How to Find a Special Education Advocate That’s Right for You

November 18, 2019

Special education advocates are professionals with experience in special education and advocacy who represent the best interests of a student in the educational process. Although not attorneys, there are times when advocates can help parents secure special education services their children need.

What Do Special Education Advocates Do?

Special education advocates perform a variety of functions to help parents successfully navigate special education policies and practices. This may include reviewing records, making recommendations to improve the Individualized Education Program (IEP), drafting letters to the Child Study Team, participating in IEP meetings, reviewing test results, participating in mediation, and advising parents of next steps. Advocates often act as a bridge between parents, who are concerned and want the best for their child, and Child Study Teams, whose job it is to meet the requirements of providing a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

What to Look for in an Advocate

When choosing a special education advocate, parents may want to consider the following:

  • Formal training and education – Advocates should know and understand the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; and in New Jersey, the NJ Administrative Code 6A:14.
  • Experience – Advocates should have deep experience reviewing records and IEPs, interpreting test scores, understanding behavior plans, participating at meetings and mediation, and collaborating with other disciplines and systems.
  • Specific advocacy skills – Advocates should be skilled in a variety of conflict management techniques.
  • Existing relationships – Does the advocate already have a relationship (good or bad) with the Child Study Team within your district?
  • Track record – Can the advocate provide references? Has he or she had success in similar situations?
  • Connections and referrals – Can the advocate make referrals to experts in other fields such as attorneys and those who provide Independent Educational Evaluations?
  • Style – How do they describe their style of advocacy?
  • Fees – Flat fee? Hourly charge? Retainer? Additional expenses (e.g., travel, postage)?

Matching the parents’ style with the advocate’s style is critical. If parents wish to have an advocate attend an IEP meeting to quietly provide moral support but not say anything, they would probably not benefit from working with an advocate with an aggressive style. Conversely, parents who are expecting that an advocate will attend a meeting and be a “bulldog” would be disappointed to find an advocate who worked more cooperatively with the Child Study Team.

While aggressive advocates may “get the job done” so to speak, families may have to consider the long-range effects of that advocacy style. If an advocate ultimately eliminates any trust between the family and the Child Study Team, then the cost factor may be more than just financial. Advocates who are knowledgeable in the laws and regulations governing special education, who have successful experiences advocating, and who work collaboratively with parents and Child Study Teams often have the best long-term results. This approach may enable families to maintain a working relationship with the school district even after the advocate may no longer be needed.

What services can a non-attorney advocate legally provide?

The New Jersey Supreme Court has a Committee on the Unauthorized Practice of Law that offers opinions on, among other things, what educational advocates are permitted to do in New Jersey. Recently, this committee issued an opinion, titled “Opinion 57,” that affirmed that educational advocates could represent parents at IEP meetings and mediation and clarified what services they can and can’t legally offer.

Can a non-attorney advocate...?

Appear at an IEP meeting and speak on behalf of parents?Yes
Attend an IEP meeting if a parent or guardian is not present?Yes, with explicit parent authorization and consent
Appear at a mediation proceeding and speak on behalf of parents/guardians and children?Yes, but only if the parent/guardian is present
Appear at a mediation if the parent/guardian is not present?No
Advise parents regarding educational problems, assess educational placements, and produce technical reports?Yes*
Serve as an expert witness?Yes*
Appear in a contested case before the Office of Administrative Law (Impartial Hearing)?Yes, but only if they (1) are qualified, (2) do so for free and (3) file a notice of appearance with the court
Sign a consent order?No
Sign a stipulation of settlement?No

*NOTE:  These are the only services a non-attorney advocate can legally charge a fee to offer.

How to Find an Advocate

Parents can obtain a referral for a special education advocate through a variety of resources. Advocates have no licensing or educational requirements, so it is recommended that parents interview the advocate they are considering before agreeing to work with them. The questions listed above can be used as the foundation of the interview. Here are some of the resources to help parents find an advocate:

Autism New Jersey offers an online referral database. The referrals can be filtered by location to help parents find an advocate in their area. Two parent recommendations are required to be added to this database.

Call 800.4.AUTISM for more information and free phone-based advocacy assistance.

Experience Our Power of Connection

For additional information and resources on non-attorney advocates or the IEP process, call our 800.4.AUTISM Helpline, email, or use the Live Chat messaging feature at the bottom of your screen.

Originally Published: 11/18/2019
Last Updated: 5/14/2021