The founders of S.E.L.F. believe in leveling the special education playing field for all families. We believe in making a “free and appropriate public education” accessible to all by providing financial assistance in the form of grants for special education legal fees.
Special Education Legal Fund (S.E.L.F.) was founded by parents who have navigated the special education system for their children, for parents who may need financial support to secure legal assistance for their own children in special education.
Education for children with disabilities in the United States is governed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (amended 2004), which states that children with disabilities are entitled to a “free and appropriate public education.”
Before IDEA and its predecessor act, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHCA), only twenty percent of children with disabilities were receiving an education, and many states had laws in effect preventing certain types of children (physically handicapped, emotionally disturbed, etc) from attending public schools.
IDEA’s goal is to provide children with disabilities access to the same educational opportunities that exist for children without disabilities. IDEA’s main focus is on leveling educational opportunity for children with disabilities by ensuring they receive an individualized education that is free and appropriate for the child.
The law also focuses on early intervention and identification of children who may need services and ensuring that children with disabilities are educated with their typical peers to the greatest extent possible.
However, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was only partially funded at the time of the law’s creation, and funding for IDEA was reduced still further several years later. Today, only about 20% of the costs of educating children with disabilities according to the mandates created by IDEA are borne by the US government.
The remainder of those costs fall squarely on states and local school districts who shoulder the rising costs of educating a growing population of children with disabilities. Because of this fact, cost is a factor with every child in special education, and parents and districts may sometimes come into conflict.
For the average parent, advocating for a child in special education can be an overwhelming experience. When a child receives a referral for special education, it is often a confusing and emotional time. The child may be underperforming academically; there may be behavioral problems; there are often social issues. Under pressure and confused, parents who lack information and resources may agree to an educational program that is not appropriate or does not meet their child’s needs.
Special Education Legal Fund was created to provide parents in need with the financial support necessary to secure legal assistance in special education for their child or children.
Board of Directors
Christine Lai is cofounder and Executive Director of Special Education Legal Fund, Inc (S.E.L.F.). S.E.L.F. was founded in 2018 by parents for parents in need with children in the special education system who require legal assistance to secure a free and appropriate public education for their child. Christine is a longtime advocate for individuals with developmental disabilities and currently is a director of NEXT for Autism as well as a past board chair of Abilis, Inc. Ms. Lai is co-chair of Columbia University’s Fairfield County Alumni Relations Committee. In her previous life, Ms. Lai was Chief Financial Officer for a startup children’s personal care company, a buy-side equity research analyst at a New York and Dallas-based alternative investment funds, and a research analyst in sell-side equity research. Ms. Lai graduated from Columbia College at Columbia University with a degree in History.
Ulrika Drinkall has been advocating for children with special needs, including her 9-year old son, for over 6 years. Ms. Drinkall is currently a member of the Executive Committee and a Director at Abilis, an agency providing services to individuals and families affected by developmental disorders. Ms. Drinkall is also the founder of a support group for mothers of children with special needs. In her previous life, Ms Drinkall worked in institutional marketing and high net worth client portfolio management as well as equity sales for several international investment banks. Ms. Drinkall has a Master’s Degree in Business and Economics from Uppsala University in Sweden.
Michael Delgass is Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Sontag Advisory, a New York City based wealth manager, investment advisor, consultant, and fiduciary. Mr. Delgass is a frequent author and speaker on his topics of expertise. He has been featured in numerous national media publications and has appeared as a guest on nationally-syndicated radio shows.
Before joining Sontag Advisory in 2005, Mr. Delgass was a partner at prominent New York Metro and New England law firms, including Day Berry & Howard, LLP and Cummings & Lockwood, LLC. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Estate and Gift Taxation at Northwestern University School of Law, and a former faculty member of the National Trust School and National Graduate Trust School of the American Bankers Association. Mr. Delgass received a BS in Biology, Geology, and Chemistry, from Indiana University and earned his JD from The University of Chicago Law School. In addition to the Board of S.E.L.F., Mr. Delgass is currently Treasurer of the Board of Directors for the Westport Arts Center, and also serves on its Investment Committee.
Craig Elkind is the father of a teenager on the autism spectrum has been advocating for his son for over ten years. Mr. Elkind has been a member of the Board of the Association of Insurance and Financial Analysts since 2005. In addition, he is current Treasurer of the Connecticut Zoological Society (Beardsley Zoo), where he has been a board member since 2015. Mr. Elkind is also actively involved in his alma mater, Colgate University, where he has served as professional advisor to the Colgate Investment Group (CIG) since 2015.
Mr. Elkind has managed his family office since early 2014. Prior to that, Mr. Elkind was a portfolio manager for more than a decade at various investment firms including CKE Capital, Harbor Watch Capital, SAC Capital and Satellite Asset Management. From 1998-2002, Craig was a portfolio manager at Credit Suisse Asset Management and, prior to that, a buy-side equity research analyst at Lazard. Earlier in his career, Mr. Elkind was a Member in private equity firm Fisher Capital Corp (a KKR affiliate) and a Director of Insurance Ratings at Standard & Poor’s. Mr. Elkind graduated from Colgate University with a BA and holds an MBA from Columbia University; he also holds a Chartered Financial Analyst designation.
