Wednesday, May 12, 1993

Barnegat, New Jersey: The Jason Tallman Story : Death and the High Cost of Kidspeace

Jason Tallman, age 12

He was a small, brilliant and difficult little boy, full of poetry, and cherished by the parents who loved him, Rick and Jane Tallman. It is over a decade now, but feels like yesterday. I represented the Tallmans in their special education dispute against the Barnegat School District in southern New Jersey. I was in the courtroom when Jason was ordered into KidsPeace by an administrative law judge, against parent wishes and medical recommendation. Barnegat had sabotaged the only available school placement for Jason, so that there was no place for him to go except a Human Services placement in Pennsylvania. After the order, his mother whispered to me, “He’ll die there. That’s not for Jason.” But nobody listened, in spite of Motions to Reconsider. DYFS and the State of New Jersey abandoned this jumping bundle of creative, endless energy to the system. He had disabilities. He had genius. He had parents who fought for his survival. But nothing could win against the corruption of the bureaucracy and the State. Jason needed a school. What he got was death. Jason died less than a day after he was placed at KidsPeace, suffocated by an obese employee who sat on him and suffocated him.

I’ve learned about more death and abuse at KidsPeace recently, remembering the federal judge who refused to hear Jason’s case after his murder until it had gone back to the administrative court for fact finding. I did that trial, too, remaining haunted by the school’s manipulation of facts, the smugness of the school personnel who had neither shame nor guilt. They were proud of their ability to prevent justice and kill the child they failed to teach. I remember the look on the face of the judge when the case was remanded. The same judge who originally ordered Jason to KidsPeace, Joseph Martone, presided over the fact-finding trial. He knew his actions resulted in unspeakable tragedy. He was a good judge who made a fatal mistake that killed a child because that is the way the system is designed. At the end of the trial, the political hands within the OAL “Decision Review” wrote the decision.

The present status of special education will cost more deaths and abuse at KidsPeace, as well as other places throughout the country with staff untrained to handle the needs of disabled children. Spiraling costs of special education leave school districts desperate to put the funding responsibility elsewhere. The new Individuals With Disabilities Education Act recognizes the need to address “high cost placements” through interagency agreements. But New Jersey has never abided by the concept that special education is the responsibility of multiple agencies. It is cheaper to have custodial placements than to create schools to instruct the extremes of the disability spectrum. Departments of Education have their list of approved private schools. DYFS has an entirely separate list of placements. So does each agency within State government, and none will implement an IEP except a school. Residential placements for educational reasons are now treated in a managed care approach that does not permit the intensity of essential services, or the implementation of a genuinely individualized program. No agency coordinates with another. Jason was murdered by an incompetent aide, nobody able to figure out a way to get the child what he needed. Nobody was found guilty. Nobody was punished for this worst of sins.

Ten years later, more Jasons are in line for the KidsPeace mill. Schools and human services agencies continue to act with impunity, often conspiring with local school districts against parents in order to intimidate them and have somebody else pay the bill. The Tallman story is a parable for this decade. Jason’s mother knew he would not survive. Anyone who represents children in special education knows the increasing difficulty of finding appropriate placements, waiting for another child to die while the schools and the courts grind on.