New School Year: Is it time to hire an advocate?

This is the time of year parents who are in a dispute with their IEP team may consider hiring an advocate.  It’s, in fact, the best time to do so, as an advocate will help you build your case and obtain the evidence you need to effect change.

If you have educational advocate, you may think about making a change… Keep in mind the following as you decide if you are going to continue your relationship with your child’s educational advocate. First and foremost, advocates aren’t lawyers. We also aren’t licensed (I think we should be).  Every advocate operates their practice differently.

Make sure any potential advocate’s billing practices are transparent. For example, it’s apparently common practice for advocates to maintain consultative relationships with other professionals with the advocate billing the client for the time the professional bills the advocate. At minimum, ensure a potential advocate’s contract indicates how that consulting professional’s time will be billed and at what point authorization for funds would be required.

However, in my practice (as I believe to be best practice) I suggest that parents enter into professional relationships/contracts with whom they choose and billing should be separate. Don’t blur lines- do a “gut check” if an advocate wants to talk to an attorney and you don’t. If an advocate is in over their head, I’d argue it is their responsibility to tell you as much.

Bottom line: check references, make sure any advocate is experienced and knows the laws and regulations, can take notes, advocate strongly verbally, and keep professional during team meetings.  It’s a balancing act.  Trust her and keep communication lines open with your advocate. Make sure you are comfortable with their strategy. (Make doubly sure they have a strategy you agree with!) Without trust, there is no relationship which benefits your child.  I go to the doctor and have lots of questions that I ask, but I trust their opinions.  Micro-managing is not something which works.  When people say “we love you and your work but we don’t want collateral releases”, it’s understandable, but shows a lack of trust.  Every lawyer and advocate I have hired, I have trusted.

Another thing to remember: A good advocate does not typically work in their own school district if their children are still in the special education system.  While there are occasional exceptions to that rule (ie: your kids are safely ensconced in private placements or your kids are 22+), it is in most cases not wise without taking a look at important facts.  It usually crosses boundaries, and I have witnessed it (with friends) negatively effect the advocate’s and the family’s credibility.  You can’t be fighting for your own kid (actively in conflict), fighting for your neighbor’s, and running your Special Education Parent Advisory Council.  Be a parent advocate where you live for your own kids, not an advocate for other people’s, unless your child is in a permanent placement and there is literally no ability to need to litigate or have an adverserial interaction on their behalf.

Remember, advocates have few legal protections if your child’s district files for hearing or if you do.  They have none if they are contacted by the Department of Children and Families (formerly DSS) or if God forbid they hold certification in pretty much anything and witness suspected abuse or neglect, for example at school during an observation.  Those of us who are certified are mandated to report, those who are not, re encouraged by our professional organizations to do so regardless.  Out job is to support kids and families.  We don’t embellish or violate a child’s confidentiality except when questioned by DCF or law enforcement.  A example of this is I witnessed a little one get hurt but pulling a water table down on himself in preschool with the special ed director sitting next to me. He was not being supervised and had many disabilities.  I also witnessed, with a wonderful team chair next to me, a little girl severely affected by autism and not verbal nearly choke themselves on a piece of suspended equipment when their aide was looking the other direction (no teacher assigned to the classroom).  The co-observer intervened.   Recently, I saw a para be rough with a child in an ASD room and fail to stop SIBs- I had to report if only to make sure the incident was on record.  Again, my co-observer needed to intervene to keep the child safe.

Partner with your educational advocate to work towards the educational programming your child requires. It’s up to the advocate to keep emotion out of meetings and help with formal correspondence (that angry, emotional email you want to send to the school, don’t, put it in your drafts folder, and share your concerns and it with your advocate).  We can’t advocate and talk (even if a parent is not helping their child by what they are saying) if parents talk over us in meetings, so a clear strategy is important to come up with and stick to before a team meeting. That’s why we’re here- to let you be mom and dad. We will guide you in the best direction based on our education, experience, and in many cases relationship with the team.  My job is about relationships more than anything- with families, with districts, with private schools, etc.  You have to play peacemaker with kind force as much as you have to advocate.

Happy new school year, all.