Victoria Robinson is the Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel of Fiduciary Technology Partners, LLC, a technology firm committed to enhancing philanthropic giving by improving planned giving operations. Prior to joining FTP in 2008, Ms. Robinson was Assistant General Counsel at Clinton Group Inc, a New York based hedge fund where she was responsible for the establishment of on and offshore investment funds. Previously, Ms. Robinson worked as an attorney for Walkers in the Cayman Islands and Mourants in Jersey, Channel Islands advising hedge fund and private equity clients and their administrators and trustees. She began her career at Slaughter & May in London as an English Solicitor, after graduating from Exeter University and Guildford Law School in the United Kingdom.
Erik Cohen, MD is a board-certified pediatrician and founder of Next Generation Pediatrics in Greenwich, CT. Dr. Cohen received his B.S. in Bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania and then completed two years of research on human hearing and one year on plasmid protein evaluation at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Dr. Cohen then went on to study at Georgetown University and receive received a Master’s Degree in Physiology and Biophysics. Following his masters degree, Dr. Cohen received his MD at Temple University School of Medicine and completed his internship and residency in pediatrics at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center (University of Connecticut). Prior to founding Next Generaton Pediatrics, Dr. Cohen worked in a private primary care office in Simsbury, CT and an urban pediatric emergency department in Hartford, CT.
Lara Damashek is the founder of Early Insight Advocacy and is a parent advocate with experience as a public school teacher, New York City special education attorney, and mother of a child with an IEP. Lara helps give parents of young children the practical support needed to tackle and navigate the daunting task of pursuing special education services for their children, either publicly or privately. Lara is also a CSE (Committee on Special Education) liaison at the Windward School, an independent special education school in White Plains, New York. One of her roles in this capacity is to advise Windward parents about the transition to the public school system and particularly to help them understand various supports and services available to their students in their home school districts.
Rebecca Iannantuoni is an attorney at Day Pitney (New Haven, CT) and represents fiduciaries, handles estate administration and advises high net worth individuals and families regarding all aspects of estate planning with a particular focus on elder law and planning for persons with special needs. She also has extensive experience assisting clients with Title XIX Medicaid planning. Rebecca has lectured on special needs planning to various organizations and provides public service announcements on behalf of the Department of Children and Families to advocate for the foster and adoption of special needs children.
Adriana Ospina is a special education advocate guiding LatinX families in Greenwich and Stamford; she has also been a staunch advocate on behalf of her daughter with special needs for more than twenty years. Adriana also serves on the board of Charter Oak Communities (COC), formerly the Stamford Housing Authority. Previously, Adriana was the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Vance Center for International Justice, a non-profit affiliate of the New York City Bar Association. Adriana has also served as a member of the Greenwich Board of Education and was a strong advocate of initiatives to narrow the achievement gap between minority students and their non-minority counterparts. Adriana received a JD from Harvard Law School and an AB in German Studies from Harvard University. After receiving her JD, Adriana worked as an associate with the law firm Shearman & Sterling. Adriana is a dual citizen of Colombia and the United States and speaks Spanish, English, Portuguese, French and German.
Robert Russo, Esq. is Head of Tax Planning and Strategy at Citadel, a Chicago based hedge fund and financial institution. Mr. Russo has been advocating for his son, who is on the autistic spectrum, for over 9 years. As an attorney, Mr. Russo provided pro bono legal services to the International Republican Institute, a non-partisan group that seeks to advance freedom and democracy. His support involved working with the Chinese government and local academics in shaping tax reform in China.
Prior to joining Citadel, Mr. Russo was a Managing Director at HSBC, where he was Head of Asset Finance for the Americas. He was also a partner at Ernst & Young LLP (in the UK) and an associate at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld LLP. Mr. Russo received a BS in Business Administration (summa cum laude) and JD from Boston University and earned his LL.M. (Taxation) from NYU.
Beth Sugerman has been Head of School at Winston Prep's Norwalk campus since its opening in September 2007. Prior to becoming Head of Winston Preparatory School in Norwalk, Beth held various positions as an educator and therapist at Winston Preparatory School in New York City. Trained as a speech and language pathologist, she oversees educational and logistical functioning of the Winston Prep Connecticut's 130 students and 50 faculty and is responsible for implementing Winston's educational philosophy. As Head, Beth directs, coordinates and manages the leadership team and integrates the school's program, targeting academic skill developing and social-emotional awareness and well being.
Lisa Trump currently resides in Greenwich, Connecticut where she and her husband, Fred, have raised their three children. Their youngest child, William, was born with a seizure disorder, subsequently leading to global developmental delays. Lisa has been involved with Abilis, an agency providing services to individuals and families affected by developmental disorders from birth through adult services. Lisa has been involved in various committees at Abilis, as a Board Member from 2009-2011, and as a member of the Advisory Council from 2015-2016. Lisa graduated from Ithaca College with degrees in Health Administration and Psychology.