Lawrence Public Schools – BSEA # 09-2746



<br /> Lawrence Public Schools – BSEA # 09-2746<br />

COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS

BUREAU OF SPECIAL EDUCATION APPEALS

In Re: Lawrence Public Schools

BSEA # 09-2746

RULING RE JOINDER OF MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES

Introduction

On December 12, 2008, Lawrence Public Schools (Lawrence) filed with the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) a motion to join the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF). On December 31, 2008, DCF filed an opposition, and on January 2, 2009, a telephonic hearing was held on the motion.

Facts

The relevant facts are not in dispute. Student is a fourteen-year-old boy who has been diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (NOS) and a Mood Disorder (NOS). Lawrence does not dispute its continuing responsibility to provide special education and related services to Student.

Student had been receiving special education and related services from Lawrence through an individualized education program (IEP) providing for a private day program at the Cornerstone School located in Haverhill, Massachusetts. However, on June 26, 2008, Student was admitted to the Hampstead Hospital Disabilities Unit in New Hampshire, where he continues to reside. Through a letter dated November 6, 2008 to DCF, Hampstead Hospital staff (including the social worker and attending psychiatrist) stated that the Hampstead Hospital treatment team “strongly” recommended that Student transition directly to a 24-hour staffed residential facility. The letter recounted significant behavioral difficulties, making it unsafe and inappropriate for Student to return home in the opinion of the treatment team. The letter noted that Student’s current hospitalization was his seventh psychiatric admission.

Student is a client of DCF but is not under DCF care or custody. Currently, DCF services, which are voluntary in nature, consist of assistance from a DCF social worker and arrangement of health insurance through the Commonwealth’s MassHealth program. Prior to Student’s current hospitalization, DCF briefly provided in-home services.

Positions of the Parties

Lawrence filed the joinder motion, taking the position that Student was making educational progress at the Cornerstone School prior to his hospitalization. Lawrence argues that Student does not require residential services; or, in the alternative, if residential services are needed, they are for non-educational reasons and therefore the responsibility of DCF rather than the responsibility of Lawrence.

DCF opposes joinder. DCF notes that Student is not under the care or custody of DCF and is receiving only minimal, voluntary services from DCF. DCF takes the position that pursuant to its own regulations, provision of DCF residential services would first require either a court order of custody or a voluntary placement agreement entered into between DCF and Parent. No such court order exists, and DCF further points out that it has assessed Student and determined him not appropriate for a voluntary placement agreement. DCF argues that within this context, a BSEA order to provide residential services would be contrary to DCF regulations.

Parent supports the joinder motion. She seeks residential services for her son, taking the position that these services should be provided either by Lawrence or by DCF. She seeks a determination of their responsibilities by the BSEA.

Legal Framework

The issue before me is whether DCF should be joined as a necessary party. Pursuant to BSEA Hearing Rule 1J, joinder may be ordered upon a finding that (1) complete relief cannot be granted among the existing parties, or (2) the proposed party to be joined has an interest in this matter and is so situated that the dispute cannot be disposed of in its absence. Pursuant to Rule 1J, factors to be considered in determining whether to join a party are (1) the risk of prejudice to the present parties in the absence of the proposed party; (2) the range of alternatives for fashioning relief; (3) the inadequacy of a judgment entered in the proposed party’s absence; and (4) the existence of an alternative forum to resolve the issues.

I further note that statutory language regarding the jurisdiction of a BSEA Hearing Officer over state agencies (including DCF) provides, in part, as follows:

The [BSEA] hearing officer may determine, in accordance with the rules, regulations and policies of the respective agencies, that services shall be provided by the department of social services [now called the department of children and families], the department of mental retardation, the department of mental health, the department of public health, or any other state agency or program, in addition to the program and related services to be provided by the school committee.1

The phrase “in addition to” within this statutory language has been interpreted by BSEA Hearing Officers to mean that if a student’s needs can be met through the special education and related services which are the responsibility of the school district, complete relief can be granted without the need for the human service agency to become a party and joinder is not warranted, at least for the purpose of requiring the agency to provide services. This maintains the school district as the entity with sole responsibility for all those services to which the student is entitled pursuant to state and federal special education law.

However, if additional services from a human services agency (over and above those services that are the responsibility of the school district) may be necessary to ensure that the student will be able to access or benefit from the school district’s special education program and services, then joinder of the state agency may be appropriate, so that the BSEA may then consider what, if any, additional services should be ordered.2

Discussion

Student is hospitalized at Hampstead Hospital in New Hampshire. Parent has taken the position, which is supported by a November 6, 2008 letter from the Hospital treatment staff, that Student cannot return home at this time, that he cannot be maintained in a day educational program alone, and that he must be placed residentially. Arguably, Student is “stuck”–that is, the Hospital and Parent believe that he should not leave the hospital without residential services with the result that Student remains at a psychiatric hospital. Student cannot be placed residentially because Lawrence and DCF disagree as to whether Student requires residential services and whom should fund any required residential placement.

