After Kimberly Graham's son was diagnosed with autism, she found some solace and hope for improving his life in the person of Stacy Lore, a behavioral therapist who appeared to be not only competent, but wanted to help and was worth the high fees she charged.
"We put our trust, life savings, and newly autism-diagnosed son in the care of an impersonating board certified behavior analyst (BCBA)," Graham said about the therapist in Norwalk who faked her credentials to get lucrative work serving autistic children and who was later convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison.
"For over a year, fake therapist Stacy Lore gave my son incorrect and damaging behavioral therapy," Graham said during a news conference held Monday at Stepping Stones Museum. Graham and other area parents spoke at the event in order to promote a proposed law that would create penalties for those who fraudulently claim to be board certified and who primarily treat children with autism.
Graham and the other parents who spoke at the event said children need effective therapy at a certain early period of their lives when autistic children are open to it. Getting bad therapy at that period is even "worse than no therapy," said Margaret Busteck of Norwalk.
"Inappropriate therapy magnifies the symptoms of autism," Graham said. "A child receiving incorrect, damaging therapy will not function in our society."
"Our son developed erratic behavior, and his speech became robotic and scripted," she said. "Stacy was responsible for our son's rehabiitation in the most critical developmental time in his life. Her inability to deliver effective therapy has potentially destroyed our son's chance of recovery."
Senate Bill 799 would make it a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in prison and a $500 fine to represent oneself as a board-certified behavior analyst primarily for the treatment of children with autism. Each patient contact or consultation would be considered a separate offense under the bill.
State Sen. Bob Duff, a Norwalk Democrat, along with state Rep. Larry Cafero, a Norwalk Republican and minority leader in the state House of Representatives, and state Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, all spoke at the event to show their support for the bill. With bipartisan support from such high-ranking legislators as Looney and Cafero, Duff said, the bill has an excellent chance of passing.
Looney said the bill would toughen the penalties for fraudulent behavior in a way that would have behavioral therapists for autism treated by the state in a similar way to the state's treatment of health-care professionals in other fields.
Cafero said that in Lore's case, she was convicted of larceny charges sufficient enough to put her in prison upon conviction, a situation that may not always apply in other cases unless the proposal is made law.
Cafero pointed out that parents who find they have autistic children are desperate to seek help with something about which they themselves have little or no knowledge, and that makes them especially vulnerable to fraudsters claiming to be therapists.
"When you're thrust into the world of autism, it's a strange, new world," said Margaret Busteck of Norwalk. "When Stacy first came into our lives, we felt she was a dream come true."
If the legislative proposal had been law earlier, it might have frightened people like Lore away from the idea of faking their credentials, Busteck said, "and my son would not have been cheated out of his window of opportunity."
Supraja Krishna of Norwalk also spoke at the event, pointing out, as she put it in an interview afterward, that for parents whose first language is not English, it can be difficult to monitor how well services are being provided to their autistic children. Filtering out fraudsters in the behavioral therapy field, she said, "is so important for all the parents who don't speak Engish fluently."
The legislators and parents at the news conference stressed the advantage of having the law as a humanitarian measure to help those with autism, as well as their families. But another reason to pass the law, some pointed out, was that it could also save the state money down the road because children who are successfully treated won't need as much support from the state later in their lives. Duff said there was no projected additional cost to the state for enforcing the new law.
"When you give a child with autism an appropriate education at a young age, when their window of opportunity to learn is so great, then you give that child an opportunity to live an independent life, someday," said Maria Dominici of Weston, whose daughter was treated by Lore for 18 months.