More educational surrogates needed in Missouri

ST. LOUIS | A lack of educational surrogates for special needs children in Missouri has raised concerns about whether the students are getting enough academic support.

The surrogates are required for children with a disability who are wards of the state and have no guardians. They fill the role of parent and represent the students during teacher conferences and individual education plan meetings.

About 400 children throughout Missouri are required to have surrogates, and dozens of them lack such volunteers. The St. Louis area has 170 children who should have a surrogate, yet 75 still don't have one.

"These children have very, very few resources, and they have huge mountains they have to climb on their own," Donna Campbell, an educational surrogate and the head of the special education department at Webster University, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "That's a good reason to be involved, and the more people we can get would be wonderful."

The need is most noticeable for children who are wards of the state. Most of them have foster parents who can fill the role, but others in state custody live in group homes and don't have anyone who specifically monitors how they're doing in school.

Recruiting educational surrogates can be challenging because of the restrictions involved. Students can't be linked up with anyone who works in their school or for an agency that serves them, because it's considered a conflict of interest.

Many of Missouri's 175 registered surrogates are homemakers or retired individuals, said Dana Desmond with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which oversees the program.

A person must be at least 18 to be a surrogate and has to undergo training and a criminal background check.

Edward Griesbaum, 82, is one of the most active surrogates in the state. He has served about 70 children in the past 12 years and currently is an educational surrogate for seven students.

Griesbaum, of Springfield, drives as far as Kansas City and St. James to represent the children at meetings. He said it's worth it if he touches just one child's life.

One of the students he helped in the past went on to join the Navy. Another is now a social worker for the state.

"In the long run, it's going to pay the state because these children will not always be on the state rolls," Griesbaum said. "Some of them of course will be, but there are others who will make a good living."