It’s IEP Season. This is the time of year (my 12th IEP Season) parents who are in a dispute with their IEP team may consider hiring an advocate. It’s, in fact, one of the best times to do so, as an advocate will help you build your case and obtain the evidence you need to effect change. You do need to not expect someone be immediately available. I say this with great respect to my colleagues if someone has an open caseload in March, that is likely *not* a good thing. I’m fortunate my work load is by referral only at this point in my career. I get referrals from wonderful families (you can see some on Linked In), but also professionals and also special ed administrators. Am I strong? Yes. Am I kind and do I smile? Yes. Do I advocate with passion for my client? Absolutely.
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. We have strengths (one of mine is negotiation and simple BSEA work and mediation) and challenges (one of mine is tolerance for kids being hurt in educational programming).
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. Make sure a new contract is signed every year- things change. For example, I added an online billing option (which people love), but it costs me 2.9% to process a payment, so I added to my contract there is a 2.9% charge for paying online.
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. If you want to hire a new advocate, tell us, we understand not every advocate is best for every family. If you choose to hire an attorney to work alongside your advocate, make sure they mesh well with your advocate and home team. I trust special ed attorneys who value relationships I’m wary of ones who come in and disregard the input of for example a 4-6 member home professional team (ie: neuropsychologists, developmental pediatrician, long-term advocate YOU trust and have told as much). I’m downright confused when they, and maybe this is part of their job, don’t have the vested interest in a child I do. (See picture at top of post, it’s a “meme” I wrote).
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. We don’t read minds. Make sure you are comfortable with her strategy. (Make doubly sure they she has 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, too, and balance my decisions. Micro-managing is not something which works. When people say “we love you and your work but we don’t want collateral releases and you can’t talk to the school or our home provider, it can make for one heck of an awkward IEP meeting”. It’s understandable, but shows a lack of trust. Every lawyer and advocate I have hired, I have trusted. Teamwork is the key. Don’t take advantage of advocates who are kind and offer to help pro bono but whose help is sometimes abused. We know what agencies to refer people to if needed.
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: the advocate’s 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. (This flies in the face of the advice given by a mentor special ed attorney who says we all should work where we are asked to if we choose to, but I’m, putting it out there) It may cross boundaries, and I have witnessed it (with friends) negatively affect 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 adversarial 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, are encouraged by our professional organizations to do so regardless. Our job is to support kids and families. We don’t embellish ever, or violate a child’s confidentiality except when questioned by DCF or law enforcement. An 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 heself on a piece of suspended equipment when her 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, a BCBA, 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 keep emotions calm and the meeting focused on the child (none of this “Joey is the leader of our class of 15”, like a sample of 15 kids is what we are there to talk about). It’s not. We 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. This is true for us no matter who the client- if they are pro-bono or paying full rate.
You have to realize your school district staff cares about your child (I hope) but they are not your friends. If you want to simply be friends with the team, and will back down when a seasoned administrator plays parent vs advocate, you are not ready to hire an advocate so I say this honestly: save your money.
You have to be doing this work for the child. You have to be a partner with their family. You have to do this because you are passionate about support children, sometimes that’s by obtaining an outplacement, other times it’s be obtaining appropriate in-class and/or inclusion supports.