For 30 years, Regina Skyer has been working as an attorney with the sole focus of advocating, mediating, and litigating on behalf of children with special education needs. She has been a lifelong champion for special needs children and their families, beginning her career as a social worker and special education camp administrator. Before opening Skyer Law, her private practice, Ms. Skyer worked as a pro-bono volunteer attorney at Advocates for Children and at the NYC Board of Education Office of Legal Services. Her unique background in social work, law, and special education has positioned her to empower parents to advocate for their children in getting an appropriate education for their needs.
Helping families with special education needs has been the defining thread throughout your career. Where did this passion come from?
I am a child of two Holocaust survivors, and I grew up in a home where education was exceedingly valued. My mother said to us at an early age, “The Nazis came and took away everything from our family, but they could never take away our education.” I understood that a meaningful education was the most powerful and critical tool that children needed to have better lives. No matter what, the ability to read or a love of learning stays with a child for their whole life, and that can never be taken away. So, I was always very driven to education and to helping children in particular.
“I understood that a meaningful education was the most powerful and critical tool that children needed to have better lives.”
You began your career as a social worker and administrator for a special education summer camp. How did those earlier experiences influence your decision to transition to law?
I went to social work because I wanted to help people, and I worked with children because, if I could help a child, the effects would be lifelong. The same year that I graduated with my MSW, I started working with Summit Camp, [which serves children with learning differences] first as the social worker program director then as an owner. I stayed at Summit for 36 years, as I realized helping special needs kids was my calling. Working with the special-needs population from a clinical perspective as a social worker led me to law school, because I knew I could be more effective as an advocate if I was a lawyer.
What was your experience like in pursuing a new direction with law?
I was 38, had four children at home, and I was not giving up working at Summit Camp when I entered law school [at the time called City University of New York Public Interest Law but now known as CUNY School of Law]. I had a full house, but I thought this was the best path forward. I enjoyed every day of school, and I found it empowering, particularly for women. Law school teaches you another way of thinking and how to look at a problem.
In the early 1990s, what was the legal landscape like for special education when you entered the profession?
There was one other lawyer in private practice who was focused on special education, and I became the second. But the Supreme Court made a decision in 1993 [Florence County School District Four v. Carter] that allowed people to sue for tuition, so that opened up the industry. Compared to today, there are now 10-15 firms in NYC alone that specialize in special education. There is such a concentration here because of a confluence of factors: a high concentration of people, an urban school district that is pretty broken when it comes to special ed, a well-informed parent population, and there are schools here that can support special ed students. There are many special education lawyers now because there is a commitment from both lawyers and parents to give children an education to teach them to read and write.
You founded Skyer Law in 1992. What did your first year look like with opening your private practice?
Unlike many other lawyers, I was in a very fortunate position getting started. I had a built-in population of Summit Camp children with special needs whose families became my very first clients. I knew these kids the best and had a strong commitment to help these families, so I started representing them. I also had a built-in office, which was my camp office in Queens. In the early years, I did a lot of litigation and hearings; the work was challenging and adrenaline-producing. I loved every minute of it, and I still do. If I was able to help the parent secure tuition payment so their child could go to the appropriate school for their needs, then I was helping make a difference in the child’s life.
“If I was able to help the parent secure tuition payment so their child could go to the appropriate school for their needs, then I was helping make a difference in the child’s life.”
Can you describe the typical process that families experience when they become a client for a special education lawyer? How do they begin?
When you have a bright child with dyslexia, it’s often a relief when the parent gets a diagnosis because treatment can help the child get over the hurdle. Once a parent has a diagnosis, they set up a one-hour consultation. Parents should bring materials such as test reports; the neuropsychological report recommending a small, highly specialized school for the child; and written documentation that states the child is average to above average in intelligence and typical in all other regards, but is struggling in school. Then, the parent leaves the consultation with a brief summary of the legal processes and the recipe for the next steps, such as a short list of referred schools. This initial consultation should be empowering and comforting for the parent because they now have knowledge of what they need to do.
What does a typical week look like for you?
I usually see about 5-10 new clients per week, assign cases, and manage the entire firm of 18 lawyers. Each lawyer is assigned 100-180 cases to manage, and most cases are tuition reimbursement or seeking services in public schools.
Your firm offers many services that include litigating funding claims, explaining to clients the meaning and implication of reports, educating families on their rights under IDEA, referring families to appropriate services, appealing decisions in the NYS Office of State Review and in federal courts, and more. Out of everything, what are the most exciting and challenging aspects of this job?
The most rewarding part is being involved in helping tens of thousands of children receive their appropriate education and training other lawyers to do this too. We get to instill a sense of hope for parents when sometimes they feel despair. I am happiest when I get to be a social worker and lawyer, helping parents get through a hard time and not lose hope. Challenges are good because you grow. And one challenge comes with the territory...lawyers don’t like to lose cases!
What message would you like families with special education needs to know, from a legal lens?
As a parent, you may regret what you don’t do, so do not be afraid to advocate for your child. If your child needs to go to a special school, send them. It is a gift that you are giving them, a foundation that will last for their whole life. Do not hesitate if you can afford it. If you can’t afford it, fight the school district. Why? When you look back as a parent, you want to be able to say I tried and did everything I could. There is no guarantee everything is going to work, but at least I tried.
Note: All information and insights shared in the Q&A demonstrate the expertise and views of the interviewee. The information about providers and services contained in The Beacon does not constitute an endorsement by The Windward School.