The special education and IEP process can be stressful and confusing. Many parents turn to a special needs advocate to guide them as they seek services for their child. But how can you find the right advocate?
Unlike attorneys, anyone can call themselves a special education advocate. And while there are training programs for advocates, there’s no formal licensing or certification. That’s why it’s important to do your research before hiring someone.
Here are steps you can take to find a special education advocate.
1. Think about why you need an advocate.
Before you start reaching out to potential advocates, think about what you need. Ask yourself—what specific problems am I having with my child’s educational experience? How could an advocate help me solve these problems?
Maybe your child has an IEP, but not the right services. Perhaps your child has an IEP but it’s not working. Or the school is telling you that your child isn’t eligible for special education and you don’t know what to do next. You might also just be confused or need help with the process in general—that’s OK. The important thing is to have a clear idea of why you need an advocate.
Keep in mind that some problems may not be appropriate for an advocate. For instance, if your child has been arrested and suspended from school, you probably need a lawyer, not an advocate. In that case, read about where to find legal help.
2. Come up with criteria for your ideal advocate.
There are a few things to look for in any special education advocate. An advocate should be familiar with local policies on special education. It’s also important that your advocate have a good working relationship with key people in the local school districts. This includes principals, teachers and special education coordinators. These criteria alone might meet your needs.
But it also helps to come up with requirements based on the problems you’re having. Try to be very specific. For example, you may need an advocate with experience persuading a school to provide individualized reading instruction to a child with dyslexia.
You may also want an advocate to help you understand your child’s evaluation. This can be helpful when figuring out which services and accommodations your child needs.
Most importantly, an advocate should be someone who will attend the IEP meeting with you. It’s essential to have moral support and someone who can advocate for you.
3. Make a list of potential advocates.
It’s common to find an advocate through personal recommendations. You can ask other parents, families and friends, specialists who work with your child and even trusted teachers. But make sure to ask why someone is recommending a certain advocate. Just because someone recommends an advocate doesn’t mean that person is the right fit for you and your child.
If you want more choices, you can also reach out to the following organizations. These groups typically keep a list of available advocates.
4. Interview the advocates.
Try to interview a few advocates before you make your choice. This is your chance to vet advocates before you hire one.
Pick out at least three from your list, and reach out to schedule a meeting or phone call. Some may even do a consultation for free.
During the interview, your goal is to learn about the advocate’s training, experience and qualifications. Using your list of criteria, you’ll need to see if this person has the skills needed to solve the problems that your child is facing.
Here are some questions you can ask:
What is your special education advocacy experience?
Have you worked with this school district before?
Have you worked with kids with learning and attention issues like my child’s?
Can you give me a proposed plan of what we should do or ask for from the school?
What are your fees?
What services are covered in that fee?
How much do you estimate your advocacy will cost for the entire process?
What will be my role as the parent?
How will you keep me informed about progress?
Who will be responsible for managing my child’s records in this case?
Is there an attorney you have a working relationship with, if necessary?
Can you provide me with names of clients who would be willing to talk to me?
Don’t forget about the personal side. You want someone you can work with and trust, and whose personality meshes with yours.
5. Choose an advocate and negotiate the fee.
After the interviews, you should be in a good place to choose the advocate you want to work with. Now it’s time to negotiate the fee.
Hiring an advocate can be expensive. But it never hurts to ask for a discount or a less expensive arrangement. You can also gently mention if another advocate is charging a lower fee.
Read about the differences between special education attorneys and advocates. Learn about options for resolving a special education dispute. And see more resources for finding local special education help.