March 20, 2012
Due Process Witness: What I Learned While Taking the Stand
"We're going to call you as a witness in our due process hearing in March", says the attorney on the phone.
Those words were enough to make me tremble in my oh-so-fashionable boots! Those words have appeared before in my worst nightmares, but never in real life.
Those words came true for me last week.
I am no stranger to the words "due process". I spent more than half my career in the educational setting and have spent countless hours writing, reviewing, and revising IFSP's. I have participated in numerous inservices, training me in special education law and all its associated procedures. I have been involved in meetings with attorneys gathering information at the beginning of mediation between my district and parents, but I've never actually had to go to court and be a witness. Until last week.
It was a nerve-wracking experience for me, being the people-pleaser that I am, but I came out on the other side having learned some valuable lessons. Here's what I learned:
1. Those painstakingly-long progress reports that I hate to write really do matter. If you're anything like me, I'd much rather plan fun activities than spend my time at the computer writing those time-consuming reports. Reporting data from standardized testing, assessing and summarizing progress from piles of treatment records and creating new measurable goals takes me hours! I write, I edit, I write some more, edit some more, and hope that I've done an adequate job of describing my clients' skills and needs in a way that could be understood by an untrained reader. I have to admit that more than once I've asked myself, "Who's going to read this anyway?" In most cases, my reports go directly to the parents, who then share it with whomever they feel is necessary. Sometimes my reports are requested by insurance companies during their benefits review process. And then, in rare instances, they are requested by an outside source, such as an attorney who plans to use them as evidence of progress in a due process hearing. I submitted copies of five reports for this due process hearing, and each and every page was gone over with a fine-toothed comb. I testified for almost two hours, and most of that time was spent discussing the information I provided in my reports. I am relieved to tell you that for the most part, my reports were thorough and the information in them was useful. But there were also parts where I had to wonder what I was thinking when I wrote them! So embarrassing! So here's what I will take away from this, as I write my next report:
1. Do my words paint an accurate picture of who the child is for that moment in time?
2. Could an untrained reader understand them?
3. Did I do an adequate job of analyzing and reporting data?
4. What does this data summary mean for the child?
5. Are my goals measurable and obtainable?
2. Understand what those numbers from your standardized assessments really mean, and be ready to explain that information in terms that an untrained person can understand. I found myself educating the attorneys and the judge about the bell curve, standard scores, percentile ranks and standard deviations. I even drew them a graph that wound up being submitted as a formal exhibit! Being able to describe what all those numbers mean and how they related to the child certainly supported my credibility as a professional.
3. Be prepared to explain why you use specific treatment methods and why they are valid. The child in question is one of my Social Thinking kiddos, with whom I use many of the methods described by Michelle Garcia Winner in her books Thinking About You, Thinking About Me and Think Social: A Social Thinking Curriculum. Again, I found myself educating the others around the table about Theory of Mind and why these skills are important to teach a child on the Autism Spectrum. And why they are so completely impossible to track with hard data. And why they often have to be taught "in the moment" to be effective. I could tell the judge was having difficulty wrapping his mind around some of the concepts I was describing, so I used an interaction I had with one of the attorneys as an example. I described the interaction and used what was said between us to illustrate the skills we used to make a social connection, even though we didn't know each other. This little object lesson really helped to validate one little part of what I was trying to describe to people who just an hour earlier had no understanding of the complexity of social skills.
4. Continuing education is vital. I have to admit that most of my continuing education that I received during my years in the educational setting came from inservices and trainings that were offered by my district. I did not actively seek conferences to attend outside of my work day. Maybe because they often conflicted with my work hours, or maybe it was the expense. I'm not sure, but I know I was complacent and content to take what my district had to offer. I did not really start attending conferences and trainings outside of the school settings until I started my private practice. Now I am responsible for finding continuing education opportunities on my own. There are so many out there! I've found great online conferences through ASHA and other sources that have been very beneficial. Attending the Oregon Speech and Hearing Association yearly conference has also kept me in the loop on the latest trends, research, treatment methods and best practice standards.
5. It's okay to say, "I don't know". We're never expected to "know it all". In this case, while I was previewing the questions the parents' attorney planned to ask me, I found one I wasn't comfortable answering. I was honest and told the attorney exactly that. Her response was to tell me it was fine, and she omitted that question from her plan. Plain fact: if I would have pretended to act like I knew something that I really didn't, the attorney would have seen right through me and most likely discredit me. It's just best to be honest.
6. Attorneys can seem rather intimidating, but both sides are trying to make a case for their client. Don't take it personally. Enough said. They still scare me though!
7. I really am an expert, even though I feel that I still have so much to learn. Don't sell yourself short. Whether you're a new SLP or a well-seasoned one, you have a huge knowledge bank from which to draw. No matter how inadequate I felt sitting in the witness chair at the beginning of my testimony, I soon found myself calmly discussing the things I know, love and do everyday to make a difference in a child's life.
Were there things I would do or say differently? Most definitely. But at the end of the day, I feel like things went pretty well. It reminded me that accountability is huge in the private practice realm, even though I'm not called to show it publicly every day. What great encouragement for me to stay on top of my game!
Nice chatting with you,