Special Education Advocacy

Special education advocacy has evolved from a voluntary practice by which parents support and advise each other, without the expectation of personal gain, to a highly lucrative service.  Unlike other types of personal services, it is not regulated by the State. 

Parents may not know it, but special education advocacy has become a very profitable business.  There are hundreds of advocates in Massachusetts. Some advocates charge rates as high as $100-$120/hour. Some advocates charge for every contact with the client- email, phone, in person- and they charge by the minute. There are advocates who net $115,000 or more annually. That’s substantial revenue for a service that has no entry requirements and is completely unregulated. Anyone may open a practice as a ‘special education advocate’; there are no educational, training, competency, or licensing requirements.

The purpose of regulation is to protect consumers from wasting money or receiving poor service from unqualified service providers.  Regulation includes educational or training requirements and licensing, which may include exams to prove competency.    Until this type of service is regulated, my advice to parents is to practice certain measures to keep the advocates accountable.

Special education advocacy should be regulated. Clients should be assured of receiving quality service from well-educated, experienced professionals, who have passed examinations to demonstrate competency. Advocates should be required to adhere to ethical guidelines, standards or practice, regulations, and educational requirements. There is a voluntary association of advocates called SPAN: Special Education Advocacy Network. SPAN has published on their website a list of ethical standards, however membership in SPAN is not mandatory.

The State regulates at least 30 categories of service providers including hairdressers, manicurists and aestheticians.  Advocates have the potential to cause more serious harm to clients and their services can be much more expensive. An advocate’s poor judgment or work product could cause a school district to deny services to a child or could waste the client’s money.  Clients rely on advocates to do high quality work, however some advocates make careless mistakes, such as failing to document important conversations.

An implication of the absence of regulation is lack of standardization of training. The training that advocates receive is variable. Some advocates participate in the week-long, optional Parent Advocate training provided by the Federation of Children with Special Needs. Graduates of the course may opt to perform an additional 50 hours of volunteer work; for the combination of the course and volunteer work, they receive a certificate.

Some advocates do work which bears similarity to the work of attorneys, such as giving legal advice and participating in hearings. However, attorneys study law for three years, and pass rigorous bar exams.  The participant in a week-long course cannot possibly obtain that competency in law; advising clients about legal issues requires skills in legal analysis and reasoning that are taught in law school.

Attorneys are also bound to the rules of Professional Responsibility. During one of the summers when I was a law student, I worked for the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in the office that investigates claims of professional misconduct.  Lawyers who produced poor quality work or who violated the Rules of Professional Responsibility work faced disciplinary proceedings and serious consequences, including disbarment.  There should be licensing exams for advocates and a State agency that would hold advocates’ work to high standards.

This blog entry does not apply to the work of any particular advocate.  The advocates whom I know personally, produce fine work. As a former attorney, I cannot help but wonder what recourse a client would have if her advocate were to make errors of judgment that might have been prevented through appropriate training, or if the advocate were dishonest.

As long as the practice of special education advocacy continues to be unregulated, some advocates could be tempted to act in ways that would cause them to lose their professional licenses if they were attorneys, such as misrepresentation of their expertise or unfair or dishonest practices. 

My advice to the consumer is to keep their advocate accountable and to have a cap on spending, determined at the outset in order to evaluate whether the advocacy is effective, before too many hours have been billed. Consumers should request documentation of advocates’ conversations. Be aware that there is no correlation between the professional rates charged and the qualifications of the advocate.

I am interested in hearing from you: has anyone had an experience with an advocate which might have had a different outcome, if the advocate had passed a licensing exam?

Our guest blogger, Rachael Wurtman, is in private practice as an Mental Health and Autism Spectrum Advocate, who advises parents about and advocates for  interventions and services, at schools and in the community. She finds pediatric mental illness and autism spectrum disorder fascinating and is constantly learning as much as she can. She is trained in law and in child development and has chosen to give up the practice of law.  Visit her web site here.

