How to find and hire a special education advocate to help your child
Jean Murrell Adams, Esq.
Part I of ADAMS ESQ’s Fighting for Your Child series focused on how and where every parent should start when advocating for a special needs child. But what should you do if you’ve learned the rules, gotten involved, upped your game and the school district still doesn’t seem to hear you? It may be time to call in reinforcements.
Special Education Advocates
What are Special Education Advocates? Special education advocates are typically non-attorneys who assist parents and caregivers of children with special needs in navigating the school system. They can be extremely helpful in advising you on what to expect from the IEP process, how to read and understand test results, where to find the right providers and services for your child and much more. Advocates can be especially useful as “emotional buffers” between school personnel and parents—providing creative educational solutions and ensuring follow-through.
What is the difference between a “lay advocate” and a “professional advocate”? Advocates can be either “lay” or “professional”. A lay advocate is often another parent who has already navigated the school district’s special education system. Lay advocates might also be grandparents, current or retired teachers, community or religious leaders, tutors or service providers (such as private ABA therapists and counselors). He or she may not have any formal training in special education advocacy. However, lay advocates tend to be excellent “boots on the ground” with direct access to key school district supervisors, up-to-date information on important personnel and advance warning of important policy changes. They also have a good idea of the type, duration and frequency of services that your child can expect to receive. Lay advocates usually know (or can find) the best special education classrooms, charter schools, principals, school psychologists, etc. for your child and can fast-track these supports. This can save months or even years of school district run-around.
Unlike lay advocates, professional advocates have had formal training in special education and advocacy. There are local, state and federally funded government and non-profit advocacy organizations such as Disability Rights California, Community Alliance for Special Education (CASE), Parents Helping Parents and TASK in California and Nevada PEP, FEAT and the Center for Self-Determination in Nevada. There are also many private advocacy companies throughout California and several in Nevada. Professional advocates undergo extensive special education training and can usually represent your child’s needs beyond the IEP meeting such as in school-based truancy or expulsion hearings and in obtaining support from the regional center or other appropriate agency. Many can also assist in locating specialized schools or programs for your child if necessary. Keep in mind that advocates are not attorneys and may not practice law without a license to do so. As of this writing, it is not advisable to use an advocate to file for a due process hearing. However, many professional advocates frequently consult with attorneys and can provide advice on when to seek legal counsel.
How do I find a special education advocate? Whether lay or professional, your special education advocate may work with your family for many years, so it’s important to choose wisely. Unlike lawyers, advocates rely heavily on collaboration with the school district in order to obtain appropriate educational programming. Unless they work closely with legal counsel, threats and intimidation are often ineffective. Therefore, many parents seek out advocates who have ongoing relationships of mutual respect with local public or charter school personnel.
Seek recommendations from other parents in your personal or online social network. Check trusted referral sources such as the California Office of Administrative Hearings, COPAA and Wrightslaw, that maintain vetted lists of advocates. Contact your local Regional Center or your child’s pediatrician for possible referrals. A caring teacher or school administrator may also slip you the name of an especially effective advocate in your area. Consider drafting your child’s long-time social worker, therapist, or tutor to attend IEP meetings with you in order to explain your child’s needs to the school district and provide emotional support. Make every effort to find an advocate that speaks your primary language in order to ensure accurate translations. Most importantly, make sure that your advocate is familiar with your school district as well as your child’s type of disability.
How much does it cost to hire an advocate? Some lay and professional advocates offer services free of charge to qualifying parents. However, advocates from some of these agencies may need to limit the number of IEP meetings that they attend per year. Others offer only telephonic or in-house advice and training and will not attend any IEP meetings in person.
Private advocacy companies may charge hourly or based upon attendance at an IEP meeting, expulsion hearing or the like. The overall cost can vary widely so it makes sense to interview two or three advocates to determine which one is best to meet your family’s particular needs. Don’t be afraid to ask them for references from other parents who have used their services.
Keep in mind that, unlike attorneys, your advocate’s fees and costs are probably not reimbursable under special education law. For this and other reasons, it is important to have a written advocacy agreement so that you can budget for his or her services over the long run. Children with exceptionally rare, severe, urgent or complex disabilities which the school district can’t (or won’t) address, will likely require more extensive advocacy. It’s especially important that parents invest the time to find and hire the best advocate to address those needs.
Stay tuned for ADAMS ESQ’s final installment of “Fighting for Your Child”, where we answer your questions on how to know when you need a special education attorney and how to locate and hire her.