An advocate has the power to hold your child’s future in his or her hands.

You need to do your due diligence if you want to make a wise choice regarding the person to whom you give this enormous responsibility.

The reason why there is so much confusion and controversy regarding special education advocates is because advocates are not required to have any formal training, education, or experience. There are currently no state or federal credentialing requirements for the special education advocacy field.

Advocates are not required to read, know, or understand the laws. Advocates can charge parents any amount they want.

Moreover, anyone can proclaim to be a special education advocate, start up a business and say, “I am a Special Education Advocate.”

I have seen IEP coaches and “knowledgeable parents” who proclaim to be an advocate really mess up a child’s IEP. Valuable services are left on the table without being retained by the district because most “free or low-cost” advocates don’t know how to interpret evaluations and don’t know the laws for the state they are working in. When this happens, parents must find another qualified advocate to come in as the cleanup crew and correct the mistakes the previous advocate made.

Therefore, it is of the utmost importance for parents to vet any potential advocate they are considering and confirm their qualifications, their level of knowledge, and how much experience they have under their belt. Specifically, any advocate that calls themselves a professional must have received special education law training.

For obvious reasons, I would caution you about hiring any advocate that was trained by a school district or an organization that is affiliated or funded by a school district. Hiring an independent advocate or an advocate who is recommended by a disability organization that has no affiliation with a school district, will ensure your advocate is not biased and will fight for you and your child without any concerns about damaging relationships with school district personnel.

What should you expect from a trained special education advocate?

A qualified special education advocate helps students, and their families, acquire and retain special education services that best meet their children’s needs. These advocates work on behalf of their clients to assist them with understanding how the IEP process works and are successful in retaining the services parents want and children need.

Effective special education advocates have strong teamwork and interpersonal skills, are empathetic, and are able to build professional and collaborative relationships with families and school representatives.

A knowledgeable advocate has the ability to navigate through local support resources and is well aware of the supports and services available under IDEA. Extremely strong writing, information-gathering, analytical and negotiation skills are also necessary.

Special education advocates often meet separately with schools and parents, and they then act as liaisons between the two parties. They should be very familiar with all of the federal and state laws that pertain to special education services, as well as the school or local education agency’s policies and procedures. A good amount of time will likely be spent explaining the many details of the case to the parents. However, many advocates don’t communicate well with parents to explain what they are doing and why they don’t offer parent training as part of their advocacy services.

In truth, it is not possible for an advocate to effectively train a parent while representing them. This is because a strong advocate is spending an enormous number of hours working on your case; writing legal letters, reading IEP documents, and preparing for IEP meetings to speak on your behalf. The advocate’s priority is focused on winning the IEP you want for your child.

The only way to receive parent advocacy education is to hire an advocate who specializes in parent training.

What are the skills an advocate should have?

Because a special education program is developed through the assessment process, an advocate should understand how to interpret assessment reports and standardized test scores. In most cases, advocates will suggest different or additional tests and assessments. It is common for children to be referred to specialists for an Independent Educational Evaluation who can better meet the student’s testing and educational needs. The advocate should know the best IEE assessors in the area and can assist the parents and school staff to set up appointments.

All assessment information as well as the child’s educational records must be considered when developing individualized education plans (IEPs). A qualified advocate will always ask for the student’s cumulative file, review the records, and know the child better than almost anyone on the team.

An advocate who is willing to attend one or two IEP meetings without obtaining the student records is not an advocate I would recommend. Piecemealing advocacy is not effective. If an advocate is going to take on your child’s case and get results in meeting the educational needs of your child, they should know this requires a legal process that cannot be completed in only a few meetings.

Advocates help families write up a strong IEP, which includes goals and objectives, services, placement, and also advise parents on what is contained in the Parent Rights. When there are disputes, advocates assist parents with understanding how to resolve them.

An advocate’s role is to assist parents before, during, and after IEP meetings at their children’s schools. Most parents do not understand how IEPs work and need an expert to explain things, or they are in a dispute with the school staff about what best meets their children’s educational needs. Special education advocates can assist parents with organizing and understanding how to interpret relevant documents, and they can also accompany parents to the meetings to speak on their behalf. A qualified advocate knows how to write a strong parent agenda, partial agreement, and parent letters.

Here are some good questions to ask when you vet a potential advocate.

