By STEPHANIE REITZ=, Associated Press
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ A group of Connecticut legislators and children’s advocates are pushing for a law making it illegal to falsify autism treatment credentials, prompted by a bogus therapist who bilked schools and parents of more than $600,000.
Stacy Lore of Carmel, N.Y., was sentenced last year to three years in prison for larceny, but her lies about her qualifications could not be punished under state law, something legislators say they want changed.
The bill awaits a hearing in the General Assembly’s public health committee, and a bipartisan group of legislators and autism awareness activists are introducing it at a public event Monday in Norwalk.
It would make the misrepresentation of certain credentials a felony carrying up to five years in prison and $500 in fines for each offense, similar to the punishment for falsifying qualifications to provide speech, occupational and physical therapies.
The lawmakers, members of Connecticut’s Autism Speaks chapter and other supporters say bogus therapists can rob children of legitimate help at a critical time in their development. They also worry about scammers preying on parents’ fears and finances, especially as the number of autism diagnoses has been increasing.
“These children are so vulnerable and there are so many snake oil salespeople out there who know that, and who might prey on our families for that very reason,” said Shannon Knall of Simsbury, who has a child on the autism spectrum and is advocacy director for Connecticut’s Autism Speaks chapter.
“People who choose to follow that path should be treated as criminals and punished as the criminals they are,” she said.
About 1 of every 110 children born in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, the federal Centers for
Disease Control says. That’s an increase of more than 50 percent since 2002, with the prevalence notably higher among boys.
The disorders include delays and disabilities in communication, behavior and socialization. They can range from mild difficulties to significant impairments that make it difficult for those children to interact with others.
Connecticut is among dozens of states that require insurers to pay the costs of assessing and providing therapy for children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.
Sen. Martin Looney, a Democrat from New Haven, said that makes the stakes even higher for people who might be tempted to misrepresent their qualifications and collect payments from school districts, parents _ and, potentially, insurers.
“We need to make sure we punish this kind of abuse of trust in the same way we address abuse of trust by those holding themselves out to be professionals in other fields,” Looney said.
The Connecticut bill would make it illegal to claim certification from the Behavior Analyst Certification Board.
That Florida-based national nonprofit corporation certifies the qualifications of professionals who have been trained and pass exams in behavior analysis and treatment, including for autism spectrum disorders.
Connecticut’s proposal came after Lore, who ran a Norwalk-based business called Spectrum Kids, was convicted and imprisoned for larceny after falsely claiming to have advanced degrees and certification to provide autism therapy.
She 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. Her attorney said she could make no excuses for her actions and needed psychiatric help.
In California, a couple was charged last year with creating a shell company to double-bill their insurers and the San Francisco school district for therapies for their autistic son.
Prosecutors say they pocketed six-figure profits each year, never disclosing they were connected with the company and the supposed at-home therapies for which it billed. They have pleaded not guilty to grand theft and other charges.
Looney, the Connecticut senator, said the potential for more misrepresentation grows as the number of diagnoses increases.
Some experts attribute at least part of the growth to better early assessments and changes in the diagnoses for children who might once have been wrongly labeled as mentally retarded or learning disabled.
Activists for autism awareness and some lawmakers say parents often do not know how to check a therapist’s credentials, especially as they cope with the financial and emotional implications of learning their child has an autism spectrum disorder.
“It’s hard to discover unless you do a background check on the person individually and find out if they are, in fact, certified. But most parents wouldn’t think to do that because they assume most professionals are reputable and present legitimate credentials,” Looney said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)