Without resolution of this issue, Student remains hospitalized even though the hospital’s treatment staff believes he is ready to be discharged. Under these circumstances, I find it important to determine as quickly as possible the extent of Lawrence’s responsibility to provide Student with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and to determine concurrently whether DCF is responsible to provide additional services to Student. This can best be accomplished by having DCF joined as a party to these proceedings so that its and Lawrence’s responsibilities can be determined within the same proceeding.

At this juncture, it is not possible to determine the likelihood that particular, additional services from DCF may and should be ordered. But, I am persuaded that this issue should be addressed as part of Parent’s claims against Lawrence, rather than through a possible separate evidentiary hearing. Hearing dates are scheduled for January 14 and 16, 2009, and DCF is available to participate in a hearing on these dates.

DCF argues against joinder. As noted above, Student is not under the care or custody of DCF and is receiving only minimal, voluntary services. DCF takes the position that its own statute and regulations (MGL c. 119, s. 21, et seq .; 104 CMR 4.10) preclude provision of DCF residential services unless Student is under the care or custody of DCF. DCF custody of Student would require a court order, and DCF care of Student would require a voluntary placement agreement entered into between DCF and Parent, with the agreement making it possible for DCF to provide residential services. None of this has occurred.

Parent has made clear her interest in entering into a voluntary placement agreement with DCF. But, DCF points out that it has assessed Student and determined that it is not appropriate for DCF to enter into such an agreement. DCF argues that it has discretion to make this determination, and its discretion may not be overruled by the BSEA.

It is relevant to consider the reason that DCF has decided not to enter into a voluntary placement agreement. The DCF assessment of Student concluded that although he may require residential services, those services would be needed for educational reasons and are therefore the responsibility of Lawrence as Student’s local education authority (LEA). For this reason, DCF determined it would be inappropriate to enter into a voluntary placement agreement for the purpose of its providing residential services.

DCF is correct that if Lawrence bears responsibility under state and federal special education law to provide residential services, DCF need not do so and the BSEA would not order otherwise. However, it is this precise issue—that is, whether Lawrence bears educational responsibility for a residential placement—which is at the heart of the instant dispute before the BSEA and which, under state and federal special education law, is properly determined through a BSEA evidentiary hearing, with the right of a party to appeal a BSEA decision to state or federal court. In other words, where the LEA disputes the scope of its educational responsibilities, DCF may not avoid joinder simply by taking the position that the LEA’s decision is incorrect and that the LEA bears full responsibility for any services that DCF may otherwise be responsible for providing.

Next, I address DCF’s general argument that pursuant to DCF regulations, it may determine in its sole discretion whether to provide services to Student (and the BSEA may therefore not order DCF services) because Student is not in DCF care or custody and is receiving services only on a voluntary basis. DCF is correct that a BSEA order (that DCF provide additional services) must be “in accordance with” DCF policies, regulations, and statute, but I do not read the DCF regulations (cited by the DCF attorney) as precluding a BSEA order for services provided that Student is eligible to receive them and provided further that any relevant DCF statutory, regulatory, or policy standards are met. To conclude otherwise would render the BSEA statute (giving the BSEA the authority to order DCF to provide additional services) meaningless.3

Finally, DCF notes, correctly, that its current minimal, voluntary involvement with Student argues against joinder. Nevertheless, I am persuaded that joinder is appropriate because Student arguably is stuck in a psychiatric hospital until Lawrence’s and DCF’s responsibilities can be determined, DCF may possibly be required to provide residential services necessary for Student to be discharged from the hospital, and Parent, for good cause, seeks determination of these issues by the BSEA in a single evidentiary hearing.

For these reasons, I am persuaded that joinder should be allowed.

Order

Lawrence’s motion to join the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families is ALLOWED .

By the Hearing Officer,

_________________

William Crane

Date: January 6, 2009


1

MGL c. 71B, s. 3. See also 603 CMR 28.08(3) (regulatory language similar to above-quoted statutory language).


2

E.g., In Re: Lawrence Public Schools , BSEA # 07-2412, 13 MSER 40 (SEA MA 2007); In Re: Gloucester Public Schools , BSEA # 04-3543, 10 MSER 389 (SEA MA 2004); In Re: Lawrence Public Schools , BSEA # 02-4839, 8 MSER 326 (SEA MA 2002); In Re: Ipswich Public Schools , BSEA # 02-4324, 8 MSER 185 (SEA MA 2002) and other rulings cited therein.


3

Compare the BSEA authority to order DCF to provide additional services (MGL c. 71B, s. 3; 603 CMR 28.08(3)) with DCF regulatory standards (104 CMR 4.01 through 4.05, and 4.10).


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