  1. Ask the advocate how well they know and when they last read the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 and your state special education law and regulations. You are looking for a person who will assist and advise you on special education law. You do not want to pay a person who is not current and proficient on your state’s special education code and special education federal laws.
  2. Ask the advocate how long they have been advocating, how many clients they have served, and how many IEPs they have attended. This will give you a good indication of the advocate’s knowledge and experience.
  3. Ask the advocate how many cases they prevailed in having the district retain the supports, services, and placement the parent wanted for their child. This will give you a good indication of the advocate’s track record and how successful they are as an advocate who delivers.
  4. Ask the advocate for the names and contact info (references) of families they have helped. A good advocate should have rave reviews about their advocacy success.
  5. Find out whether the advocate has knowledge and experience with your child’s disability. A qualified advocate is fully aware of many disabilities and what is required to meet a student’s educational needs.
  6. Ask the advocate if your state allows him or her to practice special education law. A trained advocate should know the answer to this question. If they don’t know, they may be in danger of practicing law without a license, which tells you they are not knowledgeable about your state laws. Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) is a crime in many states. Even advocates who do not represent parents in hearings may unknowingly engage in UPL.
  7. Call several experienced special education attorneys. Ask them to refer you to a special education advocate. Sped attorneys usually know the trained and experienced advocates and can steer you in the right direction. Some attorneys employ advocates in their firms.
  8. Ask the advocate if he or she has been involved with, observed, or represented a parent in a due process hearing. A qualified advocate should understand how sped hearings work. If they don’t, they will not know how to set up your case and protect your rights if you end up in a hearing. A trained advocate’s priority should always be to develop a legal paper trail and have the case ready to hand over to an attorney.
  9. Ask about the advocate’s fees. Experienced and trained advocates charge between $100 – $300 per hour. However, an attorney charges between $450 – $750 per hour, so if your case does not require filing for due process, hiring an advocate makes sense both financially and legally because attorneys don’t typically attend IEP meetings. But if your case requires due process, it is best to hire an attorney as you are unlikely to recover any fees or costs paid to an advocate. Whereas attorneys can recover their fees and costs if they prevail in due process.

It is important to note that professional advocates who check all these boxes listed above are not free. These kinds of advocates have invested in education and training and have experience. These advocates are highly valuable in retaining a very expensive IEP program that has the potential to change everything about your child’s future.

What’s the difference between an advocate and an attorney?

The differences between special education advocates and education law attorneys are as follows; attorneys have law school degrees and should have special training in advocacy skills. They are licensed to provide legal advice, work with legal documents, and represent their clients in different kinds of court proceedings.

Advocates are not allowed to give legal advice or practice law; although, some states allow advocates to assist parents in due process. Advocates do not need licenses and do not have to meet any particular educational requirements. This is why it is so important to vet an advocate!

Make a wise decision

After a parent reaches out to an advocate, the advocate should be prepared to answer your questions and provide you with a legal contract for their services. The contract should include and cover all parameters regarding the advocate’s service provision and fees. A professional advocate will follow strong business protocols, whereas untrained advocates will not.

Special education advocates must be patient with parents and the organizations that they work with.

As mentioned, they often act as liaisons, so they are effective mediators and negotiators. Being objective, professional, respectful, as well as compassionate are all keys to being an effective advocate. Parents need to be able to relate to and trust their advocates, and they can often determine this during that initial consultation. Some advocates work with families for one school year or less, while others stay with families for many years of the child’s educational journey.

There are many benefits to hiring a professionally trained, experienced, and knowledgeable special education advocate, however, there are many pitfalls for parents in finding an advocate with the right skills and qualifications.

I wholeheartedly believe that the best route for a parent to take is to hire an expert advocate to train them on how to advocate for their own child.

Unless you are willing to employ an advocate throughout your child’s educational career, you want to learn the skills and knowledge to advocate for your child.

Why? Because once your advocate is gone, you will be right back in the same position you were before you hired the advocate who fixed the problems for you because you still won’t know how to protect your rights or understand state and federal law.

I check all the boxes for every vetting question listed above. And I specialize in parent training to empower parents to become successful advocates.

You don’t need me to attend a meeting to speak on your behalf… You need my knowledge so you can learn to advocate for your own child!

If you are interested in learning more about my parent training, I invite you to schedule a consultation by clicking here.

Cheering you on always!

Valerie Aprahamian

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