I am a strong proponent of parent advocacy, and I think that parents can be incredibly effective advocates. There are times, however, when you simply need some help. If you’ve tried going through all the regular channels and not succeeded, or if you simply have reached the point where you think outside help is needed, it is time to get an advocate or lawyer.
I resisted this step for more than a year because of one simple thing: cost. I’m definitely willing to do what I need to do in order to get my daughter the services she is entitled to, but we didn’t exactly have thousands of dollars sitting around to spend on lawyers. What I learned was that it is possible to get free legal and advocacy services, no matter what your income.
Parent Information and Training Centers and Community Parent Resource Centers
Every state has at least one Parent Information and Training Center, and larger states may have several centers plus additional parent resource centers. Parent Centers are funded in part by the federal Department of Education, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
If you want to learn how to advocate, need a basic questioned answered, or need a referral for testing, advocacy, or legal help, a Parent Center is the place to start. Most services are offered free, and include workshops, webinars, parent mentoring, referrals, and similar other services. In some cases, they may provide you with an advocate.
My experience with Parent Centers is that they are fabulous for handling basic or common issues, and can get answers to most questions, or at least provide a referral to someone who can answer your questions. I did find that when I got to the point of needing to file due process for a series of complicated and not particularly typical issues, I somewhat exceeded their abilities. Parent Centers are definitely the place to start, but if you have a challenging issue, you may need to get further legal help.
To find the Parent Centers in your state, visit http://www.parentcenternetwork.org/parentcenterlisting.html.
Protection and Advocacy Organizations
The federal government also mandates that each state have at least one designated Protection and Advocacy Organization for people with disabilities. These organizations provide legal assistance to children and adults who are not receiving appropriate services in the community, which includes special education services.
Most states’ Protection and Advocacy Organizations include a special education clinic or similar program. In some circumstances, the organization itself will provide a pro bono (free) lawyer to file due process or represent your child legally in any capacity. Organizations tend to be very selective when choosing the cases they take on themselves since their lawyers tend to be top experts in disability and special education law. If they are unable to take your case themselves, however, more often than not they will be able to refer you to a pro bono attorney at an outside firm willing to assist you and your child.
Many of these pro bono lawyers are younger lawyers who need to gain valuable experience in order to advance in their firms. Some are very smart, skilled, and experienced, while others may have lesser abilities. In most circumstances, however, they will be able to provide you with the assistance you need to solve your special education problem. Very often just having a lawyer send a letter or make a phone call on your behalf may solve your entire problem.
To find your state’s Protection and Advocacy Organization, visit http://www.napas.org/en/ndrn-member-agencies.html.
There are other options you may be able to access for legal and advocacy services. One great resource can be law school special education clinics. In this situation, a student training to become a lawyer will work with you to solve your special education problem. Since these students are supervised and mentored by expert lawyers in the field, they typically are extremely helpful and effective. Try contacting law schools in your area to see if they have a special education or disability rights clinic.
Another option is to find another parent advocate who can assist you in IEP meetings, or by writing letters or filing documents. Many parents are very willing to provide this type of assistance at no charge. Try contacting parent special education support groups in your area. Most states do not require advocates to have any particular training or certification, so anyone can serve in this capacity. Obviously, some advocates are more experienced than others, so make sure to choose wisely.
Don’t Let the Fear of High Cost Services Hold You Back
As I learned, free services are widely available if you know where to look. In my daughter’s case, my state’s Protection and Advocacy Organization took on her legal case themselves, ultimately leading to a settlement in her favor. I was extremely impressed with the quality and caliber of legal services that were provided to us.
Every family I have referred to the programs in my state has been able to obtain free services, and most have successfully solved their special education problems. Don’t let the cost of a lawyer or advocate hold you back from getting your child the help he or she needs.