents being intimidated by school officials. It was observed that some individuals on the spectrum may not be aware that they’re being victimized and that it’s important for caregivers to be able to identify the behavioral changes that may signal bullying incidents.

ASA staffer Rose Jochum notes that the group’s findings may ultimately be folded into ASA’s “Safe and Sound” training for first responders. She also envisions toolkits focused on prevention, legal remedies and the healing process.

SNA member Brian Rubin, Buffalo Grove, Illinois, kicked off “Two Dads-Two Lawyers: Special Needs Legal and Future Planning” with a video of son Mitchell, 31, who has autism, receiving a Special Olympics gold medal for track. “Having a child with special needs reorganizes your priorities,” he began, as the audience nodded in agreement. “Vacations are different. Going out on Saturday night is complicated. You can’t ask the 12-year-old next door to babysit. But you come to recognize what’s really important in life. Your biggest fear involves what could happen to your kid when you’re no longer around.”

Brian’s presentation partner, SNA member James Caffry, Waterbury, Vermont, who has a 12-year-old with autism, pointed out that it’s wise to create a special needs trust (SNT) “bucket” even if there’s a chance your child may become self-supporting in the future. “There’s so much you can’t predict, but it’s in place in the event that it’s needed. It can catch your life insurance payout, in the worst case. If it’s unnecessary in 20 years, you just don’t fund it.”

While it’s simplest to create and administer a single SNT to which any relative can contribute, specific family circumstances should be considered. A divorce can render that sort of coordination impractical. Or a grandparent’s wish to name certain grandchildren “remainder beneficiaries” may warrant a separate trust. “It’s the job of the special needs attorney to raise questions that don’t normally occur to families,” says James.

He also pointed to the importance of researching state laws governing private insurance. “In Vermont and Illinois,” he noted, “if you financially support an adult child with special needs, insurance providers must cover him/her, regardless of age. In addition, 31 states have passed autism-specific laws requiring coverage for therapies and other services that may be important supplements to what your school system provides. It really pays to check.”

Brian shared a long list of questions to ask when searching for an experienced and qualified special needs attorney. Here are a few:

  • How many special needs trusts have they worked on in the past month?
  • How many adult guardianships have they handled in the past month?
  • Have they ever worked on a lawsuit settlement with a personal injury attorney?
  • What other areas of law do they practice? You should avoid a general practitioner, who won’t be able to focus on this fast-changing area of law.

At the end of the session, they devoted a full half-hour to answering questions. “It was a very warm audience,” confides Brian. “We were a bunch of family members sharing our experiences.”