For the past several months Peter Jaswilko has been a regular at the emergency room. He’s had several concussions and hearing loss. Jaswilko’s 16-year-old son Kyle has autism, and over the course of the pandemic, his episodes of violent behavior intensified. Jaswilko feared he might die waiting to get Kyle into a residential treatment facility.
“He can be so sweet and so affectionate, but one little thing can switch and I worry about my life,” said Jaswilko, who lives in northwest suburban Lake in the Hills. “I worry about his safety sometimes because when he becomes so violent, he could hurt himself as well.”
WBEZ last month reported on Illinois families like Jaswilko’s who have been navigating a months-long process of seeking residential care for their children. There’s long been a lack of residential facilities for Illinois students with severe mental health and behavioral issues, but the problem’s made worse by the pandemic.
Since December, the Illinois State Board of Education made changes in response to the outcry from parents like Jaswilko and advocates, including starting to reimburse school districts that place students in facilities that aren’t on a state approved list. But they say it isn’t enough.
“This in no way addresses families who need emergency placements right now,” parent Michelle Trager told Illinois State Board of Education members earlier this month. She calls the new reimbursements “the absolute minimum … However, it is woefully insufficient to address the current crisis.”
Jaswilko feels fortunate his family will be getting some relief. After a legal process with his local school district, Kyle will start at a residential facility in New York state on Monday. Jaswilko is a little nervous because they’re breaking the news to Kyle this weekend. They hope to smooth the way by telling him he’ll be going to college.
“He is obsessed with Toy Story movies, and there’s an episode where Andy’s going to college,” he said. “So we thought we’re going to try to adapt this.”
Some students have to go through a lengthy due process hearing with their school district to secure residential treatment placement. If the facility is approved by the state, the school district gets reimbursed. But families and experts say those facilities are often full or not equipped for certain needs. Students can go to non-approved facilities, but their school districts have always had to pay for it.
But now, ISBE will reimburse districts that place students in non-approved facilities after families go through the due process hearing. The state will cover the cost of what’s left after a district first pays double the amount it spends per student annually, which is standard practice when a student is sent outside of their local school for services. State reimbursements can be significant, with annual tuition costing more than $100,000 at some facilities.
ISBE also is recommending that certain requirements be waived so approved private facilities can accept more students from Illinois. Families said some centers refused to accept more Illinois students even if they had the capacity because they didn’t want to meet additional state requirements. The recommendations could be approved as early as next week.
Jaswilko thinks the changes are a good start, but trying to get placement still poses serious hardships for families, especially if you need to go through a legal process with your school district.
“Not many parents can afford an attorney and go through this process,” he said. “This is a very expensive journey to go through.”
Attorneys that represent school districts agree that an equity piece is missing in this step forward. Families that can’t afford a lawyer still face a huge barrier.
Even families who can hire an attorney have to wait months before they get relief, said Caroline Roselli, an attorney with Robbins Schwartz, a firm that represents several suburban school districts.
“The hearing officers are incredibly backed up. There’s only four of them in the state right now,” she said. “It could take months to get a hearing officer order, and that’s quick in the normal due process timeline. So what can we do to get kids placed now?”
The Illinois Council of School Attorneys is urging the state board of education to use its emergency rulemaking authority to place students quickly without a hearing.
Roselli is hopeful that more improvements are ahead. The state board of education has set up a working group to craft long term solutions. The agency says it’s also reached out to facilities around the country to encourage them to apply to be an approved provider.
Meanwhile, the past several months have taken a mental and physical toll on Jaswilko’s family. His 13-year-old daughter, who had to move out of the house for her safety, will soon be coming back home. He said she’s glad to be back, but she’s told him it won’t feel like home without Kyle.
The school district has arranged special transportation for Kyle, so that he can be safely monitored while the family takes another flight shortly after him.
Jaswilko says the family feels heartbroken sending Kyle away, but they know it’s the best option.
“I need to have back surgery from the injuries,” he said. “I started physical therapy, but I can’t do physical therapy because I’m in so much pain. So at least this will give me some time to take care of my needs and heal.”
Jaswilko is already thinking of family vacations in the summer. The school has told him Kyle might not be ready by then, but Jaswilko can’t help but dream of the next family gathering.
He hopes more in-state facilities become available to keep children close to home, and a future process that won’t leave families traumatized.