CHARLESTON - For parents of children with behavioral and mental health disabilities, everyday decisions can be difficult.
However, a statewide program has been installed to help those parents and provide much needed support.
Legal Aid of West Virginia launched Family Advocacy, Support and Training, which is dedicated to assisting and educating parents and guardians to advocate for their children.
Bill Albert, the advocacy project director, said the program will ultimately lead families to self-empowerment and to advocate for themselves.
"FAST focuses on establishing peer-to-peer support networks, staying in touch and support," Albert said. "It's reassurance they're not the only ones who have ever gone through these problems, that there are others out there who have been through what they are going through."
FAST is funded by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. It was designed and implemented last July after Legal Aid expanded its advocacy services to children in a similar small-scale program.
Albert said LAWV received out-of-state funding to have one attorney provide legal representation to families in 2007, but that funding, which only covered support for six counties, was not renewed.
Legal Aid then presented a larger scale program to the DHHR, which provided funding to cover the entire state, for children from 5 to 18, or who are in a transitioning phase into adulthood, up to 22. The program went public Jan. 8.
Albert said FAST has already served several families and provided services that no other agencies are offering.
"Families of West Virginia need to have a voice in the care and treatment of their children," Albert said. "A lot of times right now they're not having that voice."
FAST will provide families with education, training and background to go into situations, such as schools, and represent their child to the best of their ability. Albert said advocates will also be available to attend meetings with the parents, or educate the parent in order to make them feel more comfortable.
One parent who has already been helped by FAST expressed her gratitude when the program went public.
"Before the advocate started going with me, school meetings would have me in tears," the unidentified parent said. "My advocate was able to keep my son out of transitional school.
"With the advocate's help, my son's school began to work with me and we formed a partnership. Now I am able to call for advice and attend school meetings alone."
The program currently provides two attorneys who can provide legal representation for families.