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Special Education Advocacy

September 5th, 2012

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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