|10 Tips on Hiring an Advocate
by Pat Howey
Parents must choose carefully when hiring an advocate.
An advocate holds your child’s future in her hands. Here are some tips that may help.
Many parents do not realize that special education lay advocacy is not a true profession.
- Advocates are not required to have any formal training, education, or experience.
- Advocates are not required to read, know or understand the laws.
- Advocates can charge parents any amount they want.
In short, anyone can hang up a shingle and say, “I am a Special Education Advocate.”
No agency oversees or regulates special education advocates. No process currently is in place to discipline an advocate who makes an error that causes harm to a family or a child. There is no mandatory Code of Ethics and/or Professional Responsibility to provide guidance to special education advocates.
For all of these reasons, parents who are looking for a special education lay advocate must follow the doctrine of caveat emptor - “let the buyer beware."
An advocate may hold your child’s future in his or her hands. As a parent, you must carefully choose the person to whom you give this responsibility. Here are some basic principles that may help you in this journey.
1. Call several experienced parent attorneys. Ask them to refer you to a lay advocate. Parent attorneys usually know the experienced advocates and can steer you in the right direction. Some parent attorneys employ advocates in their firm.
2. Ask the lay advocate when they last read read the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA) and your state special education law and regulations - from cover to cover. You are looking for a person who will assist and advise you on the law. Do you want to pay a person who is not current on what the laws require?
3. Some lay advocates say they practice in every state and all U.S. Territories. Attorneys find it hard to be well versed in the laws of all other states. It is a rare advocate who knows the laws of all U.S. States and territories.
4. Ask the advocate if your state allows him or her to practice special education law. An advocate should know the answer to this question. If they don't know, they may be in danger of practicing law without a license. Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) is a crime in most states. Even advocates who do not represent parents in hearings may unknowingly engage in UPL.
5. Ask about the advocate's fees. Some lay advocates charge nearly as much as a skilled attorney who has expertise in special education law. Talk to several parent special education attorneys before you hire an expensive lay advocate. You may find that you can afford an attorney after all. This is especially true if you have to go to a hearing, since you are unlikely to recover any fees or costs paid to a lay advocate. Attorneys often have ways to recover their fees and costs.
6. Ask the lay advocate for the names and contact info (references) of families they have helped. Find out whether the advocate has knowledge and experience with your child’s disability. Keep in mind, though, that children are like snowflakes, that no two children with the same disability are identical.
7. Ask the advocate if he or she has been involved with, observed, or represented a parent in a due process hearing. Lay advocates should understand how these hearings work. If they don't, they will not know how to protect your rights if you end up in a hearing.
8. If the advocate works with an attorney, ask for the attorney’s contact information. Call the attorney and verify that this is true. Think twice about hiring a lay advocate who is reluctant or refuses to give this information.
9. If the lay advocate says he or she is “certified,” “nationally certified,” or claims to have any type of “certification,” ask to see their credentials. There is no national certification for special education lay advocates. The advocate may have attended a program that provides a certificate. This would be a certificate of attendance, not a certification.
10. Ask the advocate if he (or she) is bonded and has liability insurance that covers him for errors and omissions.
More Tips from Pat:
10 Tips about Placement
10 Tips for a Successful School Year
10 Tips for Schools on Avoiding Confrontation with Parents
10 Tips for Parents: How to Listen to Your Inner Voice
10 Tips for Good Advocates
10 Tips for Ending the School Year
14 Tips for Reviewing Your Child's Educational Record
18 Tips on Filing Complaints
Meet Pat Howey
Patricia Howey has supported families of children with disabilities since 1985. She has a specific learning disability and became involved in special education when her youngest child entered kindergarten. Pat has children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who have a variety of disabilities and she has used her experience to advocate for better special education services for several of them.
Pat is a charter member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), serving on its Board of Directors from 2000 through 2003. She has been a Commissioner on the Tippecanoe (County) Human Relations Committee, a graduate of Leadership Lafayette and Partners in Policymaking, and a member of the Wrightslaw Speakers Bureau. She has been on the faculty of the College of William and Mary Law School’s Institute of Special Education Advocacy since its inception in 2011.
Pat has an A.S. and a B.A. in Paralegal Studies from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, where she graduated magna cum laude. She is an Indiana Registered Paralegal and an affiliate member of the Indiana Bar and the American Bar Associations.
Pat began her advocacy career as a volunteer for the Task Force on Education for the Handicapped (now InSource), Indiana’s Parent Training and Information Center. In 1990, she opened her advocacy practice and served families throughout Indiana by representing them at IEP meetings, mediation, and due process hearings.
In 2017, Pat closed her advocacy practice and began working on a contract basis as a special education paralegal. Attorneys in Indiana, Texas, and California contracted with her to review documents, spot issues, draft due process complaints, prepare for hearings, and assist at hearings. In January 2019, she became an employee of the Connell Michael Kerr law firm, owned by Erin Connell, Catherine Michael, and Sonja Kerr. Her duties have now expanded to assisting with federal court cases.
the World -- One Child at at Time."
Patricia L. Howey, B.A., IRP
West Point, Indiana 47992-0117