Tag Archives: special education advocacy

7 Steps before you hire a special ed advocate

August 23rd, 2015

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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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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