7 Steps before you hire a special ed advocate

Mother and son, K. Sawyer Photography, flickr, creative commonsIt’s August and students are beginning to go back to school.  Many parents are thinking and worrying  about the educational needs of their child. Are they receiving the services they need in their classroom? What are their rights if they think they need more services? If they have tried to get special education services before and perhaps they were stalled with “your child is fine, no need for services.”!  Some might  think the school staff is correct; after all they are the experts. Others will attempt to get services either on their own or by hiring an educational advocate or attorney.

I know the system all too well. I knew it before I adopted my son; I was a child advocate in the State Office for Children in the 1980s. I have continued advocating for hundreds of students over my career. Initially, I thought it would be a breeze– after all I knew what I was doing. Then we had the first meeting about my own son, the one with all the staff around the table. There were his evaluations and test results. Yes,  I knew this was a concern but wait, what did the specialist just say?  I felt alone and stuck on what she just said. Unfortunately, no one in the room realized I was no longer actively participating.

From that meeting on I never went to another meeting by myself. I had a friend who was a trained advocate who became Josh’s. She knew when to answer for me and when I was able to state my concerns myself. As I reflect over the last 18 years, I know that as a parent I was unable to keep my emotions at bay.

Although Josh is no longer in school, I continue to advocate for students. Over the last year I have received several calls from families referred to me because they were stuck. Many hadn’t done their initial research before they hired someone, often costing them thousands of dollars for minimal services. This trend is starting to widen and families are going broke trying to access services for their child. That concerns me deeply.

Unfortunately, in Massachusetts, advocates are not licensed. There are no regulations or mandated trainings to become an educational advocate. Some advocates are parents who have learned the process through advocating for their own child.  Others have been trained by the Federation for Children with Special Needs (FCSN) or another source, still others have held jobs in Special Education. There are many good advocates out there but there are others who won’t match your needs.

Here are 7 steps you can take to make selecting and working with a special education advocate more effective for you:

1.  If your child receives services already really read the Parent Right Document you have received.  It’s a wealth of knowledge about your rights. If you are new to special education, google MA BSEA and locate “information for families,” you will locate the guide there.

2.  Always take someone to the meeting with you as a note taker or so that they can help you ask questions. Sometimes all you need is a friend who knows you and can stop the meeting so you can refocus. If it’s too overwhelming, you have the right to say “we need to stop the meeting today and reschedule after I absorb what you just told me.”

3.  If you decide to hire an educational advocate, please understand there are some limited resources that may be able to connect you to a free or low cost special education advocate. The FCSN at times has a few. Unfortunately, advocacy is not paid for through your insurance so it will be an out of pocket expense. That said, some advocates have a sliding fee scale and will work with you on a payment plan.

4.  Before you pay a retainer to an advocate do your homework. Ask your friends, colleagues, professionals working with your child or contact PPAL and ask for a referral of someone who does a good job and has a track record of getting needed services. Your child may have a mental illness or has autism so you want someone who understands the social emotional demands to ensure the IEP is written to have goals to address it.

5.  Many experienced advocates provide an initial phone consult at no charge. Use this time to interview the advocate to ensure that this is who you want to work with, ask about your rights as a family. How long they have been providing services, what their specialty is when providing educational advocacy. They may ask for a small retainer to review the file.

6.  Prior to signing a contract, ask what the fee will be, the retainer and approximately how much it will cost to get services for your child.

7.  Finally, never place your child in an out of state program at your own cost unless you have at least gone to Mediation and had a consult with a Special Education Attorney who can advise you on the merits of your case. If not you could spend your life savings on a short term fix.

 Lynn A. Powers, MSW is a special education advocate who provides advocacy for students 3-22. Lynn specializes in working with students with social emotional needs to make effective progress. She hopes her hard won knowledge over 30 years can help families who have children with special needs.


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3 thoughts on “7 Steps before you hire a special ed advocate

  1. Since this is a business agreement, I think the family has the right to a monthly itemized bill, for example hourly cost for reading documents, cost for attending meetings, phone calls, etc.
    I think it’s a good idea to meet the Advocate first and get a sense if it’s the right person. Some advocates can get contentious, argumentative or angry at meetings which can be counterproductive. The advocate does not want to create a hostile relationship between the family and the school system.

    1. Anne, you are spot on. I explain to parents that I am never confrontational, it is not my way to work to engage the school system. Becoming confrontational not only can hurt your chances of getting the services the child you are currently advocating for, but it can also cause the advocates reputation as being hostile and confrontational and not a team player. If there are issues at the meeting you can use the regulations to move things along. You can always state let’s agree to disagree.

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