Mass. Advocates for Children: Fighting for the Rights of Young Students

Readers, imagine yourself waiting for the most opulent being in your life: your child. As the yellow bus approaches, you feel calm, ready to hear your child’s stories of the day. The bus stops, you see your child. As your little one runs to your arms, you ask the same question you have asked a million times — “So, how was your day?” — expecting the usual details. But instead, your little one tells you that today they were thrown to the floor and held there by a staff person at the school. You see the swelling on their arms. You’re shocked. Someone has abused your child.

You and your child are in crisis. I never saw this coming, you say to yourself. You have attended many parent teacher meetings. I never saw this coming. What would my child have done to be physically restrained and harmed? Something is wrong.

Well reader, this happens in our country. And yes, it happens in Massachusetts. Public schools in the Commonwealth restrained students 9,000 times in 2017.

I learned a lot about this topic from one of my customers (I’m a Spare Change News vendor) who works for Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC). She has shared stories of children in crisis within various school districts in Massachusetts. These stories range from mistreatment of autistic children to the barriers refugee families face trying to register their children for school. And most importantly, she told me, sometimes this is not settled with a simple meeting with the instructor or principal. You may need an advocate, and that is what MAC is here to do.

MAC was founded by Hubie Jones in 1969 after he uncovered thousands of children being excluded from Boston Public Schools, primarily due to being classified as having a disability or not being able to speak English. A report and Task Force exposed the students’ exclusion from school and created MAC. He is noted for describing advocacy for children as, not a fashion, but a sacred obligation.

In February 2017, I sat down with MAC’s executive director, Jerry Mogul, and Liza Hirsch, an attorney for the agency.  Before she became an attorney at MAC, Ms. Hirsch worked at a middle school in Holyoke, Massachusetts where she helped uncover the unlawful use of physical restraints at the school.  

During the meeting at the MAC offices, I brought up a Boston Public Radio interview Governor Charlie Baker, where the Governor spoke exuberantly about how his administration lowered the number of homeless families in Massachusetts. He said that in 2016 the number of homeless families living in hotel or motel rooms was at an all-time high of about 1,500. The Governor’s staff successfully brought down the number to about 900. Mr. Mogul and Ms. Hirsch shook their heads in unison: “No.” They stated that the governor had simply closed some of the motels they were housing the homeless families in. By closing these motels, the Governor has played with the numbers. These families weren’t permanently housed, they have been moved out of the motels. How can you have these homeless families stay in one place and all of a sudden close their facilities? The families have nowhere to go.

I wanted to hear a success story of MAC and a state agency working together to improve children’s lives. They told me the story of Susanne, a single mother of twin boys with autism, named William and James. Prior to their diagnosis, the mother was a member of the United States Army, who was stationed in Iraq for 11 months. Everything changed once the boys were diagnosed with autism. As the year progressed, her boys began to display dangerous behaviors and also experienced depression.

Susanne was discharged from the military and moved back to Massachusetts. Her children received services from the Massachusetts Children Autism Medicaid Waiver program. As a result of MAC’s intensive legislative advocacy efforts, this program provides intensive community based, in-home therapeutic services for low income children with autism who are at risk of being institutionalized. Susanne’s family was one of many in Massachusetts that received the services they badly need.

Readers, in closing, there is a song by rhythm and blues group Earth, Wind, and Fire called “Way of the World.” A favorite verse of mine is, “A child is born with a heart of gold…Way of the world turns his heart so cold.” Children are shaped by the adults in their life. So remember readers, it is about the children, always about the children.

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