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If you’re denied services

Should I Hire an Advocate or an Attorney? What’s the Difference?

By Donna Volpitta

My child was denied special education services. Should I hire an advocate or an attorney to help me? What’s the difference?

Donna Volpitta

Founder, Center for Resilient Leadership

Typically, an advocate is someone who guides you through the special education process. Imagine going to a new city and having a local take you to the best neighborhoods and show you the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B. That’s a pretty good analogy for an advocate.

An attorney, on the other hand, is often brought in when a parent’s relationship with the school has soured and the family is considering legal action. Bringing in an attorney is a bit like bringing in a bodyguard. It’s a sign that you’re prepared for a fight.

Special education attorneys tend to be more expensive than advocates. But these attorneys also tend to know special education laws in much greater detail than many advocates do. These laws can be very complex.

If you’re debating whether to push the school for more resources, it’s a good idea to consult with an attorney and to hire one if you decide to pursue this route. Some attorneys offer a free consultation. There are other sources of low-cost legal help.

If you think you might be able to work out the issues with the school without legal action, an advocate can be an excellent option. Many advocates are parents who learned how to navigate the system by pushing to get more resources for their own child. Other advocates are former special education teachers. Advocates can sometimes suggest informal accommodations or teaching strategies that can help if your child has been denied services.

It’s important to remember that advocacy doesn’t require any type of certification. If you’re considering hiring an advocate, ask for specifics about his experience and qualifications. Be sure to ask for references and contact them to get a better idea about the advocate’s reputation and philosophy.

It’s a good idea to do the same kind of research on attorneys. Experience in special education is key.

Whether or not you decide not to hire an advocate or a lawyer, it’s important to understand your child’s legal rights. You can also explore your options for dispute resolution and other ideas on where to find legal help.

You may also want to ask for advice from parents who have children receiving special education services. You can connect with parents in the online community. Your local chapter of the Learning Disabilities Association of America may also be able to help you find parent groups that offer workshops and other kinds of support.

About the Author

Portrait of Donna Volpitta

Donna Volpitta

Donna Volpitta, Ed.D., is coauthor of The Resilience Formula: A Guide to Proactive, Not Reactive, Parenting.

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