Sons’ disabilities lead mom to new career

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At 38, Dorothy Taylor wanted to start a family and, in 1992, she had two sons.

“They had some severe issues, and there were no positive answers for them,” she said. “I had one psychologist tell me to institutionalize my child. Had I been some young mom, I would have given up and walked away without any hope.”

One of Taylor’s sons suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, and the other boy struggles with pervasive developmental disorder, also an autism-spectrum disorder, which can include impairments in social interaction, imaginative activity and verbal and nonverbal communication skills.

“I can’t take my children back to the store,” Taylor said. “I had to solve the problem.”

She began searching for ways to help her sons. In 1994, she attended a conference in Eatontown on services for children and met members of SPAN, the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network.

“It seemed to be a natural thing — I believed in the mission,” she said.

SPAN, which is funded by federal, state and local grants, and corporate and private donations, tries to empower families and guide other agencies in the healthy development and educational rights of children. The network provides information, support, training and advocates for families of children struggling with poverty, disabilities or discrimination.

Now 50, Taylor has lived in the Lanoka Harbor section of Lacey for five years, although she is originally from Asbury Park. Her sons are now 13 years old, and they have improved so much that “they’re not the same kids.”

Taylor has dedicated her life to helping other families fight to get their children help.

“I became a passionate nut,” she said. “I didn’t want any other parents to go through what I was going through. I volunteered for a few years (with SPAN) before I came aboard.”

Taylor’s college background includes accounting and nursing. She also has a chef’s degree from Rutgers University and, as a part-time job, organizes dinner parties for clients.

In the late 1970s and into the mid-1990s, Taylor worked as the staff supervisor for Joseph Califano Jr., who had served as President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and is now chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Now as a family advocate with SPAN, Taylor helps parents fight for their children’s rights in schools, with social services, through the juvenile justice system and with medical and mental care.

“I help families stop being victims,” she said.

Mary Ramirez, 42, of Freehold Township is one of the parents Taylor has helped. Three years ago, Ramirez searched the Internet for answers for her then 10-year-old son, who has multiple disabilities and is a special education student. She found SPAN, and Taylor met with her the same night.

“She has been by my side every since,” Ramirez said. “She speaks to me no matter what time it is.”

Taylor helped educate Ramirez and guide her in defending her son, who after a fight, was kept out of school for two months without tutoring or placement in another school. She said school officials also attempted to expel the boy.

Ramirez said Taylor helped her learn the laws protecting her son, how to file state and federal complaints and even attended court hearings with her.

“She has really helped me learn my rights and my son’s rights,” Ramirez said. “She has made me a much stronger parent.”

Taylor works out of Trenton, although she is on the road most of the time helping families in southern and central New Jersey. She said she handles, on average, six to 10 new referrals daily. Taylor said she logged 4,500 minutes last month just on her cell phone dealing with parents.

“People are talking at them, not to them,” Taylor said. “I tell parents I don’t care when they call, but that they do call. It’s important parents get educated about education.”

For more information on SPAN, call (973) 642-8100 or toll free in New Jersey 1 (800) 654-SPAN.

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By alex
February 28, 2005

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