For Non-English Speaking Families, Getting Mental Health Help At School Proves Elusive

Elvira Gomez with son Jose Antonio.
Elvira Gomez of El Monte struggled to get her son, Jose Antonio Suarez, enrolled in an appropriate therapy program at his school, even though he was legally entitled to the services. Photo courtesy of Elvira Gomez.

It took a year for Elvira Gomez of El Monte to realize something was wrong with the therapy her son was supposed to be receiving at school.

Jose Antonio Suarez, then 5 years old, was scheduled to see a therapist once a week in his kindergarten class at a Los Angeles County elementary school. But in 2014, a year after the therapy started, Gomez had yet to see any improvements in her son’s hyperactive and aggressive behavior.

“I went to the school and asked, ‘How often is the therapist going (to the classroom)?’” recalled Gomez, a native Spanish speaker. She was shocked to find out that the therapist came only once or twice a month.

“I thought, I have to be more on top of this,” she said.

Gomez is one of thousands of parents across the state who have struggled to get their children adequate mental health services at school. She’s also part of a population that advocates believe is especially vulnerable to having their children’s special education and mental health needs neglected: parents with limited English skills.

Legally, school districts are supposed to provide students experiencing emotional and behavioral difficulties with mental health assessments and individualized services to help them benefit from their education. But a report earlier this year by leading advocacy organizations found half of all students with these difficulties get no mental health help at all.

Other students who do receive services, the researchers found, frequently don’t receive them enough or don’t receive the right kind of intervention to make a difference.

“The system is broken”

Parents of all backgrounds report trouble obtaining school mental health services for their kids. But for limited-English speakers like Gomez, the problem can be particularly dire.

Understanding the legalistic, jargon-filled world of special education and mental health is already complicated for English speakers, who often have to push against reluctant school systems to get their children the help they need, said Janeen Steel, co-executive director at the Learning Rights Law Center in Los Angeles, who worked on the report. When parents don’t speak English, they have to work doubly hard to understand the system and their rights, she said.

“It’s double the barrier,” Steel said. “The system is broken … it really requires parents to have to do their own investigations and advocacy.”

Gomez was eventually able to secure a new therapist and more regular therapy sessions for her son by seeking out information from the school and county mental health department, and pushing insistently for change. Luckily, she found Spanish-speaking officials along the way who helped her understand and navigate the system.

Waiting on translation

But not all non-English speakers are as fortunate, said Steel. Schools frequently fail to properly translate special education documents and provide adequate Spanish interpretation at meetings with parents, she said.

California assemblywoman, Patty Lopez (D-San Fernando), has experienced that problem firsthand. A native of Mexico, Lopez speaks Spanish as her first language.

When her youngest daughter needed special education services and therapy through the Los Angeles Unified School District a few years ago, Lopez said she waited two years for the school to translate into Spanish her child’s Individualized Education Program. The IEP is a critical legal document that spells out a child’s learning needs and services the school agrees to provide.

Lopez said she hears from many Spanish-speaking parents who are frustrated and struggling to make sense of the special education system. She said schools often don’t have certified translators on hand to interpret for parents at special education meetings. IEPs and accompanying documents frequently don’t get translated into the parent’s native language, or are translated poorly, she said.

“If you don’t have papers translated for the IEP, you go into the meetings without knowing the options for your kids,” she said. “We make decisions (about) our kids’ future and we don’t know anything, especially parents that immigrate from another country. They don’t understand the system.”

Lopez attempted to remedy the problem earlier this year when she introduced Assembly Bill 2091. The bill would have required local education agencies to provide parents with certified translations of IEPs and related documents within 60 days of a special education meeting. The bill passed the Assembly but hit a wall in the Senate Appropriations Committee. The committee approved the bill, but then moved it to the “suspense file” because officials estimated that implementing the bill would cost the state between $6 and $16 million.

Lack of accountability

Advocates say student access to mental health services has deteriorated since 2011, when the state legislature shifted responsibility for providing the services from county mental health agencies to schools. The state budget set aside over $400 million to help school districts pay for the services, but a state audit found that the California Department of Education — which administers the funds — isn’t tracking how schools spend the money or whether they’re using it effectively.

In a response to the audit findings, the Department of Education said it was concerned that tracking these expenditures and outcomes would be costly and burdensome to local education agencies. Department spokesman Robert Oakes did not respond to questions regarding whether the agency thinks enough is being done to help limited English proficient families access mental health services for their children.

“Services for English Learners were not specifically addressed in the audit,” he said in an email.

Meanwhile, James Preis, who heads the public interest law firm Mental Health Advocacy Services in Los Angeles, said making sure all children receive the support they need to benefit from their education is critical.

“If children don’t get the appropriate support … many of them end up in the juvenile justice system and ultimately in our prison and criminal justice systems,” he said. “To actually focus on the mental health needs of kids who are having a difficult time in school is not only the right thing to do (and) the legal thing to do — it’s the effective thing to do as well.”

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