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October 18, 2002

Principle guides a mother's battle

From: Bucks County Courier Times, PA
Oct. 18, 2002

She wanted nothing more than to stay at home and raise her babies.

Courier times

She wanted nothing more than to stay at home and raise her babies.

Barbara de Mora of Doylestown Township couldn't have known then that the decision eventually would force her to learn psychological and therapeutic techniques. Neither could she have known that it would lead her into a lengthy court battle with Bucks County which may set a national precedent for parents of children with special needs.

A federal judge has ruled that Bucks must pay de Mora $6,842 for therapy she gave her daughter, who is now 5, after she proved it worked better than the county's program.

The check will not be in the mail any time soon, though. Robert O. Baldi, a New Hope lawyer who defended Bucks County, said he plans to appeal the decision to the federal Third Circuit. The appeal should be filed within a week, he said.

De Mora, though, said the money was not the point of the legal battle, which began in 1999. The point was to help her daughter and other sons and daughters across the country, she said.

"Of course, the check would be nice, but it's really about the principle," she said as her two daughters played in the background. "It's about the fact that the county had a responsibility to provide my daughter with an appropriate program. They failed, and refused to do it, even after I went through all proper channels and begged them to do it. I was left with no choice but to step in and learn how to do it myself."

The de Moras have two daughters. The girl in question - Barbara asked that her name not be published - was born in April 1997 with deafness, cerebral palsy and pervasive developmental disorder, a form of autism.

Under federal law, the government is required to pay for early intervention therapy for children with such disabilities.

The toddler began 24 hours a week of physical, speech and occupational therapy with Bucks County's department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation in July 1999. When Barbara asked to increase the number of hours and to include Lovaas therapy, the county refused, according to court papers.

The de Moras hired a Lovaas practitioner, Patricia Laudon. Laudon, though, had limited time and the de Moras couldn't find another Lovaas therapist.

Barbara learned how to deliver the therapeutic technique.

Her lawyer, Gary Mayerson, said the therapy is based on principles developed by Dr. Ivan Lovaas, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. Lovaas therapy breaks down individual tasks into specific steps.

"It's a scientific approach to teaching using one-on-one instruction so the child learns, brick by brick, how to accomplish a task," said Mayerson, a New York lawyer whose firm, Mayerson and Associates, represents only children with autism.

"If you wanted to teach a child to brush his teeth, a typical child will probably just mimic you, and in a few days, he's got it," he said, "but a child with autism spectrum disorder must be taught how to open the toothpaste, how to put the toothpaste on the toothbrush, how to put the brush in the mouth, how to move the brush against the teeth. That all takes time - and then they have to learn to do it without prompting."

The de Mora's daughter blossomed under the Lovaas method, Barbara said.

The family asked for a hearing to show how the therapy was helping the girl, so it would be added to her official program. A hearing officer took only written statements and then decided the county's plan was "appropriate" which meant she was entitled to no more or different therapy.

The de Moras appealed to state court, where a panel of three judges agreed that the county plan was not "appropriate" because Bucks submitted no evidence that it was helping the toddler. The court ruled the county should pay for the Lovaas therapy, which had been proven to help the girl.

A hearing officer calculated the payments at $3,520 for Laudon and $6,842 for de Mora for therapy delivered from October to December 1999.

Bucks County did not fight the payment to Laudon but appealed the award to de Mora in federal court. Baldi argued that parents shouldn't be paid for being parents.

"We're concerned that the precedent of this case says a parent should receive financial compensation for the time the parent spends with a child," he said. "These children deserve and are entitled to extraordinary services from professionals, but we also expect that the parents will have an active role in providing these services."

On Oct. 4, U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller ruled that de Mora should be paid because she fulfilled the county's responsibility when it failed to do so.

Saying, "You could not find a more motivated mother on the planet," Mayerson said Barbara de Mora was not being paid to be a mother, but was being paid to be a therapist when the county would not provide adequate help.

"The court's decision merely acknowledges the extraordinary, beyond the call of duty - things that some parents have been forced to do when their child has been failed by the local educational agency," he said. "This is a landmark case. It will prevent school districts and counties from saying, 'We can't find anybody, wink, wink.' Now they have a real incentive to fulfill (therapy) programs."

De Mora said she became her daughter's therapist only after exhausting "all the proper channels" to have the therapy that helped the little girl added to her state-sanctioned program.

The de Mora's daughter is now 5 years old and has a cochlear implant that helps her hear, of which Barbara said, "It's making all the difference in the world."

Sarah Larson can be contacted via e-mail at

© 2002 Bucks County Courier