By Navy JAG Corps Public Affairs
The Navy Judge Advocate General (JAG) community – in collaboration with Commander, Navy Installations Command (CNIC) – is expanding legal assistance and special education support to families enrolled in the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP).
As part of a three-year pilot program at Navy Region Mid-Atlantic (NRMA) and Navy Region Southwest (NRSW), this additional aid will augment existing EFMP services provided by CNIC, such as localized information and referrals, individualized service plans, and case management.
“Special education laws require public schools to provide children with special needs with the same opportunities for education as other children. After receiving reports of the significant hardships EFMP families faced in locating legal services to enforce their rights under these laws, the JAG community took action,” said Navy JAG Vice Adm. John G. Hannink. “It is an honor to provide this essential support to our shipmates who have exceptional family members, and who may need some additional counsel.”
The JAG community has hired two skilled and experienced civilian lawyers, who are ready to advise and represent enrollees seeking special education and state and local disabilities benefits support. The attorneys will also provide training for EFMP families, and develop strong relationships with regional legal aid and pro bono networks, as well as local court conservatorship and guardianship clinics, in order to better support enrollees. These services will begin Nov. 1.
CNIC has hired two regional special education liaisons as part of the pilot program located in Norfolk and San Diego. Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, the regional special education liaisons will work closely with the attorneys to support case liaisons who have been part of the ongoing EFMP and will now begin providing special education support to families.
EFMP families who request special education assistance will work with their case liaisons. If advocacy and additional expertise are required beyond the scope of the case liaison, the case will be referred to the regional special education liaison. Once legal assistance and additional advocacy is needed, the case will be referred to the EFMP attorney.
The EFMP assists Sailors during the orders assignment process by addressing the special needs of their exceptional family members and ensuring they are assigned to areas where they can access necessary resources. The family support component of EFMP, which is managed by CNIC, includes identification of the family member’s special needs, enrollment in the program, assignment coordination and family support.
“We are committed to ensuring our service members and their families are provided the maximum support possible as they serve our Navy and country,” said LaToya Travis, CNIC EFMP program analyst. “We want our Sailors to focus on their mission and know we are here to help them support their families. The additional legal support from the JAG community provides our service members with another avenue to get the services their families need.”
The new attorneys will assist EFMP families with special education program eligibility assessments, helping them gather and present the evidence of their children’s needs for Individualized Education Plans and other related services, such as speech therapy and special transportation needs. In certain cases, the attorneys may attend meetings with school staff members to advocate for their clients. They will also assist in the event court intervention is required.
In addition to hosting training events to educate EFMP families about their legal rights, the attorneys will routinely review clients’ files to ensure school compliance. EFMP families may also receive consultations about Social Security benefits, Medicaid assistance, and guardianship, to help with continuity of care during any life-changing events.
“The ability to access this kind of legal assistance – immediately, and free of charge – is important to our Sailors and their families and is also instrumental to military readiness,” added Hannink.
The JAG community’s two subject-matter experts are located in the Legal Assistance Departments at the Region Legal Service Office (RLSO) Mid-Atlantic onboard Naval Station Norfolk, and RLSO Southwest onboard Naval Base San Diego. They are also available to support Navy families outside these regions, stationed across the Fleet.
Alexandra Little, the EFMP-focused Norfolk attorney, previously served as a senior attorney at the Virginia Legal Aid Society, representing clients in court and administrative hearings on housing, education, and employment matters. Little also served as a legal intern at the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, and has extensive experience in the interpreting Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Blair Matsumoto, the EFMP-focused San Diego attorney, previously served as agency counsel for the D.C. Public Schools, where he ensured legal compliance with the requirements of IDEA, FERPA, and FAPE. He represented D.C. in due process hearings, manifestation determinations, and settlement negotiations with parents’ counsel.
“Legal assistance attorneys will review EFMP-related issues and provide basic guidance to Sailors. Complex matters will be referred to one of the two new specialized attorneys for the next available appointment. This process will help to ensure streamlined advocacy across the Fleet in this very important and highly intricate area of law,” said Kate Somerville, acting director of the Legal Assistance Division at the Office of the JAG.
Department of Defense Instruction 1315.19 requires active-duty service members to enroll in EFMP if they have a dependent with a qualifying special need. Sailors in need of legal counsel concerning special education, guardianship, state public benefits, or other EFMP-related issues should contact their nearest RLSO. Currently, telephonic and virtual legal assistance appointments are available at all locations. Sailors also are encouraged to check out the new EFMP mobile application.
The Navy JAG community provides commanders, Sailors, and Navy families with legal solutions wherever and whenever required to enable effective naval and joint operations. For more news from the Navy JAG, visit www.navy.mil/local/jag/.