A Judge for Change

December 29, 2014
Rosalind Black
Photo credit: Amy Dawson

Amy Dawson ’89 recently won a seat in the Fourth Judicial District of Hennepin County in Minneapolis, Minnesota, thanks, in part, to raising three times the funds of her opponent, and receiving the endorsements of many elected officials and prominent voices in her community. Dawson, who began practicing law in 1992, founded the Autism Advocacy & Law Center, LLC, in 2009, after discovering her son had autism at the age of 3. Her son, who no longer fits the criteria for autism, received Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, an evidence-based treatment that uses contracting for positive reinforcement to teach children new skills. Dawson’s fight to obtain insurance coverage for her son naturally led her to advocate for other children as well.. She made it her prerogative to assist those affected by autism and other disabilities, providing various legal services, including fighting for affordable access to health care coverage of medically necessary treatment. Now, as a judge, she hopes to use the knowledge she has gained about the interplay of autism and the law to make justice more accessible to everyone.

One of your children, your son, has autism. Tell me about when you learned that he had autism.

He actually has a history of autism. He no longer meets the diagnostic criteria of autism. Applied Behavior Analysis is a very effective treatment, so he just has a history. He was about 3 or 3 1/2 when he was diagnosed and I was told he would have a lifetime of need for comprehensive support services until I found out about ABA therapy.

It wasn’t the hardest to get him signed up for the therapy agency, but one of the greatest challenges was figuring out how to pay for it. Our insurance paid for it for a little while and then they said they’d been paying by mistake and they weren’t going to pay for it anymore. In Minnesota, Medical Assistance (MA) is what we call Medicaid, and kids that have disabilities like autism are able to get enrolled in Medical Assistance. But at the time my son needed this therapy, the Department of Human Services (DHS) had decided they weren’t going to pay for it and there was an active lawsuit involving that decision.

So one of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to pay for this therapy that cost, at times, $8 or $10 thousand per month. It turned out that being a litigator was just what my son needed, because I basically had to get involved in a bunch of different lawsuits, and threaten lawsuits.

It really is important to understand that he [my son] went from being nonverbal, having very few words that even I could understand, having an IQ below 50 to being a kid whom you would not observe in a classroom of kids and pick out as a kid with autism (on most days). In fact the Autism Spectrum and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Clinic at the University of Minnesota has evaluated him recently—a couple years ago—and said he no longer meets the diagnostic criteria except by history. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV, they changed the diagnostic criteria so that if a kid has ever exhibited these traits or characteristics or symptoms of autism then they can never shake the diagnosis of autism.

It’s kind of like being a recovering alcoholic in that you just can’t shake the label even though you’re not suffering from the problem. He is doing great. He is in regular mainstream education, he is in fourth grade, and he doesn’t need any support services. He has good friends and fits in socially, and plays soccer and enjoys basketball. It’s part of the reason I got into this work: Because affordable access to health care just shouldn’t be so hard, you know? It’s a fundamental aspect of equal opportunity.

Can you talk more about how the experience with your son affected the choices you have made in your career?

Well, it really defined them. I started practicing law in 1992 at the firm of Faegre and Benson, which is a very large, worldwide firm. In fact, now it’s called Faegre, Baker, Daniels. I was in the construction law group and it was a great place to start, and I learned a lot. From the time I started practicing law, I thought this was something I was good at. But until I shifted the focus of my work to helping children and individuals and families affected by autism and other disabilities, I didn’t find being an attorney really satisfying. I never found that passion and satisfaction at work. But now I do, and since changing my focus to helping children, individuals, and families affected by autism, I love being an attorney. And I’m pretty sure I will love being a judge, too.

Autism isn’t a subject generally associated with legal action in most people’s minds. Tell me about the intersection of autism and the law or autism and policy.

Well, you know, the Autism Advocacy & Law Center is three full-time law attorneys and a paralegal and we are working all the time. For us we see the intersection of autism and the law all the time. For example, 60 to 80 percent of juvenile justice defendants have a disability. In the adult criminal defense world, the numbers are even higher. We don’t have any reliable data for the adults in the criminal justice system, but if 60 to 80 percent of kids have a disability, that number has to be at least as high for adults. Because on top of childhood disabilities like PTSD, anxiety, trauma, let alone autism and emotional behavioral disturbances, you’ve got chemical dependency.

So these problems are overwhelming our legal system. At the Autism Advocacy & Law Center, we represent individuals involved in the criminal justice system, parents when their children turn 18 and are in need of guardianship, families trying to gain access to affordable treatment or services, and we also represent parents of children with disabilities when those parents get divorced or have post-dissolution issues.

As a judge, I believe that my experience and skill set representing members of the disability community will inform my courtroom practices. Hennepin County has been a leader in problem-solving courtrooms, and I hope that I will be able to lend a hand in that effort.

I’d like to hear a little bit about your campaign, too. What made you decide to run for the judicial seat?

So every time I go to court, whether it’s family law or something else, I feel like I’m educating judges one at a time about these intricacies of the law and the systems and services that are available. And I felt like I would be able to educate the bench better from within. When I’m an attorney who’s litigating in front of them I can’t really go to a brown bag lunch and teach them how to do everything I think they ought to do [laughs].

This is an opportunity to help other judges learn, and it’s also an opportunity to take what I know and what I’ve learned and this set of experiences and apply it to new areas. My first assignment is going to be on the criminal bench. And I’m very much looking forward to learning more about that area and learning how to be a good judge in those cases and for those people: the defendants, the victims, and the community. And some of those defendants of course will be people with developmental disabilities and so will some of the victims. So I think that I will be able to continue using that expertise I’ve developed.

I also thought about whether the Autism Advocacy & Law Center was strong enough to continue without me, and if I do win, will the firm be able to continue helping children, individuals, and families affected by autism and other disabilities? I felt that it was, and I still feel that way. So the firm is going to continue, and the other attorneys will help the transition, and Jason Schellack will be in charge. I am very proud of the work done by the Autism Advocacy & Law Center.

When your family heard about your candidacy—since they sort of started you on this path—how did they react?

They were all very supportive. It was just amazing. My parents were of course very proud, very supportive, and a good source of advice as well. And my brother called right away to offer his support and so did my sister. All of that was really terrific.

Of course my father [Paul Dawson] teaches politics and American government at Oberlin, and I’ve always enjoyed family conversations about politics and elections, and I’ve always been very interested and involved in the political process. When I first came to Minnesota I remember having a conversation with my father, and I probably sounded a little sad, by myself and homesick, and I said “I just don’t know very many people.” And he said “Well, why don’t you go volunteer?” [laughs]. So I did. I got involved in the presidential campaign in 1992 and met a lot of people and I’ve just always really enjoyed volunteering on campaigns. That experience turned out to be very good. In fact it turned out to be very helpful. When I ran for office, one of the things that really helped was being able to get endorsements from elected officials and influential people in the community and I was able to do that because I’ve volunteered alongside them for more than 20 years.

I had a lot of support from a lot of different people, and I was very proud of that, and the fact that I had bipartisan support, nonpartisan support, and that I raised more money than my opponent did. My opponent wrote herself a very large check and spent over $70,000 of her own money, at least. In the end, it was people power and the strength of grassroots organizing that won the day. And, it’s important to note that, among my staunchest and most wonderful supporters, were many Oberlin graduates and members of the Oberlin community. I am so very grateful to all of them.

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