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Volunteer Surrogate Parents Fill Role For Special Needs Students

Children with special needs are required to have someone making critical decisions about what’s in the best interest of their education. But some children have no one to fill that role.

That’s where New Hampshire’s educational surrogate program comes in. But it’s need of more volunteers to fill gaps in some parts of the state.

Linda Potter always starts her training sessions with a lesson in perception.

“Tell me what you see,” she asks the group.

She is showing them an optical illusion. You may have seen it before – you either see a beautiful, young woman, or an old lady, depending upon your point of view.

“Someone’s perception is their reality. It doesn’t make it right or wrong. It just makes it their perception,” she says.

Five people have shown up for the one day, nine-hour training in Concord. They’re looking to become educational surrogates.

Potter says perception is critical in special education meetings, where people often have passionate yet differing opinions but still all want what’s best for the child.

Educational surrogates effectively act as a parent when it comes to making those decisions for a special needs child who doesn’t have anyone to fill that role.

That’s a job Hannah Mariotti of North Hampton would like to do.

“I’ve been a mental health counselor for many years and worked in schools and other organizations and I felt like the special education piece of my training was really missing. To do this really rounds that out and gives me a perspective I might not otherwise have. And to be able to help at the same time, it’s great.”

Once her training is complete, Mariotti must then pass a test on education law as well as a criminal background check. At that point, she is eligible to serve as a surrogate parent for a child with special needs.

There are nearly 100 children in New Hampshire who currently have educational surrogates. Federal law requires the program.

Any Jenks runs the program for the New Hampshire Department of Education. She describes the students who need surrogates.

“They’re educationally disabled children, and many of them are in foster care, they’re usually in the custody of DCYF, guardianship, or many times one parent is deceased and another is unavailable.”

There are roughly 180 available trained educational surrogate parents in the state. And they are made up mostly of retired teachers, current educators, recent college graduates, and foster parents.

Jenks says there is a need right now for surrogates in some areas of the state, such as in Claremont and the Lakes Region.

Fifty-six students were assigned educational surrogates in the past year. That’s compared to 34 students and 39 students in the two years before that.

Maggie Bishop is executive director of DCYF. She says that while a high percentage of children in the system have special needs, most have a parent or guardian to make decisions.

“It’s for those few cases where there is no parent either available or able to make those kinds of decisions or provide that kind of advocacy where this program is so beneficial.”

For those like Allyson Vignola of Barnstead, the time commitment of being a surrogate can be substantial, depending on the severity of the disabilities of the children and how many students they take on.

She started as an educational surrogate parent three years ago and now has eight students. She serves as one of a handful of master surrogate parents, who are paid to provide assistance to volunteers and take on cases that can be more complicated.

She says it’s important for surrogates to think of the children as their own because the decisions can have long-term effects.

“Placement decisions really have a huge role in it. How much time they spend educated in the general ed classroom with typical peers, meaning non-disabled peers, versus being pulled out and educated in a separate place.”

Santina Thibedeau oversees the bureau of special education for the state Department of Education.

She says people applying should have good communication skills and be willing to ask questions. But she says that this is not the kind of program for people looking to be a mentor or role model.

“There’s no requirement, nor would we encourage anyone to form a friendship with the child. There are other volunteer organizations where you can do that with whether it’s Big Brothers or Big Sisters or a mentoring program.”

Vignola says she agrees with that approach, because many of the children have a lot of people coming in and out of their lives.

But in long-term assignments where she is the surrogate for a student as they move through the system, she says developing a vested interest in their success is only natural.

“I have a couple students who have since graduated or turned 18 and exited that I am still in contact with in one way or another even if they just shoot me an email once in a while, telling me what they’re up to, or do you have any advice on how to go about getting this job, or what course should I take here.”

Those interested in becoming an educational surrogate can contact the New Hampshire Department of Education. Training sessions are being scheduled for April, May and June.