Special education advocacy should be regulated by states in order to protect the public from harm. The purpose of regulation is to protect consumers from wasting money or receiving poor service from unqualified service providers.
Termed ‘parent consulting’, special education advocacy originated as an informal, unpaid activity in which parents provided advice and emotional support to other parents by accompanying them at school meetings. Individuals and agencies throughout the country, some non-profit, started to offer courses that purported to teach the basics of special education law and advocacy skills. For a fee that ranged from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, any participant who could pay was eligible to take the class. There were no entry requirements. The participants referred to themselves as ‘parent consultant’ or ‘special education advocacy’; those terms will be used here interchangeably.
After several years, parent consultants started to charge money for their advice, to refer to their activity as ‘advocacy’, and to refer to themselves as ‘professionals’. However, unlike the hundreds of ‘professionals’ subject to state regulation, special education consultants or advocates are not subject to any regulation. Some special education advocates charge more than $120/hour, a rate that exceeds that charged by many attorneys.
Many parents do not know that states do not regulate special education advocates, and parents are not aware of the significance of the absence of regulation. There are two reasons for which parents might incorrectly assume that special education advocacy was regulated. First, the word ‘advocate’ is one of the meanings of the word ‘lawyer’, and the legal profession is regulated. Second, states regulate hundreds of categories of service providers including hairdressers, plumbers and aestheticians.
The absence of regulation means that the safeguards that consumers take for granted when they pay for other services are absent when they hire special education advocates.
Special education advocates don’t go through the rigorous screening process attorneys such as myself and my daughter went through in order to become admitted to the bar. The attorney admission process takes between three-four years and includes several steps. Its goals include a uniform method for protecting the public from unwittingly paying money to individuals who are unqualified, impaired, or have criminal backgrounds. The process includes the following steps:
Before being admitted to practice law, a prospective attorney must not only graduate successfully from law school, pass a bar exam and also a professional ethics exam. She must also complete documentation attesting to her. Upon admission to the bar, he must agree to adhere to the attorney code of ethics and to face sanctions, including disbarment, if he violates the rules.
Special education advocates should go through a rigorous vetting and educational process similar to the process that attorneys undergo because advocates have access to private, sensitive information, they give quasi-legal advice which if incorrect could cause significant damage to their clients, and because advocates participate in very significant relationships on behalf of clients. The screening and educational process could help to ensure that the advocates are prepared for the tasks.
Special education advocates have access to clients’ private medical, psychiatric evaluations, and educational records. Advocates advise clients about some of the most important decisions that a family will make, for example, what services a child needs, whether the services the child is receiving are appropriate, what schools or other placement, what tests, what the law says, and whether to consult with a lawyer. Special education advocate participate in some of the most significant relationships that a families have, the relationship with school. Clients are very vulnerable.
The advocates’ access to information, the advice-giving role and their participation in clients’ significant relationships carries the moral responsibility to act in accordance with certain professional standards. Those standards are similar to those that govern the attorney rules of professional conduct, including the requirements to protecting client confidentiality.
I have met advocates who provide misinformation about the law, special needs, and other topics, who gossip about clients, have difficulty establishing personal and professional boundaries, make inappropriate recommendations, charge fees that are too high, fail to document important conversations, reenact their own conflicts with school districts while representing their clients, or are dishonest about their business practices.
Clients should be assured of receiving quality service from well-educated, professionals, who have passed examinations to demonstrate competency. Special education advocates should be regulated by states in order to ensure these goals.