STAMFORD — The Department of Justice is requiring the Stamford YMCA to make its childcare programs accessible to children on the autism spectrum after a child with special needs was expelled from an afterschool program without warning in January 2020.
The child’s mother, who asked not to be identified out of privacy concerns, said that the child started attending the aftercare program at the YMCA in August of 2018. In the fall of 2019, when her son was in first grade, she said he started coming home very upset almost every day. She said this was shortly after the facility had hired a new program director.
The mother said that after hearing her son was having problems with the teachers, she tried to explain his needs to Melody Laing, the school age child care director, who got “frustrated” with her and “passed her off” to CEO Shawn Patch. The CEO, she said, then told her that the facility couldn’t meet her son’s needs, and that he could no longer attend the program.
According to the complaint, Patch sent an email to the parents on January 10, 2020, informing them that their child was expelled from the program, effective that day.
Roswig provided CT Examiner with the text of the email that Patch sent to the parents.
“After reviewing [your son’s] file today, no where did you state his Educational Autism or any ailments whatsoever. There is no way we could have possibly met his needs without knowing his condition. At this point we are moving on (sic) we ask that you enroll [your son] elsewhere as you stated we cannot and have not met the needs of your son. You were not truthful to the YMCA from day one by not disclosing to us his Autism. If possible please pick up [your son] from school today and not have him on the YMCA Bus,” the email read.
According to the official complaint filed with the Office of the U.S. Attorney of Connecticut, the child was diagnosed with autism in March 2019, and the Stamford YMCA was informed of his disability at the same time. The parents said that they had shared their child’s individualized education program with the facility, and had been open about her son’s disability from the start.
The mother said she assumed that the IEP had gotten lost somewhere along the line since the facility switched directors three times over the year and a half that her son was there.
The mother also said that she was told by Laing and Patch that she was not allowed to talk with any of the teachers.
Laing declined to comment for this story. Patch did not respond to CT Examiner’s requests for comment.
According to Bonnie Roswig, director of the Disability Rights Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy, who acted as counsel for the family, the facility had the obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act to sit down with parents, teachers and the child’s pediatrician to perform an individualized assessment for the child — something that the YMCA refused to do.
“Had they done that, they would have found that the child really needs very little in the way of supports,” said Roswig.
Roswig said that the child needed “minor supports” — for instance, having staff give him more specific directions when asking him to do a particular task.
“You can’t tell him, ‘Just pick up the toys.’ To him, that is overwhelming,” the mother explained. “You have to break it up into small steps. You can tell him, ‘Take the Legos, put them in the box and then put the box on the shelf.’ And when he completes those tasks, then you can give him another task.”
The mother said that when she went to pick her son up on the last day of the program, she found him sitting at a table with an adult, “segregated” from the other children. She said he hadn’t been given a snack.
The parents said that his expulsion from the program was a huge shock, and a serious problem. Both worked full-time jobs, and they had to adjust their schedules. The father said he had to start leaving work at 3 p.m. each day to pick up their son.
“I was concerned that that was going to negatively affect my career,” he said.
On the days that her husband couldn’t pick up her son, the mother, who worked in Fairfield, had to leave her job at 2:15 p.m and make the 20 mile drive to Stamford.
“I was working until seven o’clock at night, trying to catch up on the hours and times that I missed so that I wasn’t getting behind,” she said.
After three weeks without childcare, they managed to enroll their son in another childcare program in Stamford. Ten days later, COVID struck, and their son spent the rest of the year at home.
Roswig said that she first tried to reach out to the YMCA to work things out. When they refused, she filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.
According to Roswig, the family received $2,500 in the settlement in compensation for lost wages. The YMCA will also be required to change some of its practices to better serve students with disabilities, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Connecticut.
“Under the agreement, Stamford YMCA is obligated to take critical steps toward improving access for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, including revising its policies and procedures, revising its training, updating their parent handbook, and performing initial and ongoing assessments of the need for reasonable accommodations. Stamford YMCA will evaluate each request on an individualized basis, relying on objective evidence and current medical standards,” reads the press release.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office will monitor the YMCA for three years to make sure it is complying with the agreement.
The parents say they are happy with the settlement they received. The mother said that the YMCA, as a community entity, should not be refusing resources like afterschool programs to any children, particularly those who struggle with social interactions.
“You’re really limiting these resources to children who are just neuro-typical and it really needs to be open to everyone, especially children on the autism spectrum, where a big chunk of the things that they struggle with is social,” she said. “They need that opportunity to be able to play with other kids and join these activities and try and figure out how to function in society.”
Roswig said she hopes this outcome will inspire other parents to come forward, and show entities like the YMCA that they have the obligation to accommodate children with special needs.
“Parents of children with behavioral health issues and mental health issues, they face this all the time,” she said. “I think that it puts childcare facilities on notice that they really must go through the due diligence of trying to accommodate to children.”
Today, their son is back attending the program he enrolled in just prior to the pandemic, and the mother said there haven’t been any problems.
“They’re great. They know about his IEP. They know about all of his supports. We’ve not had any issues,” she said. “They’re very welcoming and he doesn’t come home in tears, and I’m not calling and trying to mitigate any sort of situation.”