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The Importance of Hiring an Advocate for Your Special Needs Child

By Trevor Marca, Father of two special needs children

Though we’d all like to think school districts have the best interests of our children in mind, the unfortunate reality is they are just another form of big business where, at the end of the day, the bottom line is the number one priority.  And while I have a lot of respect and gratitude for teachers, they are merely employees of the school district, and they are often placed in the unenviable position of either following their employer’s orders or doing what’s best for their students and putting their jobs and livelihoods in jeopardy. Therefore, it is essential for parents to not go blindly into IEP meetings thinking they can trust school officials to place children appropriately and provide them with all the services they need.

Parents don’t go into parenthood anticipating their child will have special needs. Therefore, when they hear the news, it is nearly impossible to be prepared, regardless of the amount of research or fact finding one may do. In fact, more likely, parents go into their first IEP meeting like a deer in headlights, and school officials spot that overwhelmed, terrified look from a mile away. They often use this against the parents, offering the minimum amount of services legally required and creating the IEP so that the child can be placed in a classroom that’s economically convenient for the district. This is why hiring a child advocate is essential.

When to Hire an Advocate

Parents would be wise to enlist the services of an advocate for the first IEP.  Some may say this is a little paranoid.  Whatever happened to the benefit of the doubt? The truth is it will help your child and save you money in the long run if you are proactive rather than reactive. In other words, better safe than sorry. Initial IEPs are often created in preschool, when a child is as young as three years old. School districts have been known to jump to conclusions and classify kids who have delays with labels such as Intellectual Disability (ID). This label will follow children for their educational career and will disqualify them from any diploma based curriculum track. In other words, by age three the district has already ascertained the child will never earn a high school diploma, much less go to college.

The Power of an Advocate

IEPs are generally long and contain language difficult for the average parent to understand. What parents can understand sounds fine, and as for the rest, they must trust the “IEP Team” to do right by their child. An advocate, however, is not only an expert at decoding the IEP, but also – having first assessed the child – knows his/her exact needs.  The advocate can then demand the child receives the right placement and all the services owed to him/her.

Some parents may think they don’t need an advocate because they know their child better than anyone else and are well versed in the laws governing special education. Assuming this is true (which I would argue isn’t over 90% of the time), the presence of an advocate, at the very least, will make the district take parents seriously.

An apt metaphor for this would be a poker game. If parents stand up for their child alone, the district is going to call their bluff. They are going to assume they can change the parents’ minds or appease them with the smallest compromise. Even if parents hold firm, don’t sign the IEP, and threaten to take the district to due process (a term most parents aren’t even familiar with in this context), districts, seeing that the parents don’t have an advocate, will likely be willing to hold their ground. Once it gets to due process, parents must hire an attorney, which will be costlier than an advocate, not to mention, it will drag on the conflict and prolong the child from getting the services needed. However, when parents show up to the IEP meeting with an advocate, the district knows the parents mean business. Assuming the parents’ request is realistic, the district will acquiesce knowing a long, costly battle – one they will likely lose – is in front of them.

It’s Only Your Child’s Future

It’s human nature to clip coupons, to hold off on buying that new car or a new air conditioning until it goes completely belly up. Most people don’t have money to burn, so they don’t like to spend it unless they must.  However, this is your child’s future! This is not the place to skimp. There are advocates that work for free and others that charge a pretty penny.  As in most aspects of life, you get what you pay for. Failing to hire an advocate is like not changing those squeaky breaks you know need replacement, while hiring an advocate that works for free is like buying your neighbor’s clunker for $500. Both are recipes for disaster.