Jodi Liston with her children (l-r) Joshua, Paris, and Olivia.
When Jodi Liston’s children, Joshua, now 19, and Olivia, 14, were classified as emotionally disabled through their school district’s Committee on Special Education, she enlisted the help of an advocate to help her navigate the system and get the services her children needed. But it was no simple task. After a long and arduous process, 17 years of research, volunteer work at Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, and assisting other families struggling with similar issues, Liston, who lives in Newburgh, decided to start her own firm. The two-year-old Liston Advocates helps the growing number of parents who are following similar paths to get suitable services for their children.
Liston works with parents whose children have social, emotional, physical, developmental, or learning disabilities and delays. She helps them to understand the relevant laws, medical terms and their children’s diagnoses, as well as to separate their emotional responses from their quest to secure the best help for their kids.
“As parents, we can’t possibly know all the answers, but we can seek out the appropriate professionals who do,” says Liston, who is also a founding member of PULSES (Parents United Learning the Special Education System) in Orange County, and serves on the board of directors of Legal Services of the Hudson Valley. She not only collaborates with lawyers, but she understands the laws herself and how they apply to each individual child’s needs. Although she is an expert on most disabilities, she continues to conduct research. “Each case is based on the unique needs of that child, so I often seek advice from specialists in the field when preparing to request duration and frequency of services,” she says.
When a parent arranges a consultation with Liston Advocates, Liston first determines whether the child is already classified or is seeking classification for special education services. If the child needs independent testing, Liston will refer the family to experts who are respected in their fields. “It is the quality of the evaluation combined with the knowledge of the law that allows us to get the appropriate services,” she says.
Only after she obtains and analyzes pertinent medical and educational files is Liston able to give sound advice. A meeting with the school district is planned, and Liston will address the Committee on Special Education on behalf of the family.
Liston warns parents that seeking services for their children is a process, even with the assistance of a professional. “There is no magic bullet or answer in obtaining services for your child,” she says.
It’s also critical that the step-by-step process is followed. “If you have to file due process or request mediation at some point and you have not done so, then you run the risk of having to go back and fill in the blanks you missed, potentially delaying services even longer,” she explains.
Liston takes a team approach when advocating for children, rather than being an adversary to the school districts. “It’s always about the child,” she says. Although there are laws in place, she cites a lack of funding, limits on staff, red tape, and politics that often prevent children from receiving the necessary support. Non-profit government agencies are helpful but limited in the amount of time they can provide for each client.
Liston recently expanded Liston Advocates into Westchester, Rockland, Fairfield and Bergen counties, and plans on continuing to grow into surrounding regions. She hopes to implement federal and state laws more efficiently on the local level so each child can have an appropriate plan for their educational needs.