Hillary Freeman always knew growing up that she wanted to have a career in helping people with disabilities. At one point she considered becoming an occupational therapist. But somewhere along the line she decided she could be of much more use as a lawyer.
Today Freeman is one of only a handful of attorneys who specialize in disability law. She often represents clients in suits against school districts — mainly parents who believe their child is not getting the services they are entitled to under the law. She also takes guardianship, estate planning, insurance appeals, and adult services cases.
Freeman began as a one-person operation and has built a thriving practice out of this specialty. Her firm, Freeman Carolla Reisman & Gran, recently moved from 5 Vaughn Drive to a larger office at 103 Carnegie Center, Suite 101. The firm now has seven lawyers.
Freeman’s motivation for pursuing disability law goes back to her family in East Brunswick. “My brother is autistic,” she says. “He’s 42, and he functions on the level of a two-year-old. I grew up watching my parents advocate for services for my brother.” She knew she wanted to make it easier for other parents to go through same process.
Freeman’s parents, a dentist and a social worker, spent much of their time caring for her brother and advocating for him, giving Freeman a first-hand look at how hard it can be for parents of children with autism. Today her brother lives in a group home at Eden Autism Services.
A typical case for Freeman was wrapped up in 2012. She represented a boy who has autism — identified in court documents as “J.R.” — and his family in a lawsuit against the Cherry Hill School District. The dispute began in 2009, when the parents went to court seeking a residential placement for their adopted son, who was then 12 years old.
According to court documents, J.R. had spent much of his public school career in classes designed to help autistic students, but was having trouble behaving appropriately. The school reported him “hitting, kicking and banging, shrieking and screaming 100 plus times during the school day” and “using inappropriate language.”
The parents reported equally troublesome behavior at home, telling the school district that he would hit people without provocation, and that they couldn’t leave him alone with his sister. J.R. was sent to the Bancroft School, a school in Haddonfield for students with multiple disabilities and behavioral issues. There a behaviorist recommended that J.R. be watched by a one-to-one aide at all times. As J.R. grew older and bigger, his behavior at home got worse. The parents reported that he twice broke the headboard of his bed by banging against it.
Meanwhile, the parents and school district were locked in a dispute about whether J.R. would continue to spend the day at school and go home to his family at night. The case centered around whether J.R. was making meaningful progress in the day program or whether he required a residential placement to advance academically. The court battle went on for years, with Freeman representing the family until ultimately, the school district lost at trial and was ordered to send J.R. to Woods Services in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, a residential treatment program, and to pay the family’s legal fees.
The outcome was very gratifying for Freeman. “The school was not addressing his needs, and he was not making any progress, and was learning no life skills,” she says. The boy will most likely remain at Woods Services until he is 21, and longer if the state agrees to pay for the cost of caring for him. “Placing him in residential placement will give him more opportunities to learn the skills to be a more functional member of society,” Freeman says.
That case was typical in some ways, but atypical in others. Like most of Freeman’s cases, it was about a family trying to get the most appropriate services for a child who is facing a severe disability. Cases like these call upon Freeman’s skills as a would-be therapist as well as a lawyer. “This area involves a little social work and a therapeutic personality,” she says. “We are trying to advocate for their rights, but we are also trying to address parents’ concerns and take their feelings into consideration.”
Freeman believes she picked up those skills from her mother. “Counseling has always been in my family,” she says. “Parents can’t tell me I don’t understand what I’m talking about, because I’ve been through it.” Most of the lawyers who work at Freeman’s firm have family members with disabilities.
Where J.R. vs. Cherry Hill was different, however, was that it went to trial. Most of Freeman’s cases end in settlement, she says.
One recent case that settled was between a family and a school district. Freeman got the district to agree to place an autistic student in a transition program, where he is learning skills to be successful after leaving the school system. That case earned Freeman a special reward: a hug from the student, who told her how much he liked the internship he had been placed in.
“My goal is always to give students access to services that will allow them to be as successful and independent as possible,” she says.
One of Freeman’s frustrations is New Jersey’s slow-moving legal system. “It takes a long time to get certain things accomplished,” she says. “That whole time, the client might be going without appropriate services.”
Often nothing is done until the situation deteriorates to the point where parents are requesting an emergency response. It is particularly difficult to get behavioral support services for an adult with disabilities. “If an adult with disabilities needs behavioral support, the state will not often respond with appropriate support unless behaviors reach a level where they beat their parents up or run away, or punch holes in the wall or else they’re not really going to get the level of support they need,” she says.
Freeman believes the business community could do more to accommodate adults with disabilities. “There is a big push to keep people in the community, but I don’t think businesses know how to make it work,” she says. “Somebody with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism might have difficulty being creative and thinking outside the box. But there might be certain tasks that are more routine oriented that they might be great at. You or me, we might not want to be doing repetitive tasks … but they might love it. The trick is finding a component in the workplace that matches their profile. There’s always something. We’ve had people with disabilities file papers here [at the law firm.] We’ve had them answer phones and take notes. At my brother’s school, they have a cleaning service where they’ll go into offices, empty trash cans, and wipe things down and straighten up.”
She said one of her clients was an expert in the history of technology and ended up getting a job at Best Buy because they knew so many facts about the latest electronics. Many people with disabilities have skills like that, she says, if only businesses could look past the disabilities and recognize their strengths. It’s not just low-level jobs either: Freeman points out that many have speculated Steve Jobs had a high-functioning form of Asperger’s syndrome.
“They could do really well,” she says. “It’s just a matter of finding that match.” Organizations like the Friendship Circle of Mercer County, the JCC in Cherry Hill, and JFK Rehabilitation Center in Edison have job coaching and employer matching components to their services.
Freeman has been working in disabilities law for nine years. After studying at Ithaca College and Cornell, Freeman earned her law degree at Widener. Freeman opened her own firm in 2011 after positions at various local law firms. Single with no children of her own, she spends much of her time outside of work advocating for people with disabilities. She served as vice president of the Learning Disabilities Association of New Jersey, is a member of the Asperger & Autism Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, and is on the executive board of the Learning Disabilities Association of New Jersey in addition to several other posts. She is actively involved in Parents of Autistic Children and gives free advice for nonprofits. If there is one thing that unites Freeman’s personal, professional, and volunteer efforts to help people with disabilities, it’s the idea that the situation is never hopeless. “I don’t give up, and I don’t take no for an answer,” she says. “There’s always something that can help a child make progress.”
Freeman Carolla Reisman & Gran LLC, 103 Carnegie Center, Suite 101, Princeton 08540; 609-454-5609; fax, 609-228-6909. Hillary Freeman, attorney. www.freemancarolla.com.