Mental Health Advocates Must Take a Stand Regarding the Devos Nomination for Education Secretary

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President Trump's pick for Education Secretary, Betsy Devos, is likely to be confirmed by the Senate very soon. Democrats have asked for a second confirmation hearing amid widespread concerns about potential conflicts of interest stemming from her family’s many investments, including in private charter schools and a student loan company. No Republicans have announced opposition to DeVos.

In a letter sent this week to leaders of the U.S. Senate education committee, more than three dozen advocacy groups urged senators to hold off on a vote on Betsy DeVos’ nomination for secretary of education due to concerns about her comments at her confirmation hearing.

“Unfortunately, at the hearing, Mrs. DeVos’ answers to many questions did not provide the needed clarity, and in fact, raised serious concerns from the undersigned organizations regarding her vision and commitment to upholding and implementing, with fidelity, the laws under which students with disabilities are educated including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act,”
~ Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities ~

For mental health advocates, regardless of political allegiance, the confirmation of Betsy Devos as Education Secretary should be quite concerning. Of the many troubling aspects of her testimony in her recent confirmation hearing, particularly disturbing was the interchange between her and Senator Kaine (D-VA) on the topic of enforcing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Ms. Devos was, at best, vague, in stating whether or not disabled children were entitled to federal protections in education, leaving many advocates to wonder if she is against children with disabilities receiving federal protection or if she just does not understand the IDEA law. She was very clear, however, that states should be able to decide what services to provide children with disabilities. In the interchange with Senator Kaine, Devos used the example of a Florida program that, according to a report in Politico, encourages parents of children with disabilities to sign away their IDEA rights in exchange for a voucher for a private school.

Let that sink in for a moment.

A Bit of History for Why the Devos Hearing Left Me Feeling Nauseated
Many CMHNetwork readers know that I organized the annual National Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health Conference for close to 20 years, beginning in the early 1990's. The conference, especially in the early days, was a mecca for families who had children in desperate need for IDEA protection.

The leadership of the Federation during the time of my involvement with the organization knew full well the power of the law the federal government had passed and how that law could be used as a tool to help ensure that families got appropriate services for their children with identified mental health needs. Every year at the conference we would hear a few examples from parents about how education districts would take extraordinary and exemplary steps to ensure that federal IDEA regulations were followed to the letter. Unfortunately, the few examples of success were dwarfed by tales of school system neglect and sometimes abuse of children and families in states all across the country.

Each year, as I would meet with the then Executive Director of the Federation, Barbara Huff, to begin crafting a theme for the conference and identifying key "must have" workshops, she was strident in her commitment to holding training sessions on the IDEA law. Why? Mainly because at that time, there was little opportunity for parents to get clear and practical information about how to use the law to better the chances of getting the federal protections in education guaranteed to them by the law. For most, getting educated at the local level was a non-existent pipe dream, so the annual conference was the place where this could happen. Barbara Huff deserves much credit for ensuring that we secured the services of Dixie Jordan, one of the foremost experts on IDEA, to provide an intensive training session before the conference and onsite consultation to any parent who wanted it, throughout the conference.

Year after year I would see the same families attending Dixie's training sessions and drop-in consultation hours. I have lost count of the number of parents who stopped me in the halls to say "thank you" for the opportunity to learn about the law and to have someone with excellent knowledge listen to their personal stories. For my part, I was just a vehicle. The thanks needed to go to Barbara for insisting that IDEA training was always on the menu of options for families. I don't know the exact number of years we had Dixie attend the conference to provide training and consultation, but I would say the number exceeds 18, and most likely more. I should also say (and I know Dixie won't be happy with me saying this, but I'm gonna do it anyway), Dixie always volunteered her services. Dixie's passion and commitment to educating parents is unwavering.

Barbara didn't stop there. She had the foresight to hire Trina Osher as her policy director. Trina is just as knowledgeable as Dixie about the IDEA law and the importance it has for families who have children with mental health challenges. So while Dixie would hold down the training end at the conference, Trina would tirelessly work the policy aspect of ensuring equal protection for children with mental health challenges and their families.

Bottom line from what I have learned over the past 30+ years of meeting with parents who have children with mental health challenges? The feel-good notion of "leaving it up to the states to decide," as Devos said time and time again in her confirmation hearing, is farcical at best, and dangerous at worst.

While watching the Devos confirmation hearing and listening to her words, in my mind's eye, parents from decades of interaction appeared, their stories of the neglect and abuse of their children, and the sheer heartache experienced by their families, permanently etched in my psyche. These are images and stories that will never go away. It is part of why I fight and why you should fight.

For those of you who are feeling particularly zealous about the notion of "States rights," I hope you will heed my words. Your role as mental health advocate must eclipse your role as political party supporter.

