Who is Fighting for the Rights of Special Needs Children Experiencing Homelessness? - The City Mission of Cleveland, Ohio

Being the parent of a special needs child is never easy. Parents must maneuver the challenges that are part of raising a child who requires more attention, care and financial planning than their peers on a daily basis.

Being a single parent of a special needs child with multiple siblings, inadequate income and experiencing homelessness is another story.

Continuous advocacy for the right resources and Individualized Education Plans (better known as IEP’s) provide opportunities for success, but require serious time and effort from the family. Those stressors are elevated to extremes when a single woman in a crisis situation is forced to continuously relocate and provide for her family. The truth is, many parents experiencing homelessness or extreme poverty simply don’t know where to begin when they suspect their child may need specialized care.

Laura’s Home Women’s Crisis Center, a ministry of The City Mission and a long-term program providing wraparound services for women and children in crisis, is one organization in Cleveland working to empower moms of special needs children with the information and support their families need to live healthy lives. The Laura’s Home Childcare team is finding more and more that their job goes beyond the basics of caring for any child while they are part of the program — they’ve now become advocates for each child’s social, physical and cognitive growth.

The National Center for Homeless Education reported that children who are homeless have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems compared to children with permanent housing. Children experiencing homelessness are also four times more likely to show a delayed physical development and have twice the rate of learning disabilities when compared to other children their age.

At Laura’s Home, in the past 12 months, 26 percent of children ages 0-5, have been diagnosed with some form of developmental delay. Few of those children came to the program with a previous diagnosis or an IEP. These diagnoses vary dramatically from Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sandifer’s Syndrome, Speech and Language Delays and ADHD.

A disability diagnosis can cause great anxiety amongst the many other overwhelming challenges associated with homelessness. According to Christina Hahn, Family Ministries Coordinator at Laura’s Home, denial can be a coping mechanism for moms who receive news of a diagnosis. Not wanting to see one’s child perceived differently, or the fear of not being able to find the right resources in a time when their family is already facing adversity is a difficult reality for many of these mothers.

“We can talk to them all we want, but if the mom doesn’t want to admit that there’s a problem, she’s ultimately the one that has to follow through with all of it. So, if she’s in denial, we make sure that the developmental pediatrician is aware, but after that it’s up to her to follow through with all the appointments,” says Hahn.

Advocating in Early Childhood

When a family arrives at Laura’s Home, the Childcare team holds an intake meeting with the mothers of children ages 0-5. Trained Childcare Assistants ask the mothers if there are any developmental concerns with their children, and if the answer is yes, two actions are set into motion immediately — the mothers are referred to Bright Beginnings and put in touch with a local doctor.

Bright Beginnings provides mothers with early intervention services for their children to help with delayed development. Early intervention through Bright Beginnings helps set goals to reduce the need of special education and enhance the child’s learning and development. Referring families to this program immediately is crucial, as the waitlist can be up to six months for a Bright Beginnings appointment. Every day counts when fighting for a child’s health.

Hahn also assists mothers by attending IEP and pediatrician meetings regularly. She finds that her presence provides the mothers with a familiar face and friendly resource, helping moms better understand the child’s needs and plans moving forward.

However, not every mother is ready to recognize that her child may have a disability.

“During the intake with a family, if a mother does not note any development concerns, but Laura’s Home notices a concern, we pray about it, and then we decide when the correct time to address the mom is,” says Hahn.

Hahn stated if her teams see any significant delay (six months or more behind standard age development), they speak to the mother of the child about concerns. Knowing the many challenges the families face each day, Hahn acknowledges that these conversations require great care.

“Obviously the place to hear [about a concern] isn’t when they first walk in and are extremely overwhelmed within their crisis. But, there is an urgency to talk to them about it because we want them to get those services as soon as possible,” says Hahn.

Continuing Advocacy for School Age Children


Working to diagnose and assist school age children with physical, social or learning disabilities is also a priority for Family Ministry Services at Laura’s Home.

“Many of them are coming here with a previous diagnosis and IEP. Depending on the need, a lot of what we do is supporting them during this season and connecting them to resources,” says Matthew Phipps, an at-risk youth advocate who has served at Laura’s Home.

Phipps says connecting Laura’s Home families to the right schools through Cleveland’s Special Education Department and other partnering agencies is cricitcal. At Laura’s Home, students have the opportunity to stay in their current schools or travel to schools that better fit their needs. The City Mission is able to make this possible by partnering with organizations like Project Act.

Project Act’s goal is to help meet a child’s physical, social and emotional needs, by empowering parents to support their children in homelessness. Project Act advocates for homeless families, ensuring that children experiencing homelessness have the right to a free and public education. Mothers connected to this program have an avenue to express any new or previous concerns, knowing that the necessary services will be provided to help assist their children’s educational success.

The Effects

Laura’s Home is excited by the results they are seeing by partnering with outside organizations. In the past 12 months, 21 children ages 0-5 needed and received services for a developmental delay diagnosis, and many more students are finding success in their schoolwork thanks to community collaboration. The process can be complicated and long for a family already experiencing a crisis, but when moms, children and caring partners work together, children discover their best chance to live healthy futures.

The City Mission continues to advocate for the rights and inclusion of special needs children in their communities. From educating mothers, to providing childcare and transportation, Laura’s Home assures that each child’s unique challenges will not go unnoticed.

Do you have a heart to help special needs children? Connect with The City Mission’s Childcare Department at besocial@thecitymission.org.

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