The Change Agent

The Change Agent

Robert Bullock puts his passion to work for helping people with special needs.

It's 4 p.m. and Robert Bullock was hot with anger. For two days, the taxicab that was supposed to pick his daughter up at 5 p.m. had been late. The thought of her waiting on the sidewalk until 7 p.m. was infuriating. The more he thought about it, the angrier he got.

"Two hours late," he said into the phone, practically screaming. "Two hours!"

His daughter Stacy has Down syndrome. She holds two jobs and keeps a busy schedule, and she doesn't like to be kept waiting. She would be getting out of work soon, and he was determined to make sure that the city-operated taxi service for people with special needs was waiting for her.

"This is your problem," he told the city's paratransit coordinator. "Fix it."

HELPING PEOPLE with special needs is a series personal battles for Robert Bullock, a war that he's been waging all his life. He came to Washington to work for Ralph Nader in the 1970s, demanded change of the Alexandria City Public Schools in the 1980s and opened new doors for providing sports opportunities to kids in the 1990s. Now he is trailblazing new areas in the law for elder care, a relatively new and undeveloped field of the law.

"Elder law is really just a continuation of what I was doing before," he said. "I just sort of swung into it headfirst."

In July, Gov. Mark Warner appointed Bullock to the Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders Commission. The commission serves in an advisory capacity to the governor and the secretary of Health and Human Resources. Bullock plans to use his skills as a lawyer and the force of his will to make it easier for families confronted with an array of difficult life decisions.

"What I hope to bring to the commission are the legal issues," said Bullock, whose elder-care law firm specializes in dealing with issues related to Alzheimer's disease. "It's still a cottage industry because the field is incredibly complex and difficult."

Bullock describes himself as part of the "second-generation" of elder-care lawyers, a group that he says is not willing to adhere to standard practices and rigid procedure. It's a mission that evolved from a 2002 speech he gave to the Alexandria Bar Association titled "Medicaid for Dummies." As he has done so many times in his life, Bullock is ready to demand change — and he won't take no for an answer.

"We're looking at something that's going to be an epidemic problem," he said, adding that families that deal with Alzheimer's are often overwhelmed by the demands that are suddenly placed on them after the diagnosis of a loved one. "Where do you go? What do you do? There's got to be a more centralized way of doing things."

ORIGINALLY FROM NEWTON, Mass., Bullock graduated from Newton High School in 1964. He went to Lafayette College and then law school at the University of Pennsylvania. When he got out of law school in the early 1970s, he came to Washington to work in Ralph Nader's crusade against government corruption. Bullock worked in Nader's Center for Auto Safety, which had been inspired by the 1965 book "Unsafe at Any Speed" and the 1970 Supreme Court case Nader v. General Motors.

"I saw some of the very first airbags installed," he said, adding that working for Nader offered "very low pay" and personality conflicts with upstart lawyers eager to impress the legendary consumer rights activist. "It really wasn't what I wanted to do."

He went to work for Neighborhood Legal Services in Washington, resolving landlord-tenet issues and helping poverty-level clients. Later, he went into private practice representing Washington's Sikh community. In 1976, he moved to Alexandria. "Old Town reminded me of Boston," he said.

In 1979, he married a nurse named Jeanne Hriczak. Later that year, the newlyweds had the first of three children — a daughter named Stacy. She had Down syndrome, and Bullock's life was forever changed.

Having a daughter with a disability radicalized Bullock. He joined the Special Education Advisory Committee to the School Board, serving twice as chairman. When he started looking into possibilities for his daughter, he was surprised to learn that Alexandria in the 1980s had very little to offer children with disabilities.

"We had rights under IDEA," he said, referring to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Congress enacted the original version of the act in 1975 to make sure that children with disabilities had the opportunity to receive "a free appropriate public education." But when his daughter was ready for public schools, the Alexandria Public School system was not ready for her.

THE CONFLICT BETWEEN Bullock and the Alexandria School Board transformed him into advocate for special needs students in the city.

"I was crazy, absolutely crazy. I went to all the School Board meetings," he said. "I became a very aggressive parent."

When his daughter was moved from a small class at Macarthur Elementary School to a larger class at the same school, Bullock brought a federal lawsuit against the Alexandria City Public Schools for violating his daughter's rights under IDEA. The lawsuit was settled when the school system agreed to place her in a Fairfax County class that was equipped to handle special-needs students.

"It was not a very happy time," said Leslie Hagan, who served with Bullock on the Special Education Advisory Committee. "One School Board member told me that I was responsible for having a disabled child. Another School Board member told me that I should be grateful to get any service at all," she said.

Hagan remembers Bullock's intransigence in the face of adversity as an inspiration. "I think he was an outstanding advocate for children with special needs," she said.

Since Bullock's lawsuit, Alexandria City Public Schools have made drastic changes. Today, Alexandria has a higher percentage of special education students than Arlington, Fairfax County or Prince William County. This year, the school system will spend more than $22 million to serve about 2,000 special-needs students.

"In the 1970s and 1980s, children were not being provided for properly," said School Board Chairwoman Mollie Danforth, whose husband represented the school system when Bullock brought the federal lawsuit. "Today, his daughter would have definitely gone to Alexandria City Public Schools. But even now, we're a small school system — and we still look to Fairfax County to provide some services."

In the 1990s, Bullock turned his attention to baseball. He organized the Alexandria Challenger Baseball Team to help children with disabilities play sports and helped organize Alexandria Baseball Inc.

"Kids with disabilities don't often have an opportunity to be included in sports," said Cathy Healy, a friend of Bullock's who has a child with a disability. "Despite the fact that he's a lawyer with a busy workload, he made time to do this."

One day, at a baseball game, he had a conversation with another parent that changed his life. It was about an aging parent that was having a difficult time navigating the complex federal Medicaid system. That conversation led to a 2002 presentation to the Alexandria Bar Association, and then a presentation to the National Business Institute.

He started taking difficult cases that involved elderly people who were making tough decisions about long-term care. Soon afterward, he became a principal in the Elder and Disability Law Center.

"I fell in love doing this line of work — it was like a freight train hit me," he said. "The burnout rate for relatives of people with Alzheimer's Disease is incredible, so it's extremely rewarding to let people know that they are not alone."

Bullock's twin passion for service and baseball are infectious. His son Adam was captain of the 2005 Washington and Lee University baseball team. His daughter Abby is a junior at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, where she is learning how to help people with disabilities.

BULLOCK DESCRIBES HIMSELF as "an obsessive baseball dad" and "a child of the '60s." He spends most days in his office at the corner of M Street and 18th Street in the former Washington office of CBS where Walter Cronkite once made decisions about how to cover the Vietnam War. He keeps a large poster of the "Godfather" in plain view, warning visitors of his winner-take-all attitude.

Bullock's work with the Elder and Disability Law Center and the statewide commission keeps him busy, especially on the weekends. And his blunt personality works tirelessly for change, steamrolling over anything resembling resistance.

"I'm outspoken, and on occasion I can be abrasive," he said. "But if I can improve the life of a single person with a disability, then I will always light a candle rather than curse the darkness."