I know that many CMHNetwork readers affiliate themselves with a variety of advocacy organizations. I would ask that you share this post with your organization leaders, be they the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Mental Health America, National Council for Behavioral Health or any other organization you share an affiliation. Ask them to take a stand on the Devos nomination. Your organization may take a position that is different from the one I have laid out in this post. That's okay. What is not okay is for them to sit silently on the sidelines. You may find that they have well-articulated positions on the Devos nomination. If so, excellent. Share them, discuss them, but by all means, do not sit silently.

Take a stand. And if your advocacy organization of choice has not yet done so, tell the leadership to take a stand.

Nothing could be easier, or more important.

The days of quiet servitude to the "powers that be" must end.

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 Scott Bryant-Comstock
President & CEO
Children's Mental Health Network


  1. Trina Osher's avatar
    Trina Osher
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    Thanks, Scott. Now, more than ever before, your ongoing advocacy and accurate reporting are both an inspiration and an essential call to action. Thanks also for so kindly acknowledging Dixie, Barbara and me for the advocacy and policy work we have done in the past. But none of us worked alone. There were many others who contributed to, supported, or did this work. I want to mention just three. Ginny Wood (New York and Arizona) was a co-trainer for “It’s a Great IDEA!” workshops all over the country. Pat Hunt (Maine) prepared materials for the Federation’s Policy Day, co-authored policy documents, and designed policy workshops for families. Judy Heumann, as Assistant Secretary of Education under the Clinton Administration, repeatedly met with families at Federation conferences, listened to what we had to say, and made good use of what she heard. Countless statewide family organization directors led campaigns to influence policy in their states and many are still doing this. The work is not done. Family voices still need to be heard. Scott, I am counting on you to keep us alert, well informed, and fired up. Thanks
  2. Britney's avatar
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    Martin Luther King Jr once posited: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter". This is a very serious issue and we must speak out to get the right thing done. Let's all rise and support this course championed by CMHN. We can't condone ineptitude over this. Indeed we must all rise and take a stand. Thank you CMHN. My support is 100%
  3. Gemma's avatar
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    Well, for me, I'm an advocate of the truth when something is very clear we don't need divine powers to interpret further. Devos has displayed ineptitude to be the secretary for education hence we have to line up a replacement for her. Let the truth prevail. Truly we must take a stand. I appreciate your courage and braveness in coming up with this expository piece Scott. Thanks.
  4. Robert's avatar
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    Thank you CMHN for putting up this at the very right time. In some situations like this, most Americans feel it's just a kind political issue and will want to stay off. But I wish to lend my voice to admonish all Americans to look deep into this issue and speak out. We must say no to complacency and apathy. lets's all get involve to get what really belongs to us all.
  5. Michael's avatar
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    CMHN you guys are doing a great job. Thanks for being the voice of the voiceless in the society. I'm totally in support of your resolve of taking not just a stand, but what I will describe as a "concrete stand" on who becomes the secretary for education following the initial nomination of Devos and the situations surrounding the processes. We must have the right and competent leaders to get things right hence it's necessary to take a stand and speak out. CMHN cannot succeed alone on this, we must all rise up to support this course. Let our voices be heard and let the right thing be done.
  6. Mitchelle's avatar
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    First, I wish to sincerely appreciate Scott for being so proactive over the issue of Devos nomination for education secretary. It takes only a dogged and brave individual to sense what could be the aftermath of an issue of this magnitude. I've carefully read through all your analysis, and when I got to the concluding part, I was like; "Scott you've just spoken my mind". I never had a right channel to air out my views to the public as soon as I wanted, but I'm just glad you did Scott.

    It's quite obvious that Betsy Devos, answers to virtually all the questions raised couldn't provide the needed clarity. I was so curious to hear her give answers over the questions but I was so disappointed at the end of the whole hearing and this keeps me suspecting something might be wrong somewhere, perhaps there is a political undertone or no better understanding of the laws. It's sending a very leery signal and whatever it might be, as Scott rightly pointed out in this piece, it is very important that we take a stand. Devos response to the hearing is enough to let us know that we must really take a stand on this issue in order that we may not regret what the outcome would be.

    This is just my candid take.

  7. Alex Wong's avatar
    Alex Wong
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    Growing up having a family member who has a disability really makes me realize how important it is to advocate for them. This article brings to light how Trump and Devos would potentially be setting education back for all. This is alarming and we all need to take a stand.
  8. Alanah Evans's avatar
    Alanah Evans
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    I'll be sharing this with as many people as possible! DeVos should not be the Education Secretary and we need to prolong the vote until another candidate is brought forward.
  9. Colleen S's avatar
    Colleen S
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    I don't believe that Devos has what it take to advocate for mental health and the severity of the situation is made clear in this article. It's important to hold all leaders accountable!
  10. Martin Rafferty's avatar
    Martin Rafferty
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    Will NAMI and Mental Health America stand with the issues and support Scott's message? If not, I suspect that it signals that their interests lies more in political access than the mission of the people they represent.
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