Phony therapists will face fine, jail time starting Oct. 1
It can take years and years and years for pieces of legislation to become law.
But just 18 months after a New York woman was arrested for scamming Fairfield County schools and parents out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, a group of parents, therapists and legislators gathered Friday at Stepping Stones Museum to announce that a new state law making it a crime to wrongly represent oneself as an autism therapist takes effect Oct. 1.
Any person violating this provision is guilty of a felony punishable by up to a $500 fine, imprisonment for up to five years, or both. Each illegal contact or consultation constitutes a separate offense.
The new law was prompted by the case of Stacy Lore, who was found guilty in 2010 of forging credentials to treat autistic children throughout Fairfield County. Lore, who was hired by both the Norwalk and Weston public school systems, reportedly charged taxpayers and parents more than $400,000 for what proved to be fraudulent autism spectrum services.
"Our message today is we will protect our children. And the long arm of the law will go after those who do otherwise," said state Sen. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) "We will not let the Stacy Lores take advantage of our children. Or our taxpayers. We will come get you if you are going to prey on our children."
Lore was sentenced to up to three years in prison for larceny, but her lies about her qualifications could not be punished under state law.
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Duff explained that the issue with Lore was the fact that local officials knew what she did was wrong, but it was not illegal to say that she was an analyst when she wasn't.
"There was a hole in the justice system. We brought her to justice thanks to the hard work of the Norwalk Police Department and others," he said. "We've been able to make sure that we close that loophole in the state of Connecticut."
"Because of all of our collaborative work with the legislature, we have achieved not only the absence of evil, but the presence of justice," said Maria Domenici of Westport, whose 10-year-old daughter was seen by Lore.
Domenici said in a press conference earlier this year that she believes her daughter missed a critical window of opportunity to improve her health and well-being.
For children on the autism spectrum, early intervention and proper care can be critical.
Joining her at the press conference in February was Margaret Kozlark, also a parent to an autistic child.
Kozlark said her son received Lore's non-existent therapy for a year-and-a-half.
"Bad therapy is worse than no therapy at all," Kozlark said. "My son is unable to communicate basic needs to us."
Lore was caught after parents and school districts became suspicious of her methods and billing practices, including charging schools for therapy on days when students were not in school. Later, she admitted she had only a high school equivalency diploma.
"Today is a day to celebrate," Domenici said Friday. "This is a fantastic, monumental achievement. I cannot thank Sen. Duff, Minority Leader Larry Cafero (R-Norwalk) and Majority Leader Martin Looney (D-New Haven) enough. They worked so hard to push this law through."
The second part of the new state law takes effect next year on July 1, 2012 and requires school districts to use only licensed or certified behavior analysts to provide applied behavior analysis for students with autism spectrum disorders.
"Sometimes it takes an incident such as the one we experienced to crystallize the need for legislative action," said Cafero in a statement. "We all realized the need to address this issue and we did so in a collaborative fashion without regard for politics. I'm very proud of the work done on all fronts -- from the parents and families to experts in the field of autism and in the legislature -- that has gotten us to this day.''
"Clearly there was a gap in our laws regarding criminal impersonation that needed to be filled," Looney in a statement. "Someone who engages in the type of unconscionable practices that we saw in the Fairfield County needs to be punished appropriately for the harm caused to families and children."
This is the third year in a row that a bipartisan coalition of state legislators has moved to strengthen and improve services for those with autism. In 2009, the General Assembly approved a bill that made Connecticut the ninth state in the nation with a comprehensive autism insurance mandate. In 2010 the General Assembly passed a bill that for the first time required school districts to regulate the administration and supervision of behavior therapy for autistic children.
Duff made it clear that he never doubted Public Act 11-228 would become law.
"This is how democracy works. You get advocates who talk to their legislators who then push the legislation through. I am always saying that democracy is a team sport," Duff said.
"It's not easy for things to become law. But when we had parents come up from Norwalk and around the state and testify to the Public Health Committee, I think we knew this was going to become law that day. When we heard parents talk about what they went through with Stacy Lore. Members of the committee sat there dumbfounded that someone would do such a terrible act to children."