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Fight for special ed services leaves Washington families financially devastated

As families push to get their children with disabilities the resources they need to succeed in school, some school districts dig in their heels.

Taylor Mirfendereski, Susannah Frame

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Eleven-year-old River Willison burst open the door after school one January afternoon to find his mother overwhelmed. 

Erin Willison had laid out piles and piles of unpaid bills and credit card statements across the kitchen counter in their new Issaquah apartment — the 10th place the family has lived in about seven months. 

"Sometimes I just put it all in this little drawer here and try to pretend like it's not really happening," she said. 

Credit: Taylor Mirfendereski | KING
Erin Willison sifts through bills in her kitchen.

Despite the family’s financial stress, Erin and her husband, Scott, smiled as River cheerfully shared details about his day at Gersh Academy, the private school he’s attended since July. The Issaquah school, which caters to students on the autism spectrum, is located 93 miles from the family’s Bellingham home. 

This school year is the first time the fifth grade student, who has autism, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, has been able and willing to go to school full time since first grade.

"It's worth every bit of sacrifice — financially, emotionally," Erin said.  "We believe in him." 

River and other children with disabilities are guaranteed the right to a "free appropriate public education" under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. But for the Willison family, and many other families who have children with special needs, accessing that individualized instruction is a costly fight.

Credit: Taylor Mirfendereski | KING 5
River Willison, an 11-year-old with autism, sits on a bench after school in front of Gersh Academy in Issaquah, Washington.

“I think the vast majority of people who make decisions about these kids lives have no idea how difficult life is for these parents,” said Charlotte Cassady, a Seattle-based special education attorney who helps parents, like the Willisons, secure educational services for their children.  

Erin and Scott say they are more than $100,000 in debt because they’ve gone to great lengths to get their child an appropriate education. River’s experience in the Bellingham School District psychologically traumatized him and left him unable to set foot inside a school. He was hospitalized three times, including two, six-week stints at a behavioral health outpatient treatment center in Florida. 

The situation led to two legal battles with the district. It also forced the Willisons to uproot their lives, separate their family and take months off of work in order to support River, who medical providers warned needed different resources and educational tools than the district had in place.  

“River was, and remains emotionally scarred from his experience at Geneva (Elementary School),” Catherine Fisher, a medical provider, wrote to Bellingham School District staff in August 2016. “It is not an overstatement to say his experience amounted to torture.” 

A KING 5 investigation found this pattern:  As families push to get their children with disabilities the resources they need to succeed in school, some school districts dig in their heels. They refuse to deliver on promised services without a legal fight. It forces parents to fork out thousands of dollars to cover attorneys fees and pay out of pocket for things like private therapies and schools. The battles often leave families exhausted, stressed out and in financial ruin. 

"Any financial impact on a special needs family is at least twice as devastating as a traditional family," said Sheldon Sweeney, a Bellevue financial adviser who works with parents who have children with disabilities.  

Credit: Taylor Mirfendereski | KING
Scott, River and Erin Willison pose for a family photo.

The Washington state legislature has historically underfunded special education by millions of dollars, and experts say that’s one reason why school districts push back on providing appropriate special education services to the children who need them. 

But federal law is clear: No matter how rich or poor a public school is, the district must still offer and fulfill individualized education programs (IEPs) for every child who is eligible for one. The legally binding documents are intended to help kids with disabilities reach general education goals.