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3 Responses to Special Education Advocacy

  1. Such a good article! You raise important issues regarding advocacy and the need for consumer protection. I believe some answers already do exist. Firstly, no one should be providing legal advocacy without a license to practice law. I am surprised the Bar Association in Massachusetts has not addressed this type of marginal practice, especially when there is such potential lifetime harm to students. Secondly, there is national certification for Parent Support Providers and the question should always be asked if the “advocate” holds such credential. A CPSP must show proof of training to reach 11 domains of competencies (one of which is “educational information”), passing a normed national exam, on-going adherence to a Code of Ethics, and maintaining regular supervision and updated training. Thirdly, why does the state or school district not provide parents with information that “educational advocates” must show CERTIFICATION (education, competency, and on-going adherence to standards of practice) not just a certificate of training? Please join the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health and its Certification Commission for Family Support (the only national certification body for Parent Support Providers) in continuing to demand that the valued service of parent support and advocacy be one that is either regulated or requires voluntary national certification.

  2. TJ's mom says:

    Wow! I so wish we had read this. We used an advocate who came very highly recommended by one of the leading attorneys in MA. Our advoc. has a reputation of successful placement for kids. Our daughter was falling apart in her Sped classroom. When we asked the advoc. if we could try and expedite the process to get her out of that environment asap we were told it would take time to do this well – at least the next year. The advoc. charged $110/hour. Half way through, we told the advoc. we would like it if there could be more specific billing (the billing was supposedly done like attys every 6 minutes). We were told, “this is the best I can do.” Desperate as we were, we stuck with the advocate. Long story, our child is going to our town’s middle school. we are out $13,000 (the last $1,000) of which was inflated without a doubt. We were billed for 10 hours work when there is no way more than 3.5 hours was done because the placement had been determined 6 weeks prior.

    After this experience we were wondering whether there was any place to give/get information. We think it is simply imperative that there be a basic level of licensing. We have sadly come to the conclusion that the Sped field is so lucrative for practitioners of all kinds because of the desperation of the kids and their families. It is disgraceful that (as the post mentions) hairdressers and manicurists have to get licensed but that anyone can put out a shingle calling themselves an advocate.

    I am so glad to have found this website. i wish more parents read this before hiring an advocate.
    May God bless our children.

  3. Irene Tanzman says:

    I was an sped advocate/parent consultant back in the 90s. There is a real difference between an advocate and a lawyer. In fact “parent consultant” is a better name to describe what a sped advocate actually does. I hate to break this news to parents dealing with a newly diagnosed child, but advocating for a child with special needs – especially mental health special needs- requires many hours of work. A really good sped advocate/parent consultant will help YOU navigate the system so that YOU can advocate in most situations, and that you only need the advocate for specific instances. If your advocate is not doing this, s/he is not a very good advocate.

    Also, although the advocate should be familiar with federal and state laws and regulations, it is really not completely about the law and interpretation of the law. An advocate can know the law backwards and forwards, but still not be a good advocate. A good sped advocate helps the family with effective teaming and aligning the team in a very difficult and emotional situation. You want the correct services for your child, but you want to maintain a good relationship with the school district. This is an extremely difficult task. Lawyers usually don’t focus on this. However, a good advocate/parent consultant will try to do this even though getting the services comes first.

    An advocate should know their way around the system, and should have had lived experience in this arena. I agree that the advocates should take the Federation for Children with Special Needs course, but the most important qualification is that s/he keep up with advisories from the DESE, changes to the laws, recent cases, and trends that might affect the population(s) they serve, etc.

    One way to find a good advocate is to join the Spedwatch listserv. There are many advocates on that list giving each other advice. If you see some advice you like on that listserv, that particular advocate might be for you.

    Advocacy is a very difficult and frustrating field. You can work your heart out to get a child into a particular program that the family and evaluators think is ideal. Then the program can hire a teacher that is just not very good. I found that you can get something you want on the service grid, but you really cannot control the quality. This is one of the reasons why there is so much “advocacy burnout.”

    I disagree with regulating this field. You need to have a continual influx of advocates coming into the system to make up for those who leave. Regulation will interfere with this process. However, I do feel that we need to help the folks who cannot afford to hire an advocate or a lawyer. It is clear to me that those without the bucks are really getting the short end of the stick.