Training center for parents of children with disabilities receives federal grant

A private, nonprofit Florida organization has received a grant to provide training nationwide to American Indian parents whose children have disabilities.

The Family Network on Disabilities of Florida Inc. received $243,778 in funding from the Department of Education to begin a new program Oct. 1 that will extend outreach to American Indian communities across the country.

The FNDFL is one of 16 parent training centers across the country that received a portion of the more than $4.5 million awarded by the Education Department. Each state has at least one center for reaching out to parents of children with disabilities; the latest grant provides funding to assist military and American Indian families.

“Previously, we have not worked with Native American communities nationwide,” said Richard La Belle, FNDFL executive director.

But FNDFL has worked with American Indian families in Florida in the last four years, he said.

“With every parent center grant, we are required to reach out to all families of children with disabilities from birth to age 26 under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act and give them information about the federal law and their rights, help them develop skills and help them work with the education system to get the best results for their children.”

FNDFL has received parent center grants for the last 25 years, and its new program to reach out to American Indians nationwide will focus on assisting in two ways.

First, FNDFL will serve as a liaison between the parent centers and American Indian communities. In talking with other parent center groups across the country, La Belle said the centers felt challenged in reaching out to American Indians.

“We will act as liaison to help make the connections. We will identify the leaders in the Native American communities to serve as a bridge between the Native American communities and the parent centers. That’s one prong of it.”

The second aspect of the program involves ensuring American Indian tribal and community leaders have the information they need. La Belle said that they “feel they lack information when it comes to the requirements of federal law for educating children with disabilities.

“We want to work with tribal leaders, community leaders and Native American parents directly, so they’ll have information to serve their families and work in ways that are culturally sensitive and culturally appropriate. We only go where we’re welcome. We don’t try to impose our views and our cultural norms on anyone. We try to reach out to people in the ways that are most effective to them.”

One way FNDFL will reach out and work with tribal communities, La Belle said, is by translating materials into tribal languages when desired.

In order to assure American Indians’ needs and issues are addressed, La Belle said the FNDFL – Native American Families program has an “entirely Native American staff across the country,” and the program’s advisory board is mostly American Indian from a variety of tribes with only one non-Indian member. For example, Cinda Hughes, a legislative associate with the National Congress of American Indians, is on the advisory board, and La Belle said she most likely will serve on its governing board.

“We’re very optimistic, and we’re expecting great things from the continued outreach from the families and tribal leaders as well as the parent centers to assist in working with the Native American communities in their states.”

In receiving grant money, FNDFL and other centers are required to report each year to the Department of Education to show how the program is working.

“Research shows that all students, especially those with disabilities, are more successful when parents are part of the educational decision making process,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “These centers help families who have children with disabilities access services and negotiate the complex framework of special education rules and